Science

UT-Dallas geologist who made fake moon dirt, discovered dinosaur dies in Richardson house fire


UT-Dallas geologist who made fake moon dirt, discovered dinosaur dies in Richardson house fire
Authorities were called to a house fire in the 300 block of Fall Creek Drive just after 5 a.m. Saturday.(KXAS-TV (NBC5))

A retired geology professor at the University of Texas at Dallas died in a Richardson house fire early Saturday.

Fire crews were called just after 5 a.m. to a two-story home engulfed in flames in the 300 block of Fall Creek Drive, near West Prairie Creek Drive.

Firefighters needed about an hour to get the blaze under control, and they then found the elderly victim inside the home, according to a city spokesman. He was believed to be alone in the home.

Officials have not released the victim's name. A neighbor told KXAS-TV (NBC5) that it was James Carter, and public records confirm that he was the owner of the home.

UT-Dallas geologist who made fake moon dirt, discovered dinosaur dies in Richardson house fire
James Carter continued making simulated moon dirt after retiring from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2007.(2005 File Photo / Rex C. Curry)

Carter, who grew up on a farm in McAllen and "mined" his neighbors' driveways for agate, joined the geosciences department of what was then known as the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest in 1964.

Though he was at the much more well-established Rice University at the time — the fledgling North Texas school "was nothing but a hole in the ground," he said in 2009 — he was attracted to UTD because it gave him an opportunity to work with scientists who were doing cutting-edge research that had to do with the Earth as a whole.

But Carter's work wasn't limited to just this planet.

He was approached by NASA in the late 1960s and became one of the principal scientists who studied lunar samples collected during the Apollo missions.

Decades later, as the space agency's supply was dwindling, Carter developed a technique of creating what's known as "regolith simulant" — fake moon dirt — that's used to test lunar equipment.

His company, ETSimulants, eventually manufactured more than 50 tons of the ashy substance. (The Apollo astronauts brought back only about 800 pounds of the actual stuff.)

UT-Dallas geologist who made fake moon dirt, discovered dinosaur dies in Richardson house fire
The Alamosaurus skeleton towers over other fossils in the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.(2012 File Photo / Staff)

Carter's legacy also includes a role in the discovery of the largest dinosaur fossil ever dug up in Texas, a 100-foot-long Alamosaurus found in Big Bend National Park by a field team he co-led.

UT-Dallas geologist who made fake moon dirt, discovered dinosaur dies in Richardson house fire
James Carter remained a fixture on the UTD campus after his retirement.(Ning Wang / University of Texas at Dallas)

Geosciences professor Bob Stern, a longtime colleague of Carter's at UTD, said Carter was a natural teacher and "a central part" of the school.

He noted that Carter enjoyed putting together museum-quality displays and decorating the department's hallways — "otherwise it would look like a low-security prison" — and said the hands-on geologist had built the school's rock garden, a display of 19 large, heavy stones on custom-made iron pedestals.

"I can't think of anybody that more personalized UTD than James Carter," Stern said.

Carter retired in 2007 to focus on his moon-dirt business, and a scholarship fund was set up in his name.

That didn't keep him away from UTD, however, and he remained a fixture on campus as a professor emeritus.

"It was an odd day when you didn't see him in the department tinkering around," said John Geissman, head of the geosciences department — a position Carter held from 1985 to 1993.

UT Dallas

UT-Dallas geologist who made fake moon dirt, discovered dinosaur dies in Richardson house fire

It’s impossible to talk about the history of research at #UTDallas without mentioning associate professor emeritus of geosciences, Dr. James Carter. https://research.utdallas.edu/blog/never-give-up-never-quit-dr-james-carter-is-the-classic-student?platform=hootsuite … @UTDResearch

Geissman called Carter "a great spirit" who was generous with his time and knowledge.

"He was incredibly gracious with anybody of any age who wanted to talk science" or learn about an interesting rock they found in their yard, he said.

Looking back on his career in a 2009 oral history with the university, Carter said that raising interest in science mattered to him just as much as making exciting discoveries.

"One of the things that I personally like to see for young students … third or fourth or the fifth grade, or what have you, to come in and look at things and get turned on to science, or just turned on to doing whatever they really want to do in life," he said.

Carter's wife, Phyllis, died in 2004.

Authorities are investigating the cause of the fire.

Information from The Dallas Morning News archives was used in this report.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *