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Donegal woman’s contribution to Apollo 11 mission and space research recognised

Emer Kee was involved in research and analysis linked to NASA’s Apollo 11 mission to the moon

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Apollo launch

50 years ago this week, the history-making Apollo 11 launches

When reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the first humans landing on the moon as part of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, one might also contemplate a little known fact that there were in fact Donegal – and other Irish – connections to that historic event and the space research programme that evolved afterwards.
The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) recently celebrated the moon landing anniversary and their track record of over 50 years as Ireland’s space research pioneers. The evening included a formal recognition of the contribution of Emer Kee a native of Stranorlar to that work.
Emer was a key part of the DIAS team which supported the late Professor Cormac O’Ceallaigh, Professor Emeritus Alex Thompson and Professor Emeritus, Denis O’Sullivan, in their space research work. Significantly whilst on sabbatical from DIAS at Berkeley, Denis O’Sullivan was one of the first people in the world to handle and study lunar material brought back to Earth by the Apollo 11 astronauts.

Dr. Vincent Cunnane, a native of Stranorlar, Chair of the Council of DIAS and Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor, TD making a presentation to Emer Kee recognising her work on apollo 11 and space research in general. On the extreme left is CEO and Registrar of DIAS, Dr Eucharia Meehan, a native of Mountcharles.


He returned to Ireland considerably energised and his involvement with the Apollo 11 mission propelled DIAS’s interest in a space research programme forward. Maximising the strong connection with Berkeley, an experiment was subsequently selected by NASA for the Apollo 16 mission.
Thus in 1972, DIAS put the first ever Irish experiment in space, onto the moon surface. This was followed quickly by another experiment on the moon surface in 1973 (Apollo 17) and the space research programme in Ireland literally took off from there.

Space research materials
Emer Kee, and her fellow technicians, Hilary O'Donnell and Dinah Molloy, conducted analysis of lunar samples, equipment and space research materials that went to the moon and back throughout this period.
The DIAS team were to participate in a total of sixteen missions between 1969 and 2012, including Ireland’s first experiment on the International Space Station.
The major focus of the research was the origin of cosmic rays, their intensity and their effects.
Besides telling us about the origin and nature of our universe, the existence of cosmic rays are a significant barrier to safe travel outside our atmosphere and in space.

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At the recent event, Emer, who worked as part of the technical team at DIAS from 1969-1974, before returning to her native Donegal and LYIT, was commended by CEO and Registrar of DIAS, Dr Eucharia Meehan and the Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor, TD, who was also in attendance. A presentation was made by the Chair of the DIAS Council, Dr. Vincent Cunnane.
Emer remembers her time working on the space research programme with fondness albeit stating that it was hard work:
“It was hard work and in truth as we were young we didn’t fully appreciate the importance or significance of what we were doing.”
Even though she handled many items that went to the moon and back, her most distinct memory is of a visiting american scientist from the US bringing moondust in to library at DIAS to show everyone and it was in a matchbox!

Research continues
And DIAS literally hasn’t looked back in those 50 years. It’s researchers continue to at the forefront of some of the largest and most ambitious space satellite and telescope development missions. Involvement with it’s partners in three satellite developments is ongoing.
The Solar Orbiter satellite/spacecraft (funded by the European Space Agency – ESA) is due for launch in 2020 and will examine how the Sun creates and controls the heliosphere.
The ARIEL Satellite, also funded by ESA and due for launch in 2028 –will observe least 1,000 known exoplanets (planets that might support life) using particular methods. DIAS is also part of the ecurrent biggest international endeavour to develop the James Webb Space Telescope, (sometimes called JWST or Webb) a large infrared telescope due to launch in 2021. It will be the premier observatory of the next decade (replacing the Hubble Telescope).