First Person: Alfred O.C. Nier

Alfred Nier with a noble gas analysis instrument, 1989. Alfred O.C. Nier Collection, CHF Collections. 

In his 1989 oral history interview University of Minnesota physics professor Alfred O. C. Nier claimed, “I suspect I’ve worked longer and more continuously in mass spectrometry than anybody ever has.” Nier’s career spanned decades, and with his specialization in an extremely technical field, he made an impact on some of the most important and exciting scientific achievements of the 20th century.

Having already worked on the Manhattan Project Nier was accustomed to government work, although he spent his entire career as an academic researcher and professor at the University of Minnesota. But beginning in the 1960s Nier and his mass spectrometry research group became involved in work with NASA to study the composition of the upper atmosphere. Nier explained:

In 1957 [and] 1958, when people were first flying rockets to the upper atmosphere, there was the International Geophysical Year. It seemed to go on for three years or so, but I guess it was only one year. But anyhow, in connection with that, people flew rockets for all kinds of experiments.... It looked like it would be interesting for us to get into the act, because we knew how to build mass spectrometers. So why couldn’t we build miniaturized ones to fly with the rockets?

Throughout the 1960s Nier and his team worked to put instruments into Aerobee rockets. Nier had previously built mass spectrometers for colleagues and companies around the world; now he would be sending them to space.

In the early 1970s Nier became involved in the next NASA project: the Mars Viking Mission. His work culminated with the Mars landing in 1976. While the mass spectrometer on board was not the instrument most people on the NASA team cared the most about, Nier pointed out that “on the morning of July 20, 1976, all the eyes were on us, because we would determine how much argon was in the atmosphere.” Preliminary tests had shown that atmospheric argon levels on Mars could be as high as 30 percent, which would prevent some of the other instruments from working correctly. Nier remembered:

Within a few seconds, when we saw our first prints coming off, it showed that it was only a percent-and-a-half or something like that. And the reason there was so much excitement was, first of all, it was of theoretical importance, but from a more practical standpoint…. They might not have gotten their organic analyses had there been that much argon.

The work on the Viking project was collaborative and team-oriented. But for a brief time that morning, it hinged on Nier’s group and his mass spectrometer.

Hilary Domush is a program associate in oral history at CHF. First Person, which highlights one of CHF's over 400 oral histories, appears the third Tuesday of every month.

Read more about Alfred Nier and other mass spectrometrists in CHF’s new online oral history exhibit Critical Mass: A History of Mass Spectrometry, which launches this month.

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Posted In: History | Technology

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