- About UT Dallas
- Campus Life
University Mourns Loss of Famed Geoscientist, Community Cornerstone
Sept. 23, 2019
Dr. James Carter, associate professor emeritus and one of the longest-serving faculty members at The University of Texas at Dallas, died in Richardson, Texas, on Sept. 21. He was 82.
Throughout his career as a geoscientist, Carter studied everything from the Earth’s upper crust to environmental geochemistry to paleontology. He helped train Apollo astronauts in field geology, analyzed lunar samples and created simulated moon dirt for NASA to test equipment. He also made a name for himself when he discovered and helped excavate the articulated neck of an Alamosaurus in Big Bend National Park. One of the largest dinosaur fossils ever found in Texas, the skeleton is on display at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.
“Dr. James Carter was truly an original, and I count myself fortunate for having met this amazing man — maker of moon dirt, designer of rock gardens, discoverer of dinosaur bones and the sleuth who found UT Dallas’ lost time capsule,” said President Richard Benson, who holds the Eugene McDermott Distinguished University Chair of Leadership. “For the last 55 years, UT Dallas has shared in his joyful passion for scientific inquiry and his love of teaching. Even after he retired, he continued to contribute in so many ways to The University of Texas at Dallas. We will miss him dearly.”
NASA asked Carter to help create a material that was similar to actual lunar soil. The lunar regolith simulant, or fake moon dirt, was used by NASA and other researchers for studies in support of future human activities on the moon.
Carter joined the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest (GRCSW) — the precursor institution to UT Dallas — as a postdoctoral researcher in 1964.
“It was an extremely exciting place to be,” Carter said about the early days on campus in a 2009 interview. “There was no project too large or too small that people wouldn’t tackle, no matter how difficult it was. It was a can-do attitude. It was amazing. It was the ’60s, and we were going to the moon.”
Carter remained with the GRCSW when it became UT Dallas in 1969 and retired in 2008 after 43 years of teaching and research.
“James Carter was an institutional historian, a Mr. Wizard, a friend to all and a passionate geoscientist,” said Dr. John Geissman, professor and head of geosciences. “He will long be remembered and long missed, for so many reasons.”
Carter, who served as head of the Department of Geosciences from 1985 to 1993, taught classes, mentored many graduate students and led numerous geology field camps. When he retired, the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics recognized the professor and his years of service by establishing the James L. Carter Scholarship/Fellowship Endowment Fund for students pursuing degrees in geosciences. The James L. Carter Master’s Scholarship Fund for Geosciences was subsequently established in 2016.
“Dr. James Carter was truly an original, and I count myself fortunate for having met this amazing man — maker of moon dirt, designer of rock gardens, discoverer of dinosaur bones and the sleuth who found UT Dallas’ lost time capsule. For the last 55 years, UT Dallas has shared in his joyful passion for scientific inquiry and his love of teaching. … We will miss him dearly.”
A leading expert on lunar geology, Carter was one of the scientists who analyzed samples of moon rocks brought back from the Apollo missions. NASA contacted him in the early 1990s to help create a material that was similar to actual lunar soil in chemical composition, texture, mineralogy and other properties. The material was produced for engineering and equipment studies in support of future human activities on the moon.
“When you land on the moon, all this dry, dry dust blows into the spacecraft’s engines,” Carter said in a 2008 UT Dallas news story. “The astronauts’ safety rests on this substance being correct. There can be no mechanical failures once you’re parked on the moon’s surface.”
Carter founded a company called ETSimulants to make and ship tons of the lunar regolith simulant, or fake moon dirt, to NASA and other researchers.
“In many ways, Dr. Carter’s professional life is completely intertwined with the history of UT Dallas,” said Dr. Inga Musselman, UT Dallas provost and vice president for academic affairs. “He invested so much of his time, energy and talent into the University, and we are better for it. He was a generous colleague and professor who never lost his passion for sparking interest in science within the UT Dallas community and beyond.”
After he retired from the University, Carter continued to serve the UT Dallas community, coming to campus almost daily. He spent countless hours creating educational displays of gems, minerals, fossils and historic geophysical equipment donated to the University by more than 40 individuals and companies. A display system he designed allows viewers to observe the items from 360 degrees.
“One of the things that I personally like to see is for young students of all ages to develop critical thinking skills,” Carter told UT Dallas Magazine in 2014. “They come to UT Dallas to look at the things like these collections of specimens and get turned on to science, especially geosciences.”
In 2008, Carter established an endowment at UT Dallas called the Geosciences Educational Display Fund to enhance and support the displays.
Carter grew up in McAllen, Texas, and earned his bachelor’s degree in mining and geological engineering from Texas Western College, now The University of Texas at El Paso, in 1961 and his PhD in geochemistry from Rice University in 1965.
To make a memorial gift to UT Dallas in memory of Carter, please visit his giving page.
Reactions and Reflections
News of Dr. James Carter’s death spread fast on social media. Here is a sample of the comments and reactions UT Dallas received:
“No one like Doc C. Loved the man and will forever be grateful for his kindness, and friendship.” — Mary Cast MS’86
“I was a friend of James and was able to discuss his theory of lunar dust with another friend, Neil Armstrong, as to why lunar dust smelled like wet ashes or gun powder. Neil said he concurred with James’ hypothesis. It was a rewarding moment to bring the two together.” — Farris Rookstool III
“I only met the man once, but he left a strong impression. He was the quintessential explorer. Curious about everything and spread that excitement contagiously among students.” — David London
“Dr. Carter was a great friend in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Spent a lot of time with him on field trips to the mountains of Oklahoma and New Mexico. Had a great time with he and his wife on a field trip to Hawaii in 1980 with Dr. Dean Presnall and Dr. Jim Hoover and several classmates. He was definitely one of a kind!” — Jim Whitsitt BA’83
“So sorry to hear this — loved Dr. Carter. He is the reason I left physics for geology. He had a wicked sense of humor and was such a great teacher on field work. Still have my Carter’s fault T-shirt.” — Ann Steel MAT’83
“One of my professors. I recall his love of hot peppers that he grew at home. He made me feel very welcome as an international student. R.I.P.” — Clint Rissmann MS’03
“An incredible teacher, mentor, and friend, who informed and inspired aspiring young geoscientists for over a half century.” — David Williamson BS’98, MS’02, MS’03
Conversation with Carter