Listen to this article here
Sign-Up for a free subscription to The Black Wall Street Times‘ daily newsletter, Black Editors’ Edition (BEE) – our curated news selections & opinions by us for you.
Emmett Chappelle’s journey from NASA to the Goddard Space Flight Center culminated in the creation of a new technique that helps scientists discover life on other planets.
By researching creatures like fireflies that emit light naturally in a chemical process called bioluminescence, Chappelle discovered that a combination of chemicals causes all living organisms to emit light, according to NASA.
As scientists today continue to search for life on other planets, with the ability to travel to Mars appearing within reach, the seeds of future discoveries were planted by Chappelle’s groundbreaking research.
Like other Black inventors, Chappelle never backed down from a challenge.
From Arizona to the stars
Emmett Chappelle was born in Phoenix, Arizona, on October 24, 1925, to cotton-growing and cattle-raising parents. He received a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University of California.
After a brief stint as an instructor in biochemistry at the Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN., he received a master’s degree from the University of Washington in Seattle.
From there, his journey took one giant leap forward. After serving as a research associate and scientist for the Research Institute of Advanced Studies at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., Chappelle began working directly at NASA in the 1960s. There he supported the organization’s manned space flight missions while fellow Black genius Katherine Johnson calculated flight trajectories–by hand.
During his time at NASA, he began exploring the qualities of light given off by various life forms as he developed instruments to scrape soil from Mars on NASA’s Viking probe. Chappelle soon discovered chemicals gave off a measurable light when combined with materials containing living cells, such as those found in fireflies.
Using this technique, he was able to detect the presence of bacteria in urine, blood, spinal fluids, drinking water and foods, according to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The presence of bacteria is a strong indicator of life, and exobiologists today are able to more easily detect the presence of living organisms thanks to Chappelle’s discovery.
He received a patent for his work, U.S. Patent No. 3,423,290, and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.
Emmett Chappelle: Connecting Earthlings to life on other worlds
For 34 years Chappelle worked at the Goddard Space Center, where he received 14 patents. He’s been recognized as one of the top 100 Black scientists and engineers of the 20th Century and has received numerous awards for his work.
“I really enjoyed my time at Goddard,” Chappelle after being notified of his acceptance into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. “The people made it a great place for me to do my research, and I really appreciated that NASA recognized the importance of my work.”
When asked what he missed the most about working at Goddard he simply responded, “The people.”
Chappelle retired in 2001 and passed away in 2019. He’s survived by his daughter and son-in-law, who live in Baltimore.