Noel W. Hinners, a geologist and soil chemist who helped NASA launch some of its farthest-reaching scientific probes into space — to retrieve moon rocks, map the surface of Mars and peer beyond intergalactic dust to where stars are born — died on Friday in Littleton, Colo. He was 78.
His wife, Diana, said the cause was cancer.
Dr. Hinners, who held various titles as an administrator and chief scientist for NASA in the 1970s and ’80s, was the main advocate for pure scientific research in an organization ruled by rocket engineers and pilots.
It was by most accounts a diplomat’s job, requiring finesse in piggybacking scientific experiments onto missions intended first and foremost for getting spacecraft — carrying people or not — to and from their assigned destinations safely. Dr. Hinners had honed those skills from 1963 to 1972 as part of a team of geologists, privately contracted, who recommended landing sites for the six successful manned Apollo moon missions.
The group persuaded NASA administrators to pick more and more geologically interesting sites, Dr. Hinners told an interviewer in 2010. The more extreme the terrain and the more layers of rock it exposed, he explained, the more geological information it revealed. “Good geology correlates with bad terrain,” he said.
With geological field training provided by Dr. Hinners and his colleagues, Apollo astronauts, from 1969 to 1972, brought back about 850 pounds of lunar rock from valleys, crater beds and ravines that NASA had previously considered too risky to venture into.
Named deputy director and chief scientist by NASA in 1972, Dr. Hinners helped plan the final Apollo missions and oversaw the design of scientific projects for almost every NASA venture for the next seven years, including the Skylab space station; the first unmanned missions to Saturn, Mars and Venus; and the planning stages for the space shuttle and the Hubble orbiting telescope.
Dr. Hinners often represented NASA at congressional budget hearings. His self-deprecating humor made him well suited to the role, said Alex Roland, a Duke University professor who has studied the history of NASA.
“He was very good at making the case for space science without pouting or stamping his foot,” Professor Roland said. But he added that Dr. Hinners’s patience had been frayed by relentless federal budget cuts in the 1970s and ’80s.
Dr. Hinners told interviewers that he was equally frustrated by NASA’s efforts to design missions with an eye toward popular support — the “strategy of firsts,” as he called it: the first comet flyby, the first pictures from the atmosphere of Jupiter, the first images from Venus.
“We are the victim of our own success at firsts, and there aren’t many left to be done,” he said in an interview with Science magazine in 1979. Meanwhile, he said, there were moon rocks collected 10 years earlier that had still not been studied for lack of research money from Congress.
That same year, he was named director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington. From 1982 to 1987 he was director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. He returned to NASA space operations in 1987 as associate deputy administrator, and left in 1989 to become an executive with Lockheed.
Noel William Hinners was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 25, 1935, one of seven children of William and Hazel Hinners, who moved the family when Dr. Hinners was an infant to Chatham, N.J., where he grew up. His father was an insurance agent, his mother a homemaker.
Dr. Hinners graduated from Rutgers University in 1958 with a degree in soil science and agricultural research, and with thoughts of a career in agriculture. He received a master’s degree in geology from the California Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in geochemistry from Princeton in 1963.
Besides his wife, Dr. Hinners is survived by his sons Jeff and Craig; his sisters Barbara Miller, Cynthia Altschuler and Janet Amos; and his brothers Richard, Bruce and John.
With his newly minted Ph.D., Dr. Hinners was hired in 1963 by Bellcomm, a division of AT&T, which was then involved in developing geographical maps for the Apollo moon landing. He was soon hooked on the moon mission and forgot all about farming, his wife said in an interview.
“I have a bachelor’s degree in agricultural research,” he told a conference of college students interested in space careers in 2011. “Of course, that’s why I’m in the space program. With the turkeys and the chickens.”