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Emmett Chappelle: Breathing in Space and Life on Mars

Emmett Chappelle

Welcome to week three of our ongoing series showcasing black scientists and inventors. This week we will be highlighting Emmett Chappelle who worked with NASA to develop the first breathing apparatuses for space and a method to detect life on Mars. Chappelle has been honored as one of the 100 most distinguished African American scientists of the 20th Century.

Emmett W. Chappelle was born on October, 1925 in Phoenix, Arizona to Viola White Chappelle and Isom Chappelle. Chappelle’s family grew cotton and owned a herd of cattle. Immediately after graduating form the Phoenix Union Colored High School, in 1942, Chappelle was drafted into the U.S. Army. After his service in Italy, he went on to earn an A.A. degree from Phoenix College, a B.S. degree in biology from UC Berkley, and an M.S. degree in biology from the University of Washington. Chappelle pursued his Ph.D. at Stanford University, but did not end up completing his studies.

In 1958, at the Research Institute for Advanced Studies, Chappelle began researching a technique to oxygenize the space environment to ensure the survival of astronauts. He started work at Hazelton Laboratories in 1963 and later joined NASA in 1966. At NASA Chappelle was an integral part of the Goddard Space Flight Center. He focused his research on luminescence. Luminescence is “the emission of light from a substance that has not been heated”. Chappelle’s discoveries in the field of bioluminescence led to a unique procedure to determine if a place contained life.

Chappelle worked alongside Grace Picciolo and invented a method to detect . He figured out a way to determine the presence of ATP through the usage of a “firefly bioluminescent assay”. By introducing the luciferase enzyme and luciferin (chemicals from a firefly’s lantern) into an environment an organism will illuminate proportionate to the amount of ATP it is using. Through the usage of a photo-multiplier it would be possible to detect photons released from the production of ATP. A low flying aircraft could be used to determine the scope of life on a landscape through photon detection. Since most life as we know it produces ATP to live this method would detect the ATP released through cell mitochondrion and photosynthesis.

If ATP was detected on Mars, it would create an even greater case for life on Mars. Chappelle contributed to many discoveries that furthered NASA’s research and he holds over 14 patents for his discoveries. Chappelle has been honored as one of the top African-American scientists and engineers of the 20th century and received the Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal from NASA. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007. He retired in 2001 and currently lives in Baltimore with his daughter and son-in-law in Baltimore.

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Article by: Jordan M. Joseph, Creative Writing Major at Oberlin College and regular contributor to both The Grape and The Oberlin Review. Jordan remembers creating his first baking soda volcano and ever since then has been fascinated by all things science. He has recently joined Science Matters as a special correspondent.