LPL, UArizona, and the Moon
July 23, 2019
One of the primary goals of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory when it was founded by Gerard Kuiper in 1960 was to produce the first photographic atlas of the Moon—all previous atlases had been based on drawings. When President John F. Kennedy declared in 1961 that the national priority was to send a human to the Moon safely by the end of the decade, that mapping became a key part of what would eventually become the Apollo project, and researchers and students from LPL and the University of Arizona played key roles. With the 50th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 2019, LPL is joining with the community of Tucson in celebrating the history and future of lunar, and other space-based, research in southern Arizona.
Kuiper and LPL ultimately produced five versions of photographic lunar atlases, including the “rectified” lunar atlas generated by projecting telescopic images onto a white globe and then photographing it from other angles to observe what it looked like from overhead. An image of then-graduate student William Hartmann at work on the project is shown above.
But Kuiper wasn’t satisfied with telescopic images. He became the Principal Investigator, and his associate Ewen Whitaker part of the team, for the imaging portion of the Ranger program that produced the first closeup images of the Moon by crash-landing a spacecraft while a television camera on board transmitted images back to Earth. And UA connections continued throughout the lunar program.
UA Geology Professor Spencer Titley, who was instrumental in training LPL graduate students to understand terrestrial analogs for the lunar surface, became a part of the team training the Apollo astronauts in surface geology.
UA Physics alum Dale Shellhorn was instrumental in taking the first picture of the Earth from the Moon, a picture known as “Earthrise.” A more famous version of the picture, listed by Time magazine as one of the 100 “Most Influential Images of All Time,” was taken by Bill Anders of the crew of Apollo 8, the first mission in which humans went as far as the Moon, a mission commanded by Tucson High School graduate Frank Borman.
After the success of Apollo 11, NASA wanted to demonstrate the ability to perform a precision landing on the Moon, but there needed to be a precisely defined target. So they turned to LPL’s Whitaker. The robotic Surveyor 3 spacecraft had landed on the Moon 30 months earlier, in an area near the candidate landing site for Apollo 12, and had, among other things taken panoramic images from its viewpoint. Whitaker compared those images with his encyclopedic knowledge of lunar geography, and gave the coordinates of the spot where he believed the spacecraft was. The Apollo 12 crew targeted that location, and although they could not see Surveyor 3 as they approached, after they landed, they were able to walk to it and take off pieces that were brought back for study of the effects of exposure on the Moon.
Apollo 13 was even more ambitious, but an accident crippled the spacecraft on the outbound journey, and the resulting successful scramble to return the astronauts safely to Earth became a hit movie.
UA Physics alum Don Davis was in charge of the team that developed the crucial trajectory calculations used to return the astronauts safely, and then was in Mission Control for Apollo 13 (as well as several earlier Apollo missions).
Although he was the Command Module Pilot, which meant he didn’t get to the surface of the Moon, one-time UA Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering student Stuart Roosa carried several hundred seeds in lunar orbit with him on Apollo 14. One of them, a sycamore, was planted in Tucson, and grew to be the “Moon Tree” that still stands, between the Kuiper Space Sciences Building and Flandrau Science Center on the UA campus.
A few years later, LPL alum Hartmann and Physics alum Davis joined forces at Tucson’s Planetary Science Institute and proposed that the Moon formed in a giant impact, still the leading theory of the origin of the Moon nearly 50 years later. Essentially contemporaneously, A.G.W. Cameron and William Ward of Harvard came to the same conclusion—ironically, Cameron retired to Tucson, and became affiliated with LPL.
Although it was more than 20 years between Apollo 17 and the next U.S. mission to the Moon, LPL has been involved in lunar science throughout, with analyses of lunar meteorites and continued analyses of the samples brought back by the Apollo astronauts, as well as investigations into the composition of the Moon and into the details of the origin of the Moon.
Today, LPL has an active group of researchers working at the cutting edge of lunar science, studying the composition, the structure of the interior, the properties of the surface, and, still, the details of the Moon’s origin. In fact, at the 50th anniversary of the first return of samples by the Apollo program, one of the newest faculty members at LPL, Jessica Barnes, will be studying samples that were returned by the Apollo 17 astronauts and then frozen for future use, using techniques that hadn’t been invented in the 1970s, will be studying questions that hadn’t been considered.
Part of the legacy of Apollo is the realization of the value of samples returned from another Solar System body, and the OSIRIS-REx mission, led by LPL, will return samples from the Near-Earth Asteroid Bennu, the first U.S. mission to return samples of an asteroid.
More details on many of these stories are available in a variety of media.
The documentary Desert Moon chronicles UA’s involvement in the lead-up to Apollo and includes interviews with many of those who were there. There are two books published by University of Arizona Press that include the lunar efforts; one is Melissa Sevigny’s history of LPL, Under Desert Skies: How Tucson Mapped the Way to the Moon and Planets, the other is Derek Sears’ 2019 biography, Gerard P. Kuiper and the Rise of Modern Planetary Science.
In addition, the History portion of the LPL website contains Ewen Whitaker’s recollections in LPL: It’s Founding and Early Years, a collection of interviews about LPL by Melissa Sevigny in No Longer Points of Light, and other pieces of LPL history.
UA Libraries Special Collections has archived the papers of Kuiper and Whitaker, and some of the papers of several other prominent planetary scientists in the Pioneers of Planetary Science collection and features some of them in the exhibit Moon, running July 20 to December 20, 2019.
A collection of articles about UA Moon news and research, created and compiled for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing (July 20, 2019), is available from UA News.