LPL in the Spotlight

Celebrating Apollo 11 - UA

Celebrating Apollo 11 - UA's Role in the First Manned Lunar Landing

By Daniel Stolte and La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Relations - Communications, July 16, 2014

When the first humans stepped onto the moon on July 20, 1969, they knew they were venturing into the unknown. Some had feared their lander would be swallowed up by bottomless layers of dust as almost nothing was known about the moon surface at the time. But they knew it wouldn't, thanks in large part to groundbreaking research being performed at the University of Arizona's then fledging Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

When Gerard P. Kuiper founded the laboratory nine years earlier, in 1960, there was some skepticism that humans could visit the moon, let alone another planet.

Now, less than six decades later, and on the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11 - the first manned mission to the moon - UA scientists celebrate the pioneering and pivotal role the UA has held in the explosion of space science research, helping to shape what we know about our universe today.

"The UA has been a part of every NASA planetary exploration mission, and with leadership roles on many of them," said Tim Swindle, director of the UA Department of Planetary Sciences and LPL. "Our graduates and alumni have also been involved in many missions. That is our goal."

William K. Hartmann, a UA alumnus who studied with Kuiper, was instrumental in helping to shape early theories around the origins of Earth's moon and has made other significant contributions to the field of lunar science.

Over the course of his scientific career, Hartmann discovered several impact basins on the moon. During the 1960s, he predicted the age of the lunar lava plains. His predictions were confirmed through samples returned by the Apollo mission.

The Apollo mission also influenced Kuiper while at the UA. He took his students on field trips to places on Earth that he felt were representative of what students might see on the moon or in the solar system, for example Meteor Crater in northern Arizona, dune fields or the extensive lava flows blanketing the Big Island of Hawaii. Those types of instructive field trips continue today.

"During our field trips, students visit planetary analog sites," Swindle said. "It's an important part of our department culture. We can send a robotic spacecraft to places in our solar system and beyond, but we'll never be able to see them as well as we can see places on Earth," he explained. "By comparing those sites using every scientific technique we can think of we can learn what those places out there in space might be like."

In preparation for the Phoenix Mars mission, the first planetary mission led by a university, a UA team traveled to Antarctica to study how the instruments they had developed would work in what is considered the most Marslike environment on Earth.

LPL's legacy of studying places close to home to understand places far away becomes more relevant as more powerful telescopes have begun discovering a growing list of planets orbiting stars other than the sun.

"Kuiper started with the right attitude and what was an unusual approach at the time," Swindle said, "namely turning astronomical objects into places. His guiding idea was to not just obtain higher and higher resolution images, but also figuring out what those images mean, and what those objects would look like if you were standing there. And that is really what we have been doing here at LPL ever since."

And it all began with taking "one small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind."

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