Flagstaff and the Apollo missions to the moon

Flagstaff and the Apollo missions to the moon

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Left to right, Al Chidester, Ivo Lucchitta, and  John M'Gonig...

Left to right, Al Chidester, Ivo Lucchitta, and John M'Gonigle. Project Apollo (1960-1973).

When Apollo 11 flew to the moon 50 years ago, more than two-thirds of the people alive today were not yet born. This means two things: first, for most people alive today the Apollo missions are a distant history rather than vivid personal experience; second, the few of us who were involved and are still alive perhaps have an obligation to tell the story as accurately as possible, even after half a century of time has passed. We cannot afford to wait.

Flagstaff's considerable involvement in the Apollo program took place mostly at the U.S. Geological Survey's Center for Astrogeology, where the missions were to carry out scientific studies of the moon -- this would determine what to do once we got there -- and then to work out how to do it. All this had to be done in a very short time and with tools that seem amusingly primitive in today's perspective.

The Apollo missions came about because President John F. Kennedy and the country became alarmed by the great Soviet lead in space technology, which was dangerous during the Cold War. So the President rallied the country and Congress behind him and mandated that we surpass the Soviets and do it now and well.

Soviet achievements included Sputnik 1, which emitted its in-your-face audio signal and marked the first time life on Earth had managed to launch something into space (October 1957); Sputnik 2 with the dog Laika, the first time that an organism had been sent into space (November 1957); Sputnik 3, with a formidable array of scientific instruments (May 1958); and finally, and most importantly, the orbital flight of Gagarin, the first time a human being went into space (April 1961). Obviously, the challenges involved in fulfilling Kennedy's instructions were enormous.

It was not long before it was realized that going for the first time to another celestial body, the moon, without trying to learn something about it scientifically would have been unpardonable, and this argument was carried out forcefully and successfully by the highly intelligent, energetic and persuasive Gene Shoemaker of the USGS, who managed to talk both NASA and the USGS into doing scientific work during the Apollo missions. He had wanted to be an astronaut, but a physical problem made that impossible, so instead he invented a whole new field of science, astrogeology.

That done, the Center for Astrogeology was established in Flagstaff, then a small town in the middle of nowhere. Why Flagstaff? In the early days, there were no lunar orbiter spacecraft to give us detailed images of the surface of the moon, so whatever images were acquired came from telescopic observation, and Flagstaff was equipped with observatories such as Lowell that were there because of Flagstaff's altitude and clear air.

Furthermore, it was not then known for sure whether the craters so conspicuous on the moon were of impact or of volcanic origin, and the Flagstaff area features not only many volcanic craters of various kinds, but also Meteor Crater, the best impact crater on earth. These could be used to do analog studies that would help establish the origin of the lunar features. Doing science on the moon was the primary objective; training astronauts was only a part of the mission.

The technology of the time was truly primitive compared to today: the primary means of communication was the rotary-dial telephone; producing documents was done with typewriters; lots of duplication was done by means other than photocopiers; there were no personal computers; serious computing was done on huge main-frame computers that occupied a whole room, were fed with punch cards and stored data on magnetic tapes; most routine computing was done with slide rules and eventually with primitive electronic calculators.

The on-board computers in the Apollo spacecraft had a ROM of ~2 KB and a RAM of ~26 KB, laughable by today's standards. But these were no-nonsense dedicated devices that took all the missions to the moon and brought them safely back to Earth, a remarkable achievement.

The task on hand was to do useful geologic field work on the moon when the field geologists -- the astronauts -- were not geologists at all, with the exception of Jack Schmitt of Apollo 17, who got his start with the USGS in Flagstaff. Furthermore, the mobility of astronauts in their space suits was very limited, so means had to be worked out to counteract that problem.

During the missions, there was a science backroom in Houston, near where Mission Control was located. The scientists in the back room could hear the astronauts, but could not communicate directly with them -- only the CapCom could do that, and his job was oriented toward the mission, not science. So the tasks facing us were:

  • Develop tools that would enable the astronauts to do fieldwork in spite of the space suits.
  • Develop means to increase their mobility and range of action.
  • Work out systematic procedures for examining the geology on the Moon and documenting precisely what was seen and collected.
  • Establish procedures for organized and lucid description so the scientists in the back room could understand and visualize what was being described.
  • Establish means for disseminating the information coming from the astronauts in real time (this was done employing court reporters from Flagstaff's Superior Court).

Working out all this required innumerable field tests, and it was during such tests that the importance of live television became apparent and was recommended to NASA. Further tasks were to train the astronauts in general geology, then in lunar geology and finally in the geology of specific landing sites.

Some of the training was done is selected places where features such as volcanic craters could be seen especially well; these include Iceland, Hawaii and the Katmai Peninsula of Alaska. For impact structures, Meteor Crater was one of the favorites. For the landing sites, we constructed three crater fields that were exact duplicates of sites on the moon. Two fields were at Cinder Lake, northeast of Flagstaff; the largest and latest was in the Verde Valley. Constructing these crater fields demanded much work, time and huge amounts of explosives.

A typical procedure for a training test was for the astronauts to go on a traverse, describing and collecting samples, while scientists in a mock-up of the backroom would listen via radio and try to understand what the astronauts were describing. This was followed by evaluations of how the astronauts had done, combined with suggestions on how to improve.

In retrospect, this program of science support worked extremely well; the Apollo missions provided us with a wealth of information that had not been available before. In my opinion, the missions might well have been justified solely on the basis of what we learned, for the first time in human history, about a celestial body other than Earth. This may not be a very glamorous result in the public eye, but it is a long-lasting one that has given us important information about the origin of the Earth, the solar system and perhaps even the cosmos.


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Related to this story

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission is coming up. There's no shortage of events and exhibits celebrating the historic moon landing. Museums, galleries, concert halls, movie theaters and towns with an Apollo 11 connection will be marking the anniversary over the next few weeks.

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