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Apollo: A Look Back
08.27.07
The Apollo Program is already in the books as a historic event of the last century, and is starting to fade from the memories even of those who lived through it. I was one of those, and better yet, was a participant, though only an Earth-bound one. My memories are still vivid, and I would like to share them with the new generations.

Famous NASA image of the astronaut planting the American flag on lunar soil. Image right: The famous NASA image of the American flag on lunar soil. Credit: NASA

My first memory, from 1961, is one of total amazement when President Kennedy proposed to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. The United States had then achieved only one 15 minute sub-orbital flight, by Alan Shepard. “Artificial Satellites” were still a novelty, each launch front-page news. Kennedy’s proposal would require construction of the entire infrastructure for manned Moon missions: rockets far larger than any ever built, a deep space tracking network, true space ships - with propulsion and guidance – space suits durable enough for survival on the lunar surface, and most of all the techniques of Earth-Moon flights, rendezvous and docking in particular. I commented to my wife after the President’s proposal “If they can do this, it will drag us into the 21st century 10 years ahead of time.” (It did – but that’s another story.)

It was hard to grasp the reality of the Apollo Program even for me, and as late as 1969, I remember putting 1970 license plates on my Chevrolet, with a feeling of incredulity: that in 1970, men would have landed on the Moon.

Let me now leap ahead to the lunar mission that made the biggest impression on me: not Apollo 11, but Apollo 8, in which Borman, Lovell, and Anders spent some 24 hours in orbit around the Moon. This mission was planned rather suddenly in 1968, to test the Saturn V rocket system as a whole and to forestall a Soviet mission that the USSR could claim as first to the Moon. I was involved in this sudden mission, to help plan Earth terrain photography in case the crew couldn’t leave Earth orbit. Of course they did, so I had no Earth pictures to study, except for the magnificent views of our whole planet taken from lunar orbit. My most vivid memory of Apollo 8 is from the parking lot of a 7-11 store on a cold winter night. I looked up at the Moon, suddenly stunned by the fact that 3 men I knew were up there at that instant.

The Apollo 10 mission was a dress rehearsal for Apollo 11, involving everything including an undocking of the Lunar Module, a descent to 50,000 feet above the surface, and then a return to lunar orbit and a rendezvous with the Command Module. I wondered for years if the Apollo 10 Lunar Module crew could have suddenly taken matters into their own hands and decided to land. Years later I finally had a chance to ask the mission commander, Tom Stafford, if they could have done this. His quick reply was “No, we didn’t have the software loaded into the computer.” So my silly question was finally answered.

The Apollo 11 landing was perhaps the most towering achievement of the 20th century and of course has been described in second-by-second detail. Where was I? Mission control? A tracking station? NASA Headquarters?

None of the above; like billions of others, I watched the mission with my wife on television in our living room, on a warm humid July night. The last few minutes of the landing seemed to go slowly, at least for us earthlings. We all heard Buzz Aldrin calling out altitudes and other flight data to Neil Armstrong, who was flying the spacecraft. To me, the most striking utterance from the Moon was not the famous “one small step,” but Aldrin’s earlier “picking up some dust” seconds before the landing. It was suddenly clear that they were actually touching the Moon.

For geologists, the biggest achievement of the Apollo landings were the rock and soil samples the astronauts brought back. I was one of the NASA Goddard team that analyzed samples from Apollo 11. My particular specialty was microscopic thin section analysis. To my delight, the thin sections of lunar basalt from Apollo 11 turned out to be not only beautiful but very easy to analyze with the microscope. The reason was that the lunar lavas had been completely water free, and the minerals – chiefly feldspar, pyroxene, and ilmenite – showed none of the alteration by water and heat that often makes terrestrial basalt hard to analyze. This was a somewhat disturbing discovery, since I had originally been hired by Goddard partly on the basis of my proposal, in 1959, to look for water-bearing rock on the Moon. However, I was kept on the payroll after Apollo 11.

The Apollo 11 sample analysis protocol was intended to avoid a competitive race for priority, and we all published our results in January, 1970, in a special issue of Science. The high spots of Apollo 11 were presented at a January meeting in Houston, opening with an account of the geologic results by Gene Shoemaker and others. The huge conference hall was tense with excitement. My recollection is that I never even stood up for 2 hours, riveted to my chair and hanging on every word. I think this meeting can be compared to the famous 1919 meeting of the British Royal Society, at which Eddington’s eclipse results confirming Einstein’s theory of relativity were presented. I missed that one, not having been born. But I didn’t miss the First Lunar Science Conference.

So what have we learned about the Moon, from Apollo and its companion missions? Overall, we now have a good general picture of its structure, composition, geologic evolution, and present internal activity. However, this “picture” is that of a low-resolution telescope. Its broad features are visible, but there are innumerable details in space and time, still fuzzy and yet to be interpreted. And the biggest question of all, how did the Moon form, is still not answered.

Paul D. Lowman Jr.
14 August 2007