'One Giant Leap for Mankind' … 40 Years Later
The UA has many ties to the Apollo program, from helping develop maps of the moon to determining landing sites and analyzing rocks returned to earth by Apollo astronauts.

By Johnny Cruz, University Communications
July 19, 2009

Monday, July 20, marks the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin taking "one giant leap for mankind" on the moon.

It is an achievement with numerous ties to The University of Arizona, which has been has been involved in some way or another with most of America's ventures into space.

Ewen Whitaker, Robert Strom and Spencer Titley – all scientists at the UA – had unique journeys that brought them to the Apollo program. But for each of them, July 20, 1969, marked a pinnacle in their careers studying the moon.

Click here to see a video of Whitaker, Strom and Titley looking back at their experience with the Apollo program.

Whitaker was fascinated with the moon well before the Space Race began, NASA was formed and President John F. Kennedy set a goal of a successful manned moon landing before 1970.

As an astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, in the 1950s, Whitaker was among the few to recognize the need to comprehensive images and maps of the moon.

"The last reasonably decent map was put out in 1935 so that wasn't suitable for anything that was going to go to the moon," Whitaker said. "What we got to have are good pictures, we have got to have good maps of the moon with positions and quite small details."

Mutual interest in moon mapping led Whitaker to the Yerkes Observatory in Chicago, where he joined Gerard P. Kuiper, who a few years later became the founder of the UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

Whitaker once again joined Kuiper when he arrived at the UA in 1960.

Whitaker is perhaps most known for this role in conducting photo analysis to determine the lunar landing site for the Apollo 12 mission.

He spent more than 20 hours going over thousands of photographs with a microscope, which ultimately led to determining a site suitable for successfully landing a spacecraft.

"We picked out places where we thought there wouldn't be any rocks on the moon or bad craters," Whitaker said. "I picked out about four sites for each launch day, and it was just part of my job, extremely interesting. I loved it."

For the Apollo 11 mission, Whitaker was a member of the Lunar Operations Working Group. He was one of the scientists responsible was responsible for communicating with astronaut Michael Collins from a work space in Houston that Whitaker described as a "tiny hut."

"Our main job was to keep tabs on what the orbiting astronaut was seeing from his perspective. We were there to alter the plan in case the orbit was a bit off or he pulled the wrong lever," Whitaker said.

Strom also was a member of the Apollo 11 Lunar Operations Working Group.

"Once the results from Apollo 11 came back, then we had all this data to look through and see what science we could glean from it," Whitaker said.

Whitaker remained focused on his work, even following the euphoria of Apollo 11's landing, since there were so many new opportunities for scientific inquiry.

"We knew it was kind of in the news, but that was in the background," Whitaker said. "We thought, ‘oh look at all this lovely science we're getting.' And we were more concentrating on providing good pictures, the good maps, the accurate maps for whatever might come in the future."

Strom was a young scientist who had been studying the moon for several years when he was invited to join the Lunar Operations Working Group for Apollo 8, a mission that enabled humans to orbit around the moon for the first time in December of 1968.

He briefed Apollo 8 astronauts about sites of scientific importance on the moon.

Strom was involved in the creation of the Consolidated Lunar Atlas, which was developed by UA researchers – including Whitaker – using images from a 61-inch optical reflecting telescope near Mount Bigelow.

For the Apollo 11 mission, Strom joined Whitaker and about a dozen other scientists in helping to determine the precise location where the spacecraft landed.

They used photographs taken by the lunar orbiter, and identified boulders and craters to confirm the landing site.

This was "both for safety reasons and for science reasons," Strom said. "Believe me it was not easy."

Their other responsibility was to analyze the data and samples returned by Apollo 11 to understand more about the geology and history of the moon.

Forty years later, Strom continues to be amazed by what they were able to achieve with technology that would be considered primitive by today's standards.

According to Strom, they did not have personal computers and relied on slide rules to solve problems.

While the Apollo 11 landing and this country's triumph in the Space Race over the Soviet Union captured the world's imagination, Strom said they were too busy to fully appreciate the significance of the moment – until later.

"And now when I look back on it, I don't know how we did it," Strom said. "In the future, 100 years from now, they'll look back on this as one of the grand achievements of humanity...putting a man on the moon. Probably the greatest achievement the United States has ever done."

Elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2005, Titley is well known for his work on the origin of porphyry copper deposits.

Tiltey came to the UA in 1960, just as the interest in the moon was heating up. "The notion that we could map the moon was intriguing to me," Titley said.

He was invited by Gene Shoemaker of the U.S. Geological Survey to join an effort to develop geologic maps of the moon and to train astronauts preparing to travel there.

"And it carried through to the evolution of the mapping program of the U.S. Geological Survey to the point that it ultimately ended up in astronaut training," Titley said.

Titley said many of his colleagues called him "crazy" for putting his time and talent into the new moon mapping effort.

"I think the notion of mapping the moon when you couldn't put your hands on the rocks, I thought it was a little crazy myself."

Titley's students were among the beneficiaries of his work, as he was able to integrate it into the courses he taught at the UA.

"Students were interested in it. The classes I taught on the moon were full and rich," he said. "The hands-on work began with my teaching of field geology. I would take students to Flagstaff where they would become field assistants for the U.S. Geological Survey."

According to Titley, the students conducted crater studies, looking at characteristics that might be seen on craters on the moon, which he called "an elegant tool for creativity" for geologists.

While his interactions with the astronauts were relatively brief, Titley considers them one of his most memorable experiences of his time working on lunar-based programs.

"My time with the astronauts, brief as it was, was very inspiring. These were nice people. They talked. They had jokes. They were nice people."

Titley continued working on the geology of the moon until 1972, when he left the program to spend more time teaching and working on his UA research.

Forty-nine years after coming to the UA, Titley still teaches two classes on mineral resources.

Whitaker, Strom and Titley all see the moon having a role in the future of American science and space exploration.

"I envision some very interesting science that could be done in the crater environment," Titley said.

"Hopefully we'll go back one day," Strom said.

Strom said that the Apollo program had a positive psychological effect, which continues to this day. He said landing on the moon showed that, "We can do things that are amazing, when we put our mind to it and our resources."