Apollo 11: Reaching for the Moon

July 14, 2014

This guest column is part of a two-part blog series on UA's involved in the Apollo 11 mission. Also read "Apollo 11: Remembering One of the Most Important Moments in Human History." The package is part of UANews coverage on the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory's historic involvement with NASA missions. Also view "A Photographic History of the UA's Role in NASA Missions" and "Next-Generation Researcher Helps Continue UA Space Legacy."

When I was in high school in 1950, my girlfriend and I were walking along the beach on a moonlit night. At that time there were no manmade objects in orbit, and television was in its infancy.  I looked up at the moon and said, "Someday we will land on the moon."

She said I was crazy and that such ideas were only science fiction. Not wanting to upset her and ruin a beautiful evening, I quickly said that I did not mean in the near future but maybe in the futures of my children or grandchildren. She still thought I was crazy, and that was the end of the relationship. In those days the moon was considered an impossible goal, and the phrase "Reaching for the Moon" meant trying to attain the impossible.

UA alumnus Dale Shellhorn, who earned his degree in physics, was responsible for the first Earthrise image from Lunar Orbiter. Shellhorn was working for Boeing at the time.

I participated in the Apollo 8, 10 and 11 missions as a member of the Lunar Operations Working Group. We were responsible for recommending landing sites, science experiments, surface features to photograph from orbit, and determining the exact spot where the astronauts landed. We also studied and analyzed the images of the moon taken from orbit and on the ground.

During the Apollo 11 mission we were assembled in a building at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. We were in contact with Mission Operation during the orbital insertion and landing of the spacecraft. During the final approach the astronauts determined that the landing site was strewn with numerous boulders that would have damaged the spacecraft upon landing. They continued on trying to find a safe landing site although they were running out of fuel. On the final approach they only had 15 seconds of fuel left. Mission control was counting down the seconds before exhausting the fuel: 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, etc. We were all very nervous and anxious listening to the countdown.

With a sigh of relief they landed safely with only 5 seconds to spare.

We then had to locate their landing site from images televised back to Earth. It took us about a day to find the exact spot. 

I studied the Apollo images from a geologic perspective and briefed the astronauts on the surface features that they should image from orbit. I received an American flag they carried to the moon with the astronauts' signatures and a note of thanks. I also received a NASA certificate of appreciation for participating in the lunar program. The result of my participation resulted in numerous scientific publications.

The Apollo mission that landed men on the moon was one of the greatest and most remarkable achievements in human history. For the first time, humans left their home planet and set foot on another body with a completely foreign and hostile environment. One of the largest television audiences in history watched as humans stepped onto the surface of the moon and began gathering scientific information. This achievement was accomplished with a technology that would be considered primitive by today's standards. Today's laptop computers are orders of magnitude more sophisticated than the computers flown on the Apollo missions.

The legacy of the Apollo missions can be divided into two broad categories; one is psychological and the other is scientific.

Although Lunar Orbiter photographed the moon from lunar orbit, it was not until it photographed it in color that it grabbed people's attention. When the Apollo 8 astronauts photographed the Earth above the lunar surface there was an almost immediate and correct perception by the public that we live on a fragile planet isolated in space. For the first time people could see and easily understand Earth as a small, delicate object surrounded by only a thin, transparent atmosphere that separated them from oblivion. From this time onward the environmental movement has grown and flourished because it is now much easier to perceive how delicate a world we live in, and how easily its environment can be destroyed.

The scientific legacy of Apollo is more tangible. The moon has become a sort of Rosetta Stone of planetary science. The data obtained by Apollo has allowed us to determine the moon's composition, age and history, and these data in turn are used to understand the history of other solid bodies in the solar system. The ages of various lunar surfaces, together with impact crater abundances, have allowed us to date other planetary surfaces.

The Apollo missions were not accomplished without sacrifice, setbacks and loss of life, but that should be expected of any exploration as ambitious and dangerous as Apollo. It is, in fact, remarkable that there were so few setbacks and so little loss of life in such a dangerous undertaking.

We have just begun planning to send humans back to the moon sometime in the next 10 to 15 years. The United States, China, Japan, the European Union and India are already sending unmanned spacecraft to the moon in order to better understand it, and in preparation for human landings. China has stated that they will land humans on the moon in the near future. After almost decades of inaction, humans are finally preparing to revisit the moon.

I believe that 100 years hence historians will look upon this event as the grandest human achievement up to that time, and almost certainly the greatest achievement in the history of the United States.

Robert Strom is a University of Arizona professor emeritus in the Department of Planetary Sciences. Strom has investigated the impact cratering record on the solid bodies in the solar system. Strom also has investigated the possibility of ancient oceans and ice sheets located on Mars using images captured by Viking, the surfacing history of Venus from radar images taken by Magellan and features on Mars that are similar to landforms on Earth.