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To The Moon

Experimenters

Before the footprints came the photographs.

Before Neil Armstrong could take his one small step, a camera-carrying spacecraft made a big crash, by design, transmitting more than 4,000 images of the moon back to Earth as it hurtled toward the lunar surface.

In charge of the scientific team for NASA’s Ranger 7 spacecraft was the University of Arizona’s Gerard P. Kuiper, a brilliant but prickly astronomer picked to reverse the fortunes of a program that had seen failure after failure.

And on July 31, 1964, sleep deprived and with just the barest time to process and examine the first photographs, Kuiper led a nationally televised, prime-time press conference from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

“This is a great day for science and this is a great day for the United States,” Kuiper beamed, his steady voice still carrying a Dutch accent. “What has been achieved today is truly remarkable. We have made progress in resolution of the moon not by a factor of 10, as the Ranger pamphlet hoped would be possible with this flight, nor by a factor of 100, which would have been already very remarkable, but by a factor of 1,000.”

The stirring press conference was Kuiper’s finest hour, says Ewan A. Whitaker, one of the research assistants who followed Kuiper from the University of Chicago to Tucson in 1960 to create the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Whitaker, himself a world-renowned expert in lunar cartography and names, says the Experimenter team took just a moment to bask in the headlines trumpeting the United States’ first successful moon mission. Months of work followed to produce a comprehensive report on the findings gleaned from 4,316 photographs. Not to mention Ranger 8 and Ranger 9.

The space race was accelerating—and after Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin and the fuzzy Luna 3 pictures of the far side of the moon, the Americans had finally beaten the Soviets to something.

Now called the “father of modern planetary astronomy,” Kuiper’s pursuit of moon research was at sharp odds with the astronomy community in the mid- 1950s.

“The moon had been shunned by astronomers for at least a half a century,” Whitaker says. “Hard-core astronomers considered it sacrilege to squander valuable telescope time on mere Solar System objects, especially that dead lump of rock, the Moon.”

But while Kuiper knew the value of the lunar surface in offering an unblemished record of events over the moon’s 4.5 billion years, it would ultimately be geo-politics and not science that would push his interests to the forefront of the U.S. agenda.

The son of a tailor, Kuiper was born in the north Holland village of Tuitjenhorn in 1905. His sharp eyesight led him to astronomy and he entered Leiden University, where as fate would have it he met fellow student Bart Bok. Decades later, the pair would reconnect in Tucson, Bok as the director of the Steward Observatory and Kuiper director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

Kuiper earned his degree in 1927 and finished his doctoral thesis on binary stars in 1933. After stops at the Lick Observatory in California and Harvard College Observatory, Kuiper joined the staff of the Yerkes Observatory at the University of Chicago. Convinced the study of the moon could lead to a far better knowledge about Earth’s early history, Kuiper placed lunar study and observation at the top of his priority list in the early 1950s.

Lunar studies were so far outside the mainstream of 1950s astronomy that the best available map of the moon was one hand-drawn in 1935. His mind set on recruiting others to his effort, Kuiper issued a call at the 1955 conference of the International Astronomical Union for the creation of a new photographic lunar atlas. Out of 400 astronomers at the conference, Whitaker was the only person to respond, the only one interested in the moon.

Now 92 and retired in Tucson, Whitaker in 1955 was a staff astronomer for six years at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England.

feat3“Kuiper and I must have been operating on the same wavelength because in 1952, we independently reached the same conclusions about the inadequacy of existing lunar maps,” says Whitaker, who jumped at the chance to attend the astronomy conference in Dublin knowing he could meet Kuiper.

In the spring of 1957, Kuiper earned a grant from the National Science Foundation for his updated lunar atlas and wrote to ask that Whitaker join him at Yerkes. Already experienced in black-and-white photography and skilled in the darkroom, Whitaker was an ideal candidate to join Kuiper’s effort, despite lacking an astronomy degree.

Using his entire annual leave, Whitaker arranged to visit Yerkes in October 1957. He left London on Oct. 5, just as the evening newspapers delivered the news, splashed in banner headlines, that Sputnik had orbited the Earth. Whitaker took a copy of the newspaper with him on the overnight flight. Kuiper, picking his new assistant up at the airport, hadn’t yet heard the monumental news.

Work on the lunar atlas began slowly, first by compiling the best existing telescopic images of the moon from five observatories: Mount Wilson (California), Yerkes (Wisconsin), Lick (California), McDonald (Texas) and Pic du Midi (France). But the effort gained momentum starting in 1959, with the Soviet Luna program surpassing the newly formed NASA’s achievements.

In 1959, interest in Kuiper’s lunar map came more from the Air Force than the NSF and the chief of the Air Force Chart and Information Center’s mapping group visited Kuiper and his team at Yerkes. Kuiper’s Photographic Lunar Atlas was at long last published by the University of Chicago Press in 1960 (with Whitaker among four other co-authors), even as the relationship between university administrators and the headstrong astronomer began souring.

“Kuiper was getting the push more or less from Yerkes because he was concentrating on the moon and taking up room in the observatory,” Whitaker says.

The discontent flowed from the non-lunar astronomers at Yerkes over Kuiper’s strong-arm tactics in pushing his favored research over the more traditional fields of stellar, galactic and extra-galactic astronomy. Furthermore, Whitaker and two other Brits were afforded VIP status from Kuiper, even above the tenured astronomers. And Kuiper himself, who had at that point developed a strong worldwide reputation, grew increasingly dissatisfied with the conditions at Yerkes. Though known as “the birthplace of modern astrophysics,” Yerkes’ southern Wisconsin location was cloudy, cold and wet.

“The condition for sharp photos of the moon wasn’t good,” says Whitaker. And since Kuiper’s and his research associates were using other, better telescopes whenever possible, they didn’t need to remain at Yerkes.

As Kuiper, Whitaker and others were working on their lunar atlas, astronomer Aden B. Meinel was conducting surveys of the Southwest, searching for the prime spot to launch the first U.S. National Observatory. Like others before him, Meinel became entranced by the clear, dry air and the steep mountain ranges around Arizona and California. Meinel settled on the 6,880-foot Kitt Peak, 88 miles southwest of Tucson.

“When Meinel was doing surveys of places in Arizona and California for a national telescope, of course he and Kuiper were good friends. I’m sure Meinel said to Kuiper ‘There’s a good place I found in Southern Arizona,'” Whitaker says.

The University of Arizona at the cusp of the 1960s was undergoing unprecedented growth. Led by President Richard Harvill, the university had built 19 new buildings from 1951 to 1961 and was in the middle of nearly quintupling enrollment over the course of Harvill’s 20-year presidency.

Meinel received a fateful call from Kuiper in 1959. Kuiper envisioned a planetary institute at the UA, with freedom he didn’t have at Yerkes and the potential for major government funding as Washington raced Moscow to the skies. Meinel arranged for the UA to invite Kuiper for a campus visit.

Harvill saw a world-class scientist who could raise the university’s research profile and after a rapid courtship, the 54-year-old Kuiper brought his research group to the UA, the lunar insurgents affiliated not with the Steward Observatory or the astronomy department, but instead with the Institute of Atmospheric Physics. “UA Hires Famous Astronomer” read the Tucson Daily Citizen front-page headline on Feb. 13, 1960.

Whitaker recalls strapping overstuffed suitcases to the roof rack of his Rambler station wagon and arriving with his family in Tucson on Aug. 20 that year, only to find a dirty, uncooled house. They slept the first night in the car. The rest of Kuiper’s team trickled in throughout August and September and by October, the 14,000 pounds of books, papers and lab equipment arrived. The Lunar Project was officially now headquartered in Tucson.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” said President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961.

By then, Kuiper’s group was officially organized as the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, no longer subgrouped into some other campus unit. But they were operating mainly out of Quonset huts left over from World War II, even as their ranks tripled to 30 in less than a year, adding Meinel and others like Tom Gehrels, whose own pioneering work at the UA would continue for 50 years.

Kuiper was a demanding and brash leader, but took to his observational work with zeal and in 1961, was appointed to serve on NASA’s Space Science Steering Committee, which had started work on what became the Ranger and Surveyor series of missions.

Jet Propulsion Lab’s first proposal for a moon probe was complete within three weeks of Sputnik’s launch, envisioning a launch as early as June 1958. The Ranger program, begun in 1959 as scout missions designed to fly straight toward the moon with cameras recording the descent, had started dismally. The first two launches, in 1961, failed to leave orbit. The third lost contact with Earth. The fourth suffered from a failed sequence. The fifth lost contact with Earth.

After the first five failures, NASA reorganized the program, appointing Kuiper in 1963 to lead the imaging team as Chief Experimenter for the next four Ranger missions. Ranger 6 launched Jan. 30, 1964, and according to a Universal Newsreel, was the smoothest launch the program had experienced. The 800-pound capsule, “like any tourist, equipped with cameras,” performed a perfect 66-hour flight until the crucial moment, when the cameras failed to operate. So, despite a near-perfect impact less than a mile from its target in the Sea of Tranquility, Ranger 6 became the most devastating failure yet.

NASA’s future—and the whole lunar program—was on the line when Ranger 7 launched on July 18.

Whitaker, who selected the target landing sites for Ranger 6 and 7, says the trials and errors might have been expected because, like any pioneers, they were making things up as they went along. For Ranger 7, the Experimenter team added a Tibetan prayer wheel to their table at the Jet Propulsion Lab, visible in black-and-white press photos from NASA.

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The landing site was between Mare Nubium and Oceanus Procellarum and after the mission, it took the name Mare Cognitum—The Sea That Has Become Known.

The unaided eye views the moon at its distance of 240,000 miles. The best telescopes on Earth—what Kuiper and Whitaker used for the Lunar Atlas—brings the view to within 500 miles. Ranger 7 chopped that down to a half-mile vantage.

“The amount of information that has been gained about the lunar surface is truly remarkable,” Kuiper said when he announced Ranger 7’s preliminary results. “The best resolution obtained is about a foot and a half. This is a thousands times better than the best photographs which were available up to yesterday. A thousand.”

“The method of attack here has been tremendously successful. This program has had great difficulties in the past, but that is because it was a tremendously ambitious program,” added Kuiper, addressing some public skepticism about the cost of the until-then unsuccessful Ranger missions.

Six television cameras—the A and B cameras and four sets of the P cameras —on board Ranger captured the lunar surface. The alternating A and B cameras produced 200 images apiece and the other 3,900 came from the P cameras.

JPL Director William Pickering was ecstatic. “It is not a case of picking out an occasional good picture. Every picture that has been looked at so far has been a good picture,” he said.

So began the era of instant science, Whitaker says.

On national television, Kuiper unveiled some of the first images, the tip of the iceberg really, but the Experimenters rushed to prepare those few pictures. “Everybody has worked to the limit of his strength to get this ready for the conference,” Kuiper said.

Whitaker says that as the spacecraft was closing in on the moon, the scientists could hear the signals coming in from Ranger 7, just a tone, that meant the video was coming in (a tone that Ranger 6 never produced). The signal from Ranger 7 was recorded by a NASA tracking station in the Mohave Desert, so even while the JPL crew was popping champagne, the films themselves had to be driven the 100-some miles to Pasadena.

The last shot from Ranger 7 shows an area about 100 feet by 60 feet, but it’s cut off about two thirds by static, the transmission interrupted by the spacecraft crashing into the moon.

The world was watching.

An Aug. 5, 1964 report from the United States Information Agency compiled news accounts from across the globe and concluded “there appeared to be little doubt that this new achievement materially improved the prospects for the eventual landing of a man on the moon.

“The success of Ranger 7 drew heavy newsplay and editorial superlatives in the free world press and radio. Initial reported comment, generally extensive, treated the event as a major scientific advance, opening a ‘new era’ in space explorations.”

The report gathered headlines from around the world: “A stunning success, a fantastic exploit,” Le Matin of Antwerp. “A new revolution in the field of astronomical observation,” Hamburg’s Die Welt. “A triumph of the highest importance” Britain’s Guardian. “A red-letter day in the history of lunar research and a preparation for even more remarkable events,” Stockholm’s Svenska Dagbladet. The pro-Gaullist Paris-Presse asserted categorically that the U.S. had won the first round of the “battle for the moon.”

President Johnson’s reference to Ranger 7 as a “weapon of peace” was widely quoted. Rome’s Il Messaggero wrote that “Ranger 7 should be hailed as a symbol of liberty, for if the goal of mankind is the universe, the Earth must seek its peace in freedom.”

While many news outlets—with a range of political leanings—reported Ranger 7’s achievement in the context of the space race, several European papers issued suggestions for U.S.-Soviet collaboration in space exploration.

Latin American outlets reported the news with a poetic slant. Santiago’s conservative El Diario Illustrado: “It now seems that Ranger 7 is going to break the seals on the enigma of the moon.” El Siglo of Buenos Aires: “The moon no longer has any secrets.” Meanwhile, in Cuba, the only known acknowledgement of Ranger 7 came from a Havana television commentator who said “if it is true that it transmitted 4,000 photographs, among them will be one of the Soviet flag, which has been on the moon for years, waiting for the Yankees.”

Soviet media called it a “new national achievement” for the United States and noted that Soviet scientists and engineers had send messages of congratulations to their American colleagues.

Before the July 31 national press conference, Kuiper briefed a joint meeting of the House and Senate science and aeronautical committees. He also conducted an Aug. 6 White House briefing before an audience that included Chief Justice Earl Warren, NASA administrators and cabinet officials from Defense, State, Treasury and Interior.

The University of Arizona issued its own proud press release:

“The appearance by Kuiper is evidence of the UA’s steadily growing role as a major research center. This role is not new, although the Ranger 7 flight and Kuiper’s position as principal experimenter responsible for interpreting the history-making lunar photographs have highlighted the UA’s scientific stature in dramatic fashion since last Friday,” trumpeted UA officials on Aug. 5, 1964.

The primary scientific questions sought by the Ranger mission concerned the evolution of the moon (which remained an unsettled debate until the Apollo missions returned lunar samples) and the make up of the surface. Many scientists—including the prominent Cornell astronomer Thomas Gold, who designed the stereo camera used on Apollo 11—held the theory that the moon was coated in a deep layer of dust that would swallow a spacecraft without a trace.

Using the Ranger photographs, it was Kuiper himself who first calculated the “bearing strength” of the moon’s surface, settling the debate with firm proof that a landing was possible.

Retired UA geologist Spencer Titley, who trained NASA astronauts on the geology of the moon, recalls seeing the first Ranger 7 pictures in a department meeting.

“That was the first shot from Earth to the moon to see what was there. It was exciting, but I don’t remember being excited by it,” says Titley, adding that the immediacy of the work that was enabled by the photographs weighed more on his mind.

The pictures themselves weren’t terribly exciting, Titley says, but the scientists’ newly proven ability at obtaining such photographs was monumental. “That really opened the door, the fact that we could get there and send pictures back,” he says.

One of the last jobs Titley did for the United States Geological Survey was working on a map from Ranger 7 images. But even before the Ranger mission’s first success, UA astronomers and geologists were hosting astronauts, giving them a crash course in what they might encounter on the moon.

“‘Adventures’ On The Moon Begin In Viewing Room At Kitt Peak” reported the Tucson Daily Citizen on May 21, 1964. The article described what six astronauts—including Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and three others who had already taken orbital flights in Mercury capsules—were learning about the lunar terrain from Titley. Six more astronauts were at Kitt Peak the following night.

The 50th anniversary of Ranger 7’s success is generating a new spotlight on the mission.

“It’s unheralded, but it’s coming back to attention,” says Timothy Swindle, the current director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

What Kuiper and Ranger 7 really did, Swindle says, was to transform the moon from realm of science fiction into a tangible reality.

Renowned space artist Chesley Bonestell had great sway over the public imagination in the 1950s and early 1960s. Though he read scientific literature, Bonestell’s work was imaginative and futuristic. His moon pictures—most prominently in the 1950 film Destination Moon—were full of spiky rocks and rough, jagged mountain peaks.

“Nobody knew what the surface was like until Ranger got there. But when it did, it wasn’t Chesley’s moon anymore. We finally had a close up,” Swindle says. “The moon turned into a place we’d been. In the public eye, it was really at Ranger 7 when the moon became a place.”

(Sources: Reporting for this story included interviews, as well as material from the University of Arizona Libraries Special Collections, Lunar and Planetary Laboratory history compiled by Melissa L. Lamberton, and The University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory: Its Founding and Early Years, by Ewan A. Whitaker, published in 1986 by the University of Arizona Press.)

 

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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