Charting a course to the Moon

Apollo astronauts visited NSF’s Kitt Peak National Observatory to learn about the lunar surface

On the evening of April 29-30, 1964, Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins took a much shorter trip to the lunar surface than the historic journey they would embark on five years later.

Aldrin and Collins had traveled to the National Science Foundation’s Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona to view the Moon through the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope. A visitor’s logbook from the time described the viewing conditions during their visit: “Seeing fair, flashes of good (Moon low.)”

Kitt Peak visitor’s logbook showing signatures from Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, who viewed the Moon on the night of April 29-30, 1964.
Image credit: NOAO/AURA/NSF

Aldrin and Collins visited the NSF observatory as part of a training program designed to familiarize Apollo astronauts with the distant destination that awaited them.

A month later, on the night of May 20, 1964, another group of Apollo astronauts gathered to peer down at a 33-inch image of the moon projected from the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope onto a large square table.

“Boy, there sure are a lot of patterns in these things,” astronaut Gordon Cooper, one of the original seven astronauts chosen to participate in NASA’s Project Mercury, exclaimed as he tried to make out the features of the lunar terrain. “Here’s one that looks like a string of mud balls.”

Walter Schirra, who eventually became the only astronaut to fly Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, added: “This crater here looks like a bowl of milk with some drops inside.”

As astronaut Alan Shepard closely inspected the thin line where the illuminated portion of the moon’s surface faded into darkness, he reported: “I don’t see anything smooth at all when I look along the terminator.” Shepard later walked on the Moon during Apollo 14.

The McMath Solar Telescope circa 1962.
(now referred to as the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope)
Image credit: NOAO/AURA/NSF

A solar telescope trained on the Moon

Completed in 1962, the NSF-funded McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope was the most sophisticated solar telescope in the world. Its great light-gathering ability and superior resolving power made it an important tool for early lunar mapping and photography.

While researchers used it during the day to study the sun, the telescope was free during the night for other activities such as lunar viewing. University of Arizona geologists collaborated with the U.S. Geological Survey to create maps of the Moon for the Apollo program using the solar telescope at Kitt Peak.

Astronaut Gus Grissom studied one such lunar map during his visit to the observatory in 1964. Grissom, who participated in NASA’s Mercury and Gemini programs that preceded Apollo, was selected to command the first Apollo mission. Just 2 ½ years after his visit to Kitt Peak, Grissom died tragically along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a pre-launch test of Apollo 1.

Astronaut Gus Grissom views a map of the Moon created using the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope.
Image credit: NASA  

The observatory’s staff also provided the astronauts with custom-made eyepieces that had been fashioned exclusively for the Apollo visit. These “astronaut eyepieces” allowed the group of astronauts to view enlarged sections of the Moon simultaneously.

Apollo astronauts Russell Schweikart (Apollo 9), Alan Bean (Apollo 12) and Walter Cunningham (Apollo 7) simultaneously view the Moon through the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope using the “astronaut eyepieces.” 
Image credit: NASA

One giant leap for lunar science

NASA’s plan to send humans to the Moon by the end of the decade presented an unprecedented scientific opportunity to study the Moon’s geological features, composition and more.

During April and May 1964, the three groups of Apollo astronauts that traveled to Kitt Peak to study the lunar surface weren’t just training to become astronauts. They traveled to Kitt Peak to also train as scientists.

NASA needed Apollo astronauts to not only carry out the technical aspects of their missions but to become competent scientific observers as well. Apollo astronauts received training that prepared them to collect data and perform experiments on the lunar surface.

While in Arizona, the astronauts also visited meteor craters and lava fields to study volcanic structures and impact craters like those they might see on the Moon. Representatives of the U.S. Geological Survey and the Geosciences Department at the University of Arizona led the tour and gave the astronauts a crash course in geology.

Image credit: C.R.Lynds, KPNO/NOAO/NSF

Bringing the Moon down to Earth

For a brief period, the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope brought the Moon closer to the Earth than ever before. In 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts would bring physical pieces of the Moon back to Earth.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin collected nearly 21.5 kilograms of Moon rocks and dirt during their historic time on the Moon’s surface. NASA distributed the samples to research laboratories throughout the world for evaluation and analysis, sparking a new field of lunar science.

In 1972, Apollo 17 brought a Moon rock to Earth with the intent of bringing the Moon to the public. The rock is currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., where it invites generations of potential new scientists to reach out and touch the Moon.

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