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One Giant Leap

By Sean McLachlan
Arizona Summer Wildcat
July 21, 1999
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Casey Dexter
Arizona Summer Wildcat

Arizona Summer Wildcat

Thirty years ago yesterday, the world watched in wonder as Neil Armstrong stepped off the Apollo 11 lander and became the first man to stand on alien soil.

Scientists from the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory gathered yesterday to commemorate the event and talk about their roles in making it happen.

"It was one of the greatest and most memorable achievements in human history," said Robert Strom, professor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

The late Gerard Kuiper formed the laboratory in 1957 during a tense period in the Cold War. The Soviet Union was ahead in space technology, having just sent the first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in the very month that Kuiper got funding for his lab.

Two years later, a Soviet probe photographed the moon's dark side and another landed on the surface.

This string of successes rattled American officials, and Kuiper had no problem getting funding for a laboratory dedicated to lunar and planetary research.

For a geologist like Strom, it was an exciting opportunity, but most astronomers weren't interested in a laboratory dedicated to studying Earth's companion. They looked upon the moon as an annoyance, a bright light that obscured the night sky.

"It was in the way," Strom said.

One of Strom's first tasks was to make a detailed atlas of the lunar surface. Scientists at the new laboratory built an observatory for the project on Soldier Peak in the Catalina mountains, grinding the mirror in the laboratory basement.

The atlas was the most detailed available, and is still used today, Strom said.

Ewen Whitaker, associate research scientist emeritus at the laboratory, remembers when Kuiper first suggested an institute to study the moon. He had put up a notice at an international meeting of astronomers in 1955.

"Out of 900 astronomers, I was the only nut who wrote to him," he quipped.

American interest in the moon became intense in 1961. Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet cosmonaut, became the first man to go into orbit, spending nearly two hours circling the Earth. Less than a month later, the American astronaut flew a lower orbit for only 15 minutes. The Soviets were still ahead.

It was then that President John F. Kennedy made his famous speech imploring Americans "before this decade is out, to land a man on the moon and bring him safely back to Earth."

It was a tall order. The entire human race had little more than two hours of space experience, computers were in their infancy, and many of the calculations for space launches were done on slide rules because early calculators were too slow.

"Just eight years later, there we were on the moon," Strom said.

The UA astronomers' job didn't end with Armstrong's famous step. Whitaker was instrumental in picking the landing spot for the next Apollo mission. NASA wanted the astronauts to recover parts of the unmanned Surveyor III probe to study how two years on the lunar surface had affected its hardware.

Whitaker had to pore over the photographs of the moon's surface for 26 hours to pinpoint the exact spot where the Surveyor had landed. His calculations were so accurate that the Apollo lander touched down about 1,000 feet away, after a trip of a quarter of a million miles.

Strom said that the Apollo missions had a great impact on the way humanity views the world. For the first time, we were able to see a picture of earth from space. The image of a small planet covered by a thin layer of atmosphere showed what a fragile world we live on, Strom said.

"That's when the environmental movement really took off and became what it is today," he said.

It also made the world more optimistic about the potentials of science, he said.

Strom mentioned that there used to be an expression, "reaching for the moon," which meant trying to do the impossible.

After 1969, it was replaced by "if you can land a man on the moon, you can do so-and-so," he said.

After several successful moon landings, Congress lost the will to continue. The political prestige of being the first to the moon had been gained, and billions of dollars were now being siphoned into the war in Vietnam.

"Congress considered the space race over, we had won," he said.

Three additional Apollo missions were canceled, and plans for a moon base and a mission to Mars were scrapped.

Strom called it "a giant leap backward."

While Strom sees no chance of a new manned space program to other planets in the near future, he said that such exploration is important for the world as a whole.

"The moon and the planets are for everyone, not just for one country alone," he said, adding that the moon landing "is not only the shining hour of this country, but the shining moment of humanity."