Text by Paul Tumarkin, Tech Launch Arizona
Celebrating Apollo 11 – the UA’s Role in the First Manned Lunar Landing to Space Exploration Today
For decades, UA scientists have contributed to the research that has shaped our understanding of our solar system and the universe – beginning with the Apollo 11 mission.
When the first humans stepped onto the moon on July 20, 1969, they knew they were venturing into the unknown. Some had feared their lander would be swallowed up by bottomless layers of dust as almost nothing was known about the moon surface at the time. But they knew it wouldn't, thanks in large part to groundbreaking research being performed at the University of Arizona's then fledging Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.
When Gerard P. Kuiper founded the laboratory nine years earlier, in 1960, there was some skepticism that humans could visit the moon, let alone another planet.
Now, less than six decades later, and on the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11 – the first manned mission to the moon – UA scientists celebrate the pioneering and pivotal role the UA has held in the explosion of space science research, helping to shape what we know about our universe today.
"The UA has been a part of every NASA planetary exploration mission, and with leadership roles on many of them," said Tim Swindle, director of the UA Department of Planetary Sciences and LPL. "Our graduates and alumni have also been involved in many missions. That is our goal."
William K. Hartmann, a UA alumnus who studied with Kuiper, was instrumental in helping to shape early theories around the origins of Earth's moon and has made other significant contributions to the field of lunar science.
Over the course of his scientific career, Hartmann discovered several impact basins on the moon. During the 1960s, he predicted the age of the lunar lava plains. His predictions were confirmed through samples returned by the Apollo mission.
The Apollo mission also influenced Kuiper while at the UA. He took his students on field trips to places on Earth that he felt were representative of what students might see on the moon or in the solar system, for example Meteor Crater in northern Arizona, dune fields or the extensive lava flows blanketing the Big Island of Hawaii. Those types of instructive field trips continue today.
"During our field trips, students visit planetary analog sites," Swindle said. "It's an important part of our department culture. We can send a robotic spacecraft to places in our solar system and beyond, but we'll never be able to see them as well as we can see places on Earth," he explained. "By comparing those sites using every scientific technique we can think of we can learn what those places out there in space might be like."
In preparation for the Phoenix Mars mission, the first planetary mission led by a university, a UA team traveled to Antarctica to study how the instruments they had developed would work in what is considered the most Marslike environment on Earth.
LPL's legacy of studying places close to home to understand places far away becomes more relevant as more powerful telescopes have begun discovering a growing list of planets orbiting stars other than the sun.
"Kuiper started with the right attitude and what was an unusual approach at the time," Swindle said, "namely turning astronomical objects into places. His guiding idea was to not just obtain higher and higher resolution images, but also figuring out what those images mean, and what those objects would look like if you were standing there. And that is really what we have been doing here at LPL ever since."
And it all began with taking "one small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind.”
A (Very) Brief History of Space Exploration Missions With UA Involvement
1961-1965: The Ranger probes made up an early NASA mission to get new close-up images of the Moon in preparation for the eventual manned missions to the Moon. Kuiper was the principal investigator for the program.
1966-1968: A series of spacecraft named Surveyor acted as first-wave scouts mostly for future Apollo landing sites. LPL's Ewen Whitaker was instrumental in comparing the probes' images of the lunar surface with telescopic images to determine their precise locations.
1972-1973: Pioneer 10 and 11 were launched as initial scouts for the later Voyager probes and the "Grand Tour" of the solar system. Both probes were equipped with UA imaging equipment built by LPL's Tom Gehrels.
1975: The Viking probes collected high-resolution images of the surface of Mars and carried out surface experiments to locate signs of life. LPL's Brad Smith was in charge of the imaging team.
1977: Voyager probes 1 and 2 were initially launched to take advantage of an ideal alignment of the planets, creating a "Grand Tour" of the solar system. Both Voyagers are now on course to exit the solar system, studying the Kuiper Belt, heliosphere and interstellar space.
1978: The Pioneer Venus mission was launched in two separate parts: an orbiter and a multiprobe that was inserted into Venus’ atmosphere.
1980: Using 1.8-meter and 0.9-meter telescopes on Kitt Peak, UA-based Spacewatch explores the various small objects in the solar system, like planetoids, asteroids and comets.
1989: Launch of Galileo, a spacecraft to study Jupiter and its moons.
1990: Launch of Ulysses, designed to examine and study the Sun at close range.
1996: Launch of the Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous, or NEAR, spacecraft to study an asteroid close to Earth.
1996: Mars Pathfinder was a two-part craft that, after the Viking probes, was the third NASA mission to successfully land on Mars. LPL's Peter Smith built the Imager for Marts Pathfinder instrument.
1998: In response to a congressional directive, the UA-based Catalina Sky Survey watches for potentially hazardous objects, which in the course of their orbits threaten to collide with Earth. Together, the Catalina Sky Survey and the Spacewatch program have discovered more than half of the known near-Earth asteroids.
1997: Cassini-Huygens was sent to Saturn to study the planet and its multiple satellites. The Huygens lander successfully impacted on Saturn's moon Titan, recording its entire entry and landing via its Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer, designed and operated by LPL's Marty Tomasko. LPL's Robert Brown leads the science team for the Cassini Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer.
2001: Mars Odyssey, currently the longest-operating robotic spacecraft at Mars, discovered large quantities of frozen water on the red planet, using an instrument designed and built by LPL's Bill Boynton.
2004: Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging – or MESSENGER – is the first spacecraft orbiting the planet Mercury, studying the planet's chemical composition, geology, and magnetic field.
2005: Designed to study comet 9P/Tempel, Deep Impact revealed that the comet has a greater composition of dust than ice.
2005: High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, is operated by the UA under the leadership of LPL's Alfred McEwen. It's the largest camera to ever go into deep space to collect images of the Martian surface.
2007: The Phoenix Mars Lander mission, under the direction of LPL's Peter Smith, was the first mission to Mars ever led by a university. It was also the first spacecraft to visit one of Mars' enigmatic polar regions
2016: The UA-led Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer – or OSIRIS-REx – mission, under the direction of LPS's Dante Lauretta, will send a spacecraft to asteroid Bennu and return a sample by 2023.