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The McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope observed the Sun by day, but during the Apollo program it was also used at night to give Apollo astronauts unique views of the Moon. (credit: NoobX at English Wikipedia)

Astronomers and Apollo

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Getting two Americans—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin—on the surface of the Moon 50 years ago this month required the efforts of tens of thousands of others. There were the engineers who designed the launch vehicles and spacecraft, the workers who built them, the staff of Mission Control who oversaw the missions, and those who did all the other support work, from accountants to secretaries to janitors, to make it all possible.

Oh, and a few astronomers and other scientists as well.

“It's one thing to go to the Moon and plant the flag and thumb our nose at the Russians and come back, but what a wasted opportunity if we don’t do science,” Schindler said, recalling the views of Shoemaker.

The Apollo program, of course, wasn’t done principally for science, even if the astronauts on those missions did outstanding science, collecting lunar rocks that are still being studied today. (NASA recently selected several teams of scientists to study lunar samples unopened since their collection on the Moon, taking advantage of decades of advances in laboratory instrumentation.) A few scientists fought to get as much science out of the missions as possible.

“It's one thing to go to the Moon and plant the flag and thumb our nose at the Russians and come back, but what a wasted opportunity if we don’t do science,” said Kevin Schindler, historian at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. He was recalling the thoughts of Eugene Shoemaker, the planetary geologist who led efforts to provide field geology training for the Apollo astronauts.

Much of that training took place in northern Arizona, taking advantage of features like Meteor Crater and the volcanic Sunset Crater. “Northern Arizona became the center point because you had the best-preserved impact crater to study, and you had these volcanic fields,” he said. They also went to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, examining lunar maps and comparing the features depicted on them with what they saw in the field.

Where the geology didn’t exist, they created it. Schindler said that to train astronauts how to work in a crater field, the US Geological Survey decided to plant explosives into a flat cinder field near Sunset Crater. That effort was a success he said, and that field, and another one, still exist today.

Astronauts also went to the nearby Grand Canyon, even though it’s geologically very different from features on the Moon. The purpose of those field trips was to get the astronauts, trained as pilots and not scientists, interested in doing field science. “If you don’t get inspired to do science there, you’re probably not going to at all,” he said. “A lot of it was to just get these guys jazzed about doing science.”

There was coursework as well, Schindler said, with astronauts putting in 30 to 40 hours in the classroom before going into the field. “They essentially had a couple semesters of geology squeezed down into just a few hours.”

The astronomers usually came in and out of Flagstaff, fitting the fieldwork into their crowded training schedules. Schindler recalled that, on one occasion, astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell stayed over an extra day to give a presentation at the local high school. “As Frank Borman got up to speak, according to newspaper accounts, two girls fainted,” he said. “That was the level of attention they got, and also the struggle they had to go through.”

Schindler was speaking at last month’s 234th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in St. Louis, during a session devoted to the role sciences played in lunar exploration a half-century ago. The training that Shoemaker and other geologists provided is the best-known example, but hardly the only one.

Besides visiting northern Arizona, astronauts also visited Kitt Peak in the southern part of the state. There, they visited the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, a telescope with a distinctive design used for monitoring the Sun. At night, though, when the astronauts came, the observatory was used to instead look at the Moon.

“Chapel Hill seemed like this logical place where there’d be low demand on [planetarium] theater time, and a lot of anonymity for the astronauts,” Neece said of visits to Morehead Planetarium.

Why? “The mirrors brought the image of whatever the telescope was aimed at down into the observing room and would project a three-foot-diameter view,” said Bill Buckingham of Kitt Peak. Astronauts could gather around the image as scientists from the USGS and the University of Arizona would discuss the geological features of the Moon.

The view—augmented with magnifying lenses dubbed “astronaut eyepieces”—was intended to prepare them for what they would see as they approached the Moon on Apollo missions. They could look at maps of the Moon and compare that to the projected image, “not too dissimilar from what they would see during spaceflight a few years later.”

Astronomers elsewhere also trained the astronauts. Astronauts, particularly those planning to be command module pilots, went to Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles to learn constellations for celestial navigation. “Griffith seemed like a logical place to go,” Schindler said.

Among those who went to Griffith were the astronauts assigned to Apollo 1: Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. Schindler noted that, after their visit in 1966, three new stars appeared on star maps there: Navi, Dinoces, and Regor. “Navi” was Ivan, Grissom’s middle name, spelled backwards; “Regor” was Roger backwards, and “Dinoces” a (nearly) backwards spelling of Second, as in Ed White II. Schindler said it wasn’t clear if the names were added as a practical joke for other astronauts training there, or as an homage to them after they died in January 1967.

Astronauts did similar training at Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. That facility was off the beaten path compared to Griffith and other planetariums, but that worked to the astronauts’ advantage, argued the planetarium’s historian, Michael Neece, in a video presentation. “Chapel Hill seemed like this logical place where there’d be low demand on [planetarium] theater time, and a lot of anonymity for the astronauts,” he said.

At Morehead, astronauts were originally trained on 57 guidance and navigation stars, a number later reduced to 37, with sessions specialized for individual missions. “They knew for each orbit, each important piece of the mission, what they should be able to see outside of their window,” he said.

While one advantage of Morehead was the low profile astronauts had there, Neece said there were still occasional press conferences when they came to town for training. There were other ways people there knew astronauts were in town. “The only time the staff at Morehead got to see cookies that were laid out for someone who was going to arrive soon was when the astronauts were on their way,” he said. The phrase “it’s cookie time” became shorthand among the staff for any astronaut visit.

Should NASA succeed with returning humans to the Moon in 2024, or some time after, under the Artemis program, planetary science will play a major role in those efforts, helping identify landing sites and locations where water ice might exist. Some of those astronauts may have backgrounds in planetary science or releated fields, a far cry from the test pilots that dominated the astronaut corps during Apollo, with the exception of Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt.

There’s probably less need for celestial navigation training given the advances in guidance systems and related technologies. However, if NASA decides that training is necessary, any number of planetariums may offer their services. And provide the cookies.

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