Vanished Greatness - to a Rocky Moon: A Geologist's History

Natural History, January 1994 | Go to article overview

Vanished Greatness - to a Rocky Moon: A Geologist's History


Between 1961 and 1969, the United States chose to compete with the Soviet Union in the initial exploration of another world in the solar system, the moon. This epoch saw the emerging infant technology of space flight boldly pressed into the service of scientific exploration. Don Wilhelms relates this inspiring story from the perspective of both an observer and a participant.

Wilhelms's long career as a geologist for the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) has been devoted mainly to reconstructing the history of the moon by studying photographs of its surface. He was involved in the geological training of the Apollo astronauts and in the selection of sites on the moon, both for the initial demonstration landings and for the later, more sophisticated scientific expeditions. But his principal scientific contributions are in the area of historical geology, or the natural history of the moon preserved in its layered rocks. Like that of the earth and other rocky planets, the moon's record may be read and reconstructed from photographs of its surface.

The episodic story of how we came to understand the history and processes that have shaped the moon begins with the pioneering work of Grove Karl Gilbert, first chief geologist of the USGS, who marshaled evidence in 1893 that craters on the moon were formed by the collision of asteroidal bodies. The largest of these impacts formed a prominent feature on the front side of the moon, the Imbrium Basin, a crater more than 600 miles across.

Fast-forwarding to 1949, Wilhelms highlights the work of astronomer Ralph Baldwin, whose book The Face of the Moon got nearly everything right: that the moon's craters were formed by impact; that the dark maria were volcanic lavas; and that the surface of the moon was old--very old.

After reading this book, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Harold Urey became obsessed with finding out more about the moon, which he believed was a piece of primeval nebular matter, unheated and unmodified since the creation of the solar system, 4.5 billion years ago. Urey campaigned for the scientific exploration of the moon, using the up-and-coming technique of rocketry, which had been salvaged from the ruins of a smoldering and prostrate Germany. Aiding him in this task was Gerard Kuiper, a heretic astronomer who was interested in the planets and who treasured photographs as a source of data.

Meanwhile, beginning in 1948, a young, energetic geologist was mapping the uranium deposits of the Colorado Plateau and dreaming of exploring the moon. From that point on, Eugene Shoemaker devoted his career to making geology a part of the burgeoning and nascent lunar exploration program. Such an exploration strategy was far from self-evident: to Shoemaker, more than any other person, Wilhelms gives credit as the founder of an entirely new discipline, planetary geology. Shoemaker went on to establish a branch at the USGS, created specifically to study the geology of other planets in the solar system and charged with mapping the geology of the moon to support the Apollo effort.

The addition of geology into the mix of scientific subdisciplines involved in the exploration of space created an amusing and intriguing conflict of goals and techniques--a conflict that continues to the present day. Wilhelms carefully (and I believe, objectively) recounts the fundamental differences in the thought patterns and methods of those scientists who specialize in the "quantitative" sciences (such as physics and chemistry) and those who work in the "descriptive" sciences (such as geology and biology). Unraveling the complex history of a planet requires both approaches, but it is Wilhelms's thesis (and one that I completely agree with) that our fundamental understanding of the moon came more from the "descriptive" geological approach than from the highly mathematical conjectures of certain physicists and astronomers--Nobel Prizewinners notwithstanding.

Once President Kennedy articulated the goal of a manned lunar landing, a space-faring infrastructure had to be created almost literally from scratch. …

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