NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Carol Butler
Austin, Texas – 9 November 1999
Today is November 9, 1999. This oral history with Dr. William Muehlberger
is being held for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project. It
is being conducted in his offices at the University of Texas in Austin.
Carol Butler is the interviewer, assisted by Kevin Rusnak and Sandra
Thank you for joining us today.
To begin with, if you could tell us a little bit about how you first
became interested in geology.
In geology. When I was six, we moved from New York City to California.
I have no idea why my parents did it in the middle of the depression,
but anyway, they did, and I was picking up rocks. I think the two
things that really got me into geology were, first of all, Boy Scouts,
where one of the fathers would take a carload of us hiking every Sunday
up into the San Gabriel Mountains behind Hollywood, where we were
living, and he knew all the trees and all the birds and all the rocks
and that sort of thing, a great teacher [therefore] of that sort of
Finally, instead of taking study hall my senior year in high school,
I took a semester of physical science, a course that was a combination
of meteorology, astronomy, and geology. That settled it, in my mind,
so I started as a geology major. I graduated out of high school in
January, and I was going to apply to go to Cal Tech [California Institute
of Technology], and their entrance exams weren't until April, so I
went to Los Angeles City College for a semester and took courses while
waiting to take the exam. I started at Cal Tech in the fall.
Where else do I go? I'm in geology.
Okay. While you were starting out as a student in geology, what were
your initial thoughts of what you would be doing, or your interests?
I had a dream that—well, let's go back a bit. I started in the
fall of '41. Then along came Pearl Harbor and the war, so I ended
up having two years at Cal Tech before I went to active duty in the
Marines. They sent me to Berkeley to become a civil engineer, so [I
am] one semester shy of having a degree in civil engineering.
Then—after the war, back to Cal Tech as a junior again in geology,
and eventually went on through my master's, started my doctorate,
and got called back in the Korean War. Then when I got back, my doctoral
area, which was west of Death Valley, was part of a super secret rocket
range and all that sort of stuff, and I hadn't been shot at in the
Korean War, so I wasn't about to get shot down by my own people, so
I started over and did a different doctoral project.
My dreams during grad school days were, I would spend four or five
years in each of the Southwestern states, learning the geology of
that region, so I'd have enough knowledge to really be able to do
a teaching job. Ultimately I wanted to get into teaching.
While they were in the Korean War stuff, I ended up doing groundwater
geology for the Marines at Camp Pendleton in Southern California,
a lawsuit over water rights, and I was the only guy in the office
who was both an engineer and a geologist, so it came out pretty useful
for me. I ended up being the boss man, even though I was only a first
lieutenant. Had captains working for me. Finally we ended up with
a major in the office, and he decided this was going to be run in
the military style, so I was demoted from being boss, but who cares.
I didn't have to go to Korea.
During that time we had to get things ready for going to court and
this kind of business, and the lawyers said, "We got these things
we've got to present at that date." I said, "The only way
that's going to get done is to have another six people or so here."
So they had a clearance from the headquarters of the Marine Corps,
if you found anybody of the right talents, grab them, they'll be transferred.
So this guy walks in, says, "Hey, I'm scheduled to go out Friday
to Korea with a rifle company, and I have a bachelor's and master's
in geology, and I sure as hell would rather do geology." So we
talked a little bit, and it was quite clear he knew his business,
so we got him off Thursday afternoon. [Laughter] He'd gotten his master's
here at Texas.
During one of our tasks up in Los Angeles, we finished it early, so
we went over to the annual meeting of the American Association of
Petroleum Geologists, just to get into the science of the stuff again.
He ran into the chairman of the department here, and the chairman
mentioned he was out recruiting, and the guy says, "I've got
you a prospect." [Laughter] So the dickering started. So I went
to some of the faculty and they said, "You can always do that
five-year thing. You'll never find out whether you can teach unless
you try it. If you don't like it, you still have the fallback position."
So I decided I'd teach. Here I am still, still doing the teaching.
So I completely changed my story around of my life's plans, and I
spent most of it, [in] my early summers in the northern part of the
state of New Mexico, working for the New Mexico Bureau, while I teach
here during the school year. That was a great benefit, too, having
known a guaranteed job in the summers, without having to go and find
the grant money to do it, and all this sort of thing.
So I ended up teaching, and I wasn't going to live east of the Rockies,
or if I was, I was going to be within eyesight of them. And guess
where we are? You have to drive a long hard day before you see anything
that isn't horizontal as you go west from here, either. But it's a
good group to work with, and exciting times. I had a great time.
Sounds like it's worked out pretty well for you.
I think so. I haven't regretted any part of my career.
So why stop.
Absolutely. When did you first become aware or even think about the
possibilities of applying geology to space or to other celestial bodies,
the Moon and so forth?
Well, I didn't think about it. Others did, for me, and got me involved.
Back in 1964, when the astronauts were first down at—well, they
were at Ellington [Field] then—JSC [Johnson Space Center] didn't
exist at that time—the U.S. Geological Survey [USGS] and NASA
geologists got together and put together a big set of courses to teach
the astronauts geology. They figured that part of that should be field
trips, where they go out and see these things in real life, rather
than hearing about them.
So their first field trip was down the Grand Canyon with the local
gods who had mapped it all and knew all the geology, and they saw
the sequence in layered rocks and the different kinds of layering,
and how do you tell which way the currents were going, and what these
fossils tell us, and all that kind of stuff. Of course, on the Moon,
forget it. You don't have any of that kind of—the layering is
done there by either lava flows or meteorites smacking in, throwing
stuff all over the place, and that's your layer. So it's a different
kind of sequencing, but you still have a sequence of events happening
and plan it out that way.
So they wanted their second field trip to be involved with basic mapping,
field geology mapping techniques, and looking at folds and faults
and this sort of thing. Well, a big gun in [the] U.S. Geological Survey
had mapped the Marathon region out in West Texas early in his career,
and we were using that area as our summer field camp area. I [had]
organized it and we were running it, had been running it for quite
a number of years. So we went out with big god, Phil King, a wonderful
old guy, now gone, but he still is a great guy, a USGS geologist and
a NASA geologist, and the four of us wandered around for several days
looking at areas and picking out the kind of thing to teach the astronauts
about these techniques.
So when we got it all organized, Phil says, "I don't have any
more time to waste on this. Bill, you take over." So I did. So
the next step then, what we did was train all of the USGS and NASA
geologists. We walked them through all these things, so that when
we brought the astronauts out, there were two astronauts to a geologist,
and that was a carload. So it wasn't one on one, but it was one on
two, teaching, showing them how to use a compass, how to read an aerial
photograph, how to pace these things out.
So each of them mapped an anticline, which is a fold, [in] which layers
are bowed up, shall we say, and a syncline and a normal fault in which
the top side goes down, the reverse fault, and the top side goes up
and over, in a strike-slip fault where the rocks move horizontally.
So they had one of each kind of structure before they were done with
the two days. We ended up taking them into Big Bend National Park
[Texas] and some of the volcanic rocks down there, introducing them
to volcanic geology. So that was my contribution, shall we say, back
Then there was nothing. I ended up being the chairman of the department
during that period and spent the next four years in that lousy job.
[Laughter] Then by that time, Apollo 11 had flown. The guy that used
to have this office was [J.] Hoover Mackin. He was part of the geology
group trying to design the hand tools and the procedures that the
astronauts would do on the Moon. That whole end wall down there, which
I've got covered up with other kinds of things now, was covered up
with hand-colored copies of the geologic maps of the Moon as they
were being interpreted from the telescope photographs. So that represented
the state of the art of understanding the Moon at that time, so as
each quadrangle would be sent to him, he'd color it up and stick it
up on the wall and fill in another hole in the map of the Moon.
I used to come in here, talk with him about these things, and across
the hall he had all of the pictures taken from the orbiters and those
kind of things. Just a fun time to see these things, but here I was
earthbound, as it were, not only looking at rocks on the surface,
but just finishing up a project where we got from any wells that went
clear through the sedimentary rocks into the basement, samples of
those basement rocks. If there were cuttings, then, of course, you
picked out the pieces to figure out what the heck rock it was. If
it was a core, you were in great shape because everything's still
in the original position.
So these were all over North America, so we ended up making a crude
map. Actually, it wasn't bad, as it turns out, of how North America
was put together through time, in ancient time back when the crust
The other interesting thing about that project was, we never found
rocks really old. We knew the Earth was four and a half billion years
old. The oldest rocks we found were about two and a half billion.
So where's the other two billion? Well, we figured the Moon might
be it. It turns out, of course, that's where the old rocks are. They
didn't get washed away or involved in plate tectonics like things
here on Earth do and get wiped out on you, or the big impacts that
obliterated all the early history of the planet.
So where were we leading to? [Laughter] So Apollo  was flown,
and the way NASA set up the contracts for the field geology experiment,
and all the other experiments, was Apollo 11, 12, 13 were a group,
and the people bid on the experiments in that package. [Apollo] 14
and 15 were another group. Apollo 11, 12, 13 were supposed to be just
"Can we do it?" No, Apollo 11 and 12. Excuse me. Then we
demonstrated we could. We landed at two different places and landed
remarkably close where we were supposed to. Then 13, 14, and 15 were
walking missions, where they landed, went out a second time, and walked
to some unique object. That's the reason you landed at that place.
Then 16 through 20 were to be the ones where we had a better space
pack, where you could stay out for seven hours instead of five, you
could charge it up a third time, so that means you could go out on
three different traverses, and you had a vehicle to drive, which meant
you could really go long distances, which meant now you landed in
a place that had a complicated variety of things to do.
So they had already contracted through Apollo 15, and they're now
thinking of these big science ones, 16 through 20, with the vehicle
and all the rest of it. But President [John F.] Kennedy had said,
"We're going to send a man to the Moon and bring him back safely."
One. Not do it again and again and again. They had ten different missions
they were talking about. By that time already the television crews
were not totally enamored with seeing this again and again, so they
figured, "Let's spread out the whole thing."
So Don [Donald] Wise, who at that time was chief scientist at NASA
headquarters, called me up one day and said, "Bill, could you
put together a group of scientists from universities in your region
to do the science on one of these last big missions?"
I thought about it about five minutes and said, "No. I don't
even know the geology, much less all the other kinds of sciences that
could be done." Didn't sound plausible. He had been calling other
Then it wasn't many weeks later that Gene Simmons, who at that time
was chief scientist down at JSC, called me up and said, "Bill,
can you put together a group of geologists in the schools in your
region to do the geology on one of these missions?"
Well, that sounded almost practical, so I said, "I'll think about
it. Sounds like it's interesting, anyhow," and I wanted to get
out of being Chairman besides.
So at the Apollo 11 Lunar Science Conference, when all of the lab
types came and presented all their data, they had a meeting, one of
these evening smoke-filled room kind of things. It's the only one
I've ever been in. And here were NASA management, U.S. Geological
Survey, and a couple other guys like me snookered into this whole
business. NASA laid out the requirements, the time schedules, all
of the things that would be going. "If you have the contract,
here's what you have to do with it."
Well, I got to thinking that, first of all, I'd have to get out of
teaching, so that means I'd have to go through the end of this semester
before that's possible. I'd have to get a whole bunch of other people
out of their teaching. Then we have to learn the geology of the Moon.
Then we have to train the astronauts to do it, as well as being in
Mission Control while they're doing it. And I figured there isn't
enough time to do that. The only people that were already trained
were the U.S. Geological Survey people. They'd been at it for years
and they were doing it.
So I raised my hand and made that pronouncement that, "If you
gave it to me, since there's such a short time schedule and we don't
know these things, I'd turn around and hire the USGS because they
already are ready to go and they've got the manpower trained to do
it." Well, that killed the evening. [Laughter] By doing this,
they were hoping to spread out, instead of having a bunch of government
agencies doing this project, have it spread around the country, different
university groups doing the different parts of the science. Most of
the other sciences that were involved were university groups—the
geophysics, looking at solar particles that were coming in, and all
the other kinds of crazy things, but the geology was being done by
the U.S. Geological Survey…[a] competent organization.
So a few weeks later I got called from the USGS management, Arnold
Brokaw, who said, "Bill, would you like to be a co-investigator
with us on the Apollo 16 through 20?"
I said, "You know damn well I would be. Besides that, I don't
want to just be a name on the bill of sale here; I want to be an active
part of it, full time."
"Okay, okay, send in your dossier and all that." So I did.
Then a few weeks later, he calls back and says, "Bill, do you
mind we put you on as principal investigator?" Holy Toledo. I
knew that the Moon was up here in this wall, but that was about it.
[Laughter] And here I am suddenly the head man. Luckily, there were
still some years before I had to do the head man job. So I ended up
being the principal investigator, left teaching for a couple of years,
went full time [with] the USGS, and tried to accomplish the job. I'd
like to think it worked, but you always look back on it and think,
"Oh, my God, what are you doing?"
Well, it seems to have worked pretty well.
Yes. It was one of the most fascinating times of my life, as you can
I can totally imagine.
It was one of those seven-day-a-week things, all day, and you'd spend
half your night on the airplane getting to the next spot. Didn't see
my family very much, but fortunately I still have the same wife.
A good woman.
Yep. When you've got a good one, you hang on to her.
I knew you'd say that. [Laughter] Where are we? I guess that's more
than enough of that historical part.
That's great. That's a good overview.
See, what it really amounts to is, is politics.
Because you've got to have a broad base to be able to sell these big
giant-buck projects. Then, of course, what happens? Apollo 13 blew
up shortly after this meeting. They canceled several missions. Well,
Apollo 15 became 16 in equipment. It was still called 15. Then they
just canceled 18, 19, and 20. So three-fifths of my job never got
I'm still waiting. Love to see it happen, but it probably won't happen
in my lifetime, but I'll keep trying.
Absolutely. No reason to stop trying.
When you were first working with the astronauts, even before you became
principal investigator, with that early group back in '64, how was
that relationship with the astronauts? Did they get into the geology
I saw them, the pair that I had, which in one pair was [Alan B.] Shepard
[Jr.] and—not Dick [Richard F.] Gordon [Jr.]. [Charles] Pete
Conrad [Jr.]. That was one pair one time. I got acquainted with that
pair quite a bit, but the other pairs, of course, were off doing their
things. About all I really had in terms of them would be to get their
autograph. Everybody gets autographs. I would judge that virtually
all of them were seriously interested in trying to learn this stuff.
Some of them learned it better than others. When you look back at
the training that the crews that went to the Moon had, at least for
the last three, 15, 16, 17, where we had the vehicles, I would judge
that those people had the equivalent of a master's degree in geology
before they went. Rather strange kind of a degree, of course, because
you don't have to worry about a lot of the things that a typical geology
major or any geology major working here on Earth would have to worry
I don't remember any crossways kinds of things in these. It was fun.
When you were first building the training for the Apollo, the ones
that were going to be long-duration science missions, how did you
plan for those? How did you figure out how to train the astronauts
and what to look for?
You've got to remember I walked into this. I ended up being understudy
for the guy who was the principal investigator for 14 and 15, Gordon
Swann, U.S. Geological Survey.
What we did, there were two different aspects of this thing. We ran
all of the field trips that they went on. Every month there was a
two-day field trip somewhere. It was operated as if we were on the
Moon, so the crew was out there. First of all, there's an aerial photograph
which had been interpreted as "Here are the things that are here,
and here's the route that you ought to go to check and make certain
these are the correct interpretations." And that's all I knew
about the area, most of my group.
Then we would be sitting there playing Mission Control with the astronaut
who was going to be on the radio at Mission Control, would be the
capcom, he was there working with us, and he talked to the crew. So
we talked to him, and he talked to the crew, sort of a short-circuiting
of the Mission Control approach to life.
These exercises got more and more complex through time, and they were
trying to be similar in length in the kinds of things they would be
doing when they went to the Moon, because we had to interpret the
landing site. Once the landing site was picked, we had the job of
designing the traverses that they would do, and training the astronauts
on how to do them. So we would set up these field trips to similar
kind of things so they would get familiar with that feel.
Then the last exercise was a full-up thing, we're in Mission Control
and they're out there in the field somewhere radioing back and everybody
playing that this is the real thing around the Moon bit.
The other part of it was run basically by the Johnson Space Center
geologists, who had all the lunar samples. The astronauts were taught
about all the different kinds of rocks and they saw all the lunar
samples, [so] they had a knowledge of what we'd collected already,
so that when they went to their area, they could see something different
or, "They're all like the ones we've gotten back there, so we'd
better get a bunch of representative ones," or whatever the case
may be in that thing.
So there's two different groups that were teaching at them. We always
had one of the Johnson Space Center people working with us so that
there was some cross-reaction in this whole thing. Most of the problems
that I saw came between the USGS management and NASA management, but
I learned how to avoid that, who to go around and go to somebody.
[Laughter] In case of Johnson Space Center, we'd go straight to George
[W. S.] Abbey, who at that time was the assistant director to Chris
[Christopher C.] Kraft [Jr.], and Abbey could solve our problems for
us, or if he couldn't, then we went all the way to headquarters and
talked to Rocco [A.] Petrone.
I never did learn the real system. You're supposed to talk through.
Hell, you don't get anything done if you try that. You go to the guy
that's got the responsibility. The guy, the head science director
was one to avoid because he hated the USGS, and since I was now hired
by them, [and] he tried to hire me, so I'd be working for NASA, running
a USGS project, that automatically put me in the wrong pocketbook.
So there's two kinds of geology that were done: field geology and
the lab stuff and the lectures. Some of the lectures were done by
my people, who were some real pros. God, I'm impressed with the quality
of people that were assigned to this whole job. I'm lucky to be able
to work with and learn from them.
Took a good group of people to make it all happen.
Oh, boy. Well, that was the exciting thing, too, because you had the
top scientists and engineers all with one goal: Let's make it work.
Let's get everything we can out of that hunk of country. As I saw
my job, it was the engineering of the science. Let's make sure we
can cram into the time available every possible thing that could be
done. The routine things, let's find out how to do them as quickly
I really ought to deflect here for a minute and talk about some of
the basic things that the astronauts had to learn, the routines in
the field geology business. We had a little tripod [called a gnomon]
with a rod sticking in it that was free-floating, so it was always
perpendicular to the ground, and it was painted with one-inch stripes
so it was a rod in which you knew the dimensions on that thing.
On one of the legs was a panel with colors on it, and you knew the
real colors, so therefore when the pictures came back, the photo lab
was supposed to match the real colors rather than invent colors like
they seem to do so often. That was set down in front of the rock that
was going to be sampled, with the color thing pointing at the rock
and into the sun. Then they would take two pictures. This gave a stereobase
to look at it. Then they took one, sort of a regional one, so just
looking at that rock you were seeing enough of the setting that you
could figure out where that rock was sitting on the Moon before they
picked it up. Then they picked it up, told us the bag number. These
bags had little aluminum strips to them and they could pull those
things like a baggie and give the Teflon bag a flip and then bend
these aluminum tags over and the thing was sealed in that bag. We
knew the number of the bag, if they remembered to tell us. [Laughter]
One of my guys kept track of all the bags and what rocks were in each
one, so that while they were on their way back from the Moon, they
could say, "These are the most important rocks that were collected.
They're in that rock box," or, "They're in that box. That
one's going to get opened first," setting up the whole priority
scheme for the receiving lab.
The other routine that they had to learn, this one, two men, a little
dance to get that rock documented into its position, because how many
years had that rock sat in that position, is one of the questions.
Several ways of doing it. There's an amount of radiation damage or
little micrometeorites had been pecking away at it, and there are
different experts that could analyze these things, say, "That
was sitting there two and a half million years." I take it on
faith that they know what they're doing, or the radiation guys, how
much damage there is to depth and X million.
Then, of course, the rocks get tumbled around when they get banged,
so that one side will have a different history than the other side.
These were important for figuring out how often did meteorites hit
the Moon, i.e., how many can we expect because we're right next to
the Moon. So that's one of the basic routines. Then all our field
trips, they had to do that.
The other basic one was simply taking a panorama, where they get off
the vehicle. The first guy off goes out a short distance and takes
a 360-degree film panorama while the other guy's getting all the tools
out and this sort of thing and getting ready to start work. While
this guy's doing this panorama, he's sort of looking around and saying
"Well, there's a rock over there we'd better sample, and we'd
better do our core over here," trying to design what's going
to happen in these next few minutes that was assigned to that place.
The panoramas were important because after they were all done before
they left, then the other guy took one from a different place, and
that one showed, of course, all their footprints. You could check
to see which rocks were now missing. You could add in some other details
that way. If they still didn't know where they were, you could use
those two panoramas, because there's now a stereobase, and you could
look at the distant mountains and play triangulation games and locate
the actual craters they were standing by on the Moon.
The panoramas were—well, it was Jack [Harrison H.] Schmitt,
the geologist astronaut, who thought up the idea, instead of just
standing at a point and pivoting around, actually stepping sideways
each time you stepped, so you moved sideways a little bit. That makes
each pair of pictures that you took a stereopair, so you could use
that for the near field as well as worrying about the distant things.
Neat idea. So that became ingrained into the way they danced in a
Our first field trip with them was a week over in Hawaii, on the big
island, and every day we did one of these exercises up in the volcanic
field somewhere. We had a photo team that was over there with us,
so every night they'd be in the photo lab running all the film through,
setting up the panoramas of the day before, so you could see, "Look,
guys. You've got a big gap here and you didn't do it right."
"Well, let's do it this way." Until it became an automatic
routine. By the time they got all done, the camera was mounted on
a bracket, so they didn't have to hold it. All they had to do was
pull the trigger, aim their body. If that had been a 45, they would
have had a bull's-eye every time. They would have destroyed the rock
if it was a pistol, they were so good at aiming their body at the
target, wherever it might be, that they were wanting to photograph.
Experience, the endless looking at what you did the day before and
learning from that, going on and on, getting the routines down. I'm
sure we'll have to do the same kind of thing on Mars when we go, or
back to the Moon. There's a lot of dull, dumb kind of stuff you've
got to learn, but it's the same way with all the other equipment that
they had to lay out. The first time they did it, it took a lot of
time. Then you put on a space suit—oof! And then the time jumps
like crazy until they did it enough times that they could do it quickly
Practice makes perfect.
Practice makes perfect. It might not be perfect, but it's damned good.
[Laughter] Those photo routines were an important part of trying to
get more information and data back. Nowadays with the electronic gadgetry
that we have, using the electronic cameras, you send it right back
to wherever you want to send it. But film is still good and useful.
It doesn't have the bit problem. Of course, you can't use the film
till you get it all the way home. [Laughter] They both have their
uses and needs.
Were there other aspects that the astronauts had to perfect as much
as they could before they—
Well, of course, they had to learn our vocabulary and we had to learn
theirs. That was the other part of these field trips. Each one is
set up as if it was a mission.
Let me go get one. The cases have fallen apart through the ages. They'd
have cuff checklists just like they had on the real thing, which is
at that stop, and then the other side of the page would be the instructions
on what you're to do. Then you can flip the page. It also would tell
you how far was the next one. These were designed by the astronauts
for their own use, so one of my guys, seems to me he spent half his
life, between flying to the Cape [Canaveral, Florida] and flying to
Flagstaff, doing these modifications until finally everybody, the
crew had what they wanted. Those are the things that went with them.
So here's the photo interpretation [referring to documents]. You see
the green in here and the black line. They were the traverse that
was to be run. And away you'd go. So these exercises would last between
three and four hours each. Then we'd have lunch. Then when they were
done doing it, we'd have a radio talk back and forth, in which we'd
ask questions and they would explain things or they would try to amplify
what they'd learned, so we figured we had the answer now. Then we'd
go have lunch, and then that afternoon we'd go walk through the same
One of my guys had been out with the crew, so he had a radio and he
could hear both sides of the conversation. He could see what they
were doing, which we couldn't. We didn't have a TV on the fake rover
that we used. It ran on a battery and ran sort of like the rover,
but it was still mimicking. You didn't have all the good gadgetry.
So then he took over and said, "Okay, back room. They told you
this and this and this. Now, look. If you had asked this question,
look what you would have learned." And they thought, "Oh,
we blew it." Or "Crew, you told them this and this and this
and led them off on this wild goose chase, when you should have phrased
it this way," or whatever.
So we were each learning how each of us sees these things as well
as what we're going to say about them, so when they finally get to
the Moon they knew those rocks perfectly well. They could have said,
"That's an anorthosite," but I don't think I ever heard
an astronaut on the Moon say that, except for Jack Schmitt, who's
a Ph.D. in geology, and I can't think of a better trained person to
go to the Moon than he was.
So, very different. So these exercises were the major training game
to get them designed. Then, of course, the real exercises or the real
things on the Moon, we talked those over with them so many evenings
there at the Cape, they knew it all by memory. Fact is, the main use
for the geologic maps that they had on the Moon was to replace the
fenders they seemed to tear off all the time. [Laughter] Have you
ever seen those pictures?
There they are [referring to documents]. This is my copy of one of
them that went—not this particular set, but that's got the Apollo
ones over in the file cabinet there.
It's good that they were useful and it's good to have it memorized,
too, so that they— [Laughter]
Yes. Well, the advantage of the Moon, of course, you know where the
sun is, and therefore with the shadows you always know east is where
the sun is. There aren't too many dark shadowy days where you can't
see, like around here. So that's one of the main points, I think,
We've talked about the training for the astronauts and building the
lines of communication with them so that you both knew what was going
on, but you had mentioned earlier that when you were named as principal
investigator, all you knew was the map hanging on the wall in here.
How did you yourself become—
Well, I knew a little more than that because we had all the [Lunar]
Orbiter pictures across the hall, and there was a Ph.D. grad student
from astronomy over here working with [Mackin] to interpret those
things and to sort of make a catalog of really good pictures of impact
craters, really good pictures of this and that and that. I used to
lean over their shoulders and ooh and aah.
This guy now teaches at Brown [University], Pete [Peter H.] Schultz,
remarkable guy. If his dissertation had been published when he got
it done, he would have had credit for about half of the features descriptions
and proper interpretations, but it took too long to get it out, and
by that time other people had done the same work. That's just plain
But anyway, I knew a little bit about it. So then one of the things
I did was—oh, I should have pointed out, my name was the first
in line of about ten people on the proposal that the USGS put in.
There was Leon T. Silver, California Institute of Technology; Thomas
H. McGetchin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Spencer Titley,
University of Arizona; and then about six U.S. Geological Survey people.
It was quite clear, nothing but academic types were listed first and
then the government types down below. The PR game again. You had a
guy from Cal Tech, MIT, and Arizona and Texas. That covers a fair
[Laughter] Sure does. Sure does.
So what I did was call a meeting because we were coming up on having
to pick a landing site for 15 and 16 and 17, and there had been a
whole bunch of potential landing sites that had been hyped earlier
as the telescope work was being finished on each map area. If you're
going to land on this map area, where's the best place? What would
we learn at that place?
So we held ourselves a two-day meeting with one person, laying out
why this is such a great landing site kind of thing, and going through
all the different things, then making our own priority list of places
we ought to land, based on what we'd—so what that was, was a
great learning experience for me, because I really didn't know that
much about them. So I learned a heck of a lot about lunar geology
just from that two days. Of course, you just keep on learning from
then on. If you don't, you'll soon be walked all over, face in the
mud. But that was my real basic one.
That's a good way to get into it, like you said.
Yes. As long as you've got all the brains there, take advantage of
Were there any other aspects of pre-mission? You talked about selecting
landing sites, and we've talked about the training for the astronauts.
Other pre-mission aspects that you were involved in?
Yes, the biggest thing, of course, was working with the engineers
and Mission Control people to set up time lines. NASA has—here's
the commander and the LM pilot, the two guys who are going to land
on the Moon. So here's the time line, right down to the second, practically.
Every little second's got to be filled with something. That means
that there's absolutely no time for these people to think on their
own, because they're always following a schedule. That's the advantage
of going to Mars: you can't get to them because the radio signal won't
get there for twenty minutes. They can think on their own. We needed
to do that.
But we did a sneaky thing on Apollo 17, because there we had the only
scientist that was ever flown to the Moon, as well as Gene [Eugene
A.] Cernan, remarkable, capable pilot. Their first field trip was
with Bob [Robert A. R.] Parker along with them. Bob was their Capcom.
He's a physicist Ph.D. I had one of the NASA geologists [Gary Lofgren],
and offhand I can't remember which one right now. Sorry. We all flew
to El Paso [Texas], rented a station wagon, and I took them all through
the Big Bend country. We'd stop at some place and I'd turn my back
to the things we were looking at, and said, "Describe it to me."
And Cernan turned out to be remarkably good, [he had a] nice capability
of descriptive things and what's there. So we figured, well, Gene
could pick up this aspect, you know. How are you going to have two
people whose trainings are so different working as a team? You've
got to each do that. Well, they ended up, I think, a remarkably good
What we ended up doing was, on the Moon Schmitt got off and ran around
telling us what he was seeing, which meant that we changed—I
have to step off for a minute. In the science back room we had a TV
camera that looked at the geologic map that was projected into Mission
Control. So when you're looking at Mission Control, it was the left
most screen, which was never up on public TV because Captain Video's
cameras were looking across at the opposite side, which is the action
that was going on on the Moon and down to the Capcom and that kind
So on that thing we would put a note, "Here's the time of arrival
at this spot, the time of departure, and the tasks to be done there."
So at each place then that was slipped on so it would be up on the
screen, so the Capcom could see it. As things were done, we would
check them off, in other words, his notes, so we could make sure that
the crew was carrying it through at the timing that was available.
So when Schmitt was running around, we'd make up a new one and then
remove the first one, and that became what we did at that spot. In
effect, he was running the mission from the Moon. I was the official
one. But what the heck? I can't see that stuff like he can. Besides
that, he knows it better in the first place.
While Schmitt was doing that, that was about a minute he had available
to do that, Cernan got out, got the tools off, set the TV antenna
so we could start getting TV, started the gravity meter so it could
detect the pull of gravity, and then we started the tasks. On the
time line, Schmitt had a whole bunch of stuff listed in there, all
just plain baloney, tasks that he was doing. So the time line was
full. We were covered. [Laughter] But we set it up this way. All of
those within the geological world certainly knew it, and I had a sneaking
hunch that the top brass knew it, too, but this is a practical way
out, and they didn't object. That, I guess, is the key point, to have
it done that way.
That was a very successful mission, so it worked out.
Yes. And the other thing Jack did at the end of each place as they're
driving off, he summarized everything that he'd seen and learned,
so by the time they landed in the Pacific Ocean, we'd written a report
about that landing site that was better than the one we used to write
for the previous missions, the ninety-day report, ninety days afterwards
where the rocks were all opened, you had a chance to see them, you
had all the film, you had the chance to talk to the crew, and integrate
that to the "Here's what we did on the Moon." We had one
that good before they landed, and then it grew from there. My judgment,
of course, is send scientists. It happened.
Luckily they were able to work it out so he could go.
Oh, boy, that was a day when there was a big splashdown party going
on at one of the apartment complexes right across from JSC, and that
evening they were going to be announcing the Apollo 17 crew. Schmitt
was there, Gordon was there. Schmitt and Gordon were a pair as backup
on Apollo 15, and since I was the backup, or the understudy, I was
the geology team leader for them, so I knew Jack from that. So I really
then worked with him on two different missions. I'd also known him
when he was an undergrad and I was finishing my doctorate at Cal Tech.
So almost incest, I guess. [Laughter] Wrong word there. We ought to
scratch that one and add another word.
When the announcement was made—
They were all kind of antsy, and finally the announcement was made.
Dick Gordon was probably one of the more unhappy people, but he recognized
that, yes, they're going to have to send Schmitt. If Apollo 18 had
happened, they would have gone as a team. Gene Cernan's partner—
Joe [H.] Engle?
Yes, Joe. Of course, was cut out and Schmitt was placed in there,
and Joe wasn't a very happy guy either, because here's their opportunity
to do something. But looking back on it, I think they did the only
thing that was possible. You've got to send a scientist, especially
when you have the National Academy of Sciences, who were the chief
honchos of trying to select these scientist astronauts. Then if you
didn't use them, what kind of an engineering organization are you?
[Laughter] Anyway, so he went.
Looking at both his selection and also the integration of working
with Mission Control, building the time lines, and so forth, and just
the whole focus on the science side, because initially there wasn't
that much, like you said, "Let's get to the Moon first and see,"
how did that work out for you in integrating those two parts?
The integrating parts, I can credit Jack [John R.] Sevier as an absolute
genius at being able to work with us and with the rest of the directorate
and integrating all of these different egotists, each scientist with
his own experiment, my God, one of the greater egotists of all, a
bunch of prima donnas, and trying to make them all work together and
satisfying the time demands and the time needs that they have, squeezing
it down until, yes, we can get it done in this hunk of time, Jack
was the most instrumental person in that. Unfortunately, he died here
a few months ago. I hope you talked with him before he went. He would
have been able to tell you a lot of stories. We spent a lot of evenings
in his house, his wife isolated in the bedroom while we harangued
these science/engineering questions around.
Unfortunately, we weren't able to talk with him before. That's a big
loss for us.
And for everyone.
There's nobody like him. But he was instrumental, and you've got to
have somebody like him in the system to act as an interagency actor,
whatever you want to call him, coordinator.
It's fortunate that he was able to be there and help make it all happen.
Yes, yes. Another one of my heroes of that era.
Looking more specifically at Apollo, you said you were involved to
some extent on Apollo 15.
Yes, I was there on all the field trips. I was in the science back
room. Actually, maybe I ought to explain how we set up the geology
part of the science back room.
Absolutely. That'd be great.
Something like twenty-nine people…were involved in the things
that we were involved in. In the science back room itself, the geophysicists
with their equipment were off in one wing of it, and most of the rest
we occupied, other than the one console that the science coordinator,
which is Jim [James A.] Lovell, so I talked to Lovell when I became
PI, but Gordon Swann talked to him before that. Then a couple other
engineers on that panel. The rest of them were geology crew people.
So here's Lovell's console and we were sitting at a table like this
with our map laid out in front of us, and in my case I had one on
each side of me of my guys, and there were others sitting behind me
at another table with the TV camera over at another one of the geologists
who kept track of where we were, and a little arrow out front, everybody
out there, the tourists, would know where they are now. Bob [Robert]
Sutton would sit there taking three-by-five notes. Every rock had
its own card, and he kept them sorted by kind of rocks.
Tim [Mortimer] Hait was standing at an overhead projector with an
endless roll of transparent stuff, and with his felt-tip pen he was
just writing the geological things as they came into the conversation,
in sequence. Of course, they were up on the wall projected where we'd
all see. So you could look back and see ten, fifteen minutes into
the past before it got rolled up and you're seeing something newer.
So he was sort of the time historian of the stuff.
Sitting next to me was Dale Jackson, who was my immediate science
czar. He didn't have to fight Jim Lovell to get something done or
worry about some of those tasks. All he was thinking about was what's
the science that's getting done, and making sure that I got it done.
Lee Silver was sitting behind me, being another one who was just sitting,
thinking about these things rather than getting involved in the nitty-gritty
of the operation.
Then down in another room we had our photogrammetry team, where they
had a Polaroid camera so as each stop on the TV camera got started,
the first thing it did was do a 360-degree pan. That was for us. So
these guys were photographing that Polaroid. Another one of my geologists
was down there and he would circle, as the stuff got visible, rock,
something or other, and within a couple of minutes I had this whole
panorama sitting in front of me, with time clicks on it, because the
camera moved so many degrees per second. So you could use this to
say, "Captain Video, can you go five clicks to the right and
zoom in on a rock you'll be seeing?" So when we didn't have to
look at the crew, we could go look at geological things and try to
help us out on what we're doing there. So that team was invaluable
Then we had two court reporters that were just sitting there taking
down the entire transcript, because by the time NASA would get to
us with one, it would be months later. So we had our own transcript
being made right in the group.
Then we had about four or five people we called the Tiger Team, who
were over in Gene [Eugene F.] Kranz's office. He was the head flight
director. He was not occupying that office during this time, so he
loaned us his office. These guys were just simply sitting there and
would write up what we learned on this EVA, what we missed, and how
to modify the next day's EVA so we could get that stuff into it if
it was necessary.
On Apollo 16, they ended up having to write a position paper on why
we had to keep the third EVA. When the guys separated in orbit, red
lights came on in the command module. It's saying the engine wouldn't
work, words of that effect, and that's bad news. The only engine you've
got left then is the one in the lunar module, and if you went and
landed and came back, you'd have no gas to get home. So they had to
stay in orbit for several orbits until they finally figured out it
was a false alarm, and then they landed. But the LM had a seventy-two-hour
guarantee or something like that, and they didn't want to extend.
The crew, instead of going out immediately, ended up sleeping first,
and they didn't sleep well. And it goes on downhill, some of those
kind of problems.
But the last traverse was out to a crater as big as Meteor Crater
in Arizona, the only big one nearby that we thought we could get to,
and that one therefore would drill way deep into the Moon and dump
stuff up on the surface and give us things we wouldn't ever find otherwise.
We'd made that our number-one priority spot to go to, and they were
threatening to cancel the third EVA and come home.
Well, these guys wrote a defense of it, and we got enough of the EVA
to get there and do that job, but not all of the other stops that
we had planned in between. So they were invaluable in that sense.
What we learned on each EVA, the secretary typed up and it was distributed
to everybody in Mission Control before the next day, so everybody
had a summary of that sort of thing.
Whew. Is there anybody else? That sounds like a herd. That was basically
the setup of how we operated in there.
So you were in there for 15, 16, and 17?
[Apollo] 15, I was over there in the Tiger Team, part of that bunch,
and 16 and 17, I was the guy sitting there talking with Jim Lovell
when necessary and talking to the other guys, having an endless conversation,
it seems, and then you discover something's happening you didn't know
about, and you go into a frenzy mode. Really something.
When it came time for Apollo 15, this was the first of the long-duration
missions with the rover and everything, and you said you were working
in the Tiger Team. As the mission was going along, building up to
the mission, were you involved in the selection of that landing site
I can't remember the exact—I didn't get a vote. One of the guys
was part of my team, was one of the six, who had a vote, so one of
our reasons to have that meeting, for example, was of all of the different
landing sites was let's get our cards together and all agree on what's
most important. The geochemists had different reasons. The geophysicists
had different reasons for things.
When you look at the landing sites, there's the Moon. We landed Apollo
11, Apollo 12, Apollo 13 didn't make it, 14, and they left a seismograph
behind that's still working. We knew we had to land in the lunar highlands
somewhere. Well, that's over here toward Apollo 11 again, but right
in the same line. And the geophysicists wanted the third point of
the seismograph, so they had a big triangle that they could triangulate,
and they wanted it as early as possible. So 15 was that most northerly
site picked before we went to 16, and then 17, of course, was up for
grabs in those days. But 15 and 16 were fundamentally picked at one
time in their sequence. The things seen on Apollo 15 that ended up
making Apollo 17 go where it was, thought they'd seen some volcanoes.
Well, that was wrong. That's why you go and check. You can't interpret
these photographs 100 percent right all the time. It would be nice
if you could. No, it wouldn't, because it's more fun going out and
[The Apollo 17 site was the only one that was not picked from telescope
geologic interpretation. Telescopes have about a 1 km resolution.
All the important time distinctions were picked out from that imagery!
Actual landings sites used Lunar Orbiter photography with about 20
m resolution. Apollo 17 had Apollo 15 Panoramic camera film with 2
m resolution. What a difference for planning traverses! We could see
boulder fields, boulders that had rolled down the mountainside (their
tracks easy to pick out), i.e. we could target specific important
elements before going and design traverses accordingly. A great help.]
That's what geology's all about, going to find out what you [were]
really supposed to learn there.
Go out there and play with the rocks…
Well, if you go into northern New Mexico near Taos and look at the
Rio Grande Gorge, the widest part of it there, that's a 1:1 scale
model of the Hadley Rille on the Apollo 15 landing site. So we set
up a field trip for them there, where they worked along the edge of
the cliff, and a mile away on the other side with their telephoto
camera, they took a panorama. Then as they worked their way down to
farther stops, then they did it again. That gave us a stereobase to
study the rocks on the far side, and they did it on the Moon. It's
really neat. You can pretend you're there on the Moon, because you
can see this stuff in stereo and you can see the different layers
and work out a better history than you would have had otherwise. Of
course, the locals in Taos love it. "Our canyon was cut with
water. Yours was cut with lava, though." And they're both just
lava flows stacked up. That was one of the last of the field trips
before they went, but it was a perfect 1:1 analog to what they were
going to do. Get rid of a few greasewoods and things. [Laughter]
But the mission itself, since I was sitting in the other room, I don't
know what kind of headaches appeared during the thing. They always
do. They couldn't get to a couple of the points. In the overall, I
don't think it mattered. Their prime reason for landing there, they
were close to the mountainside of the ancient rocks [on] which we
thought there ought to be some rocks big enough of the lunar crust
sitting there that got blasted out of the Imbrium impact crater and
standing there in those mountains. Where they landed at the kink in
the rille would be a good place, and secondly, we could see this canyon
and figure out maybe a little better why it's there and all that kind
of good stuff.
So Dave Scott picked up this thing and started describing it. "It
has big white rectangular crystals that are flashing at me."
He knew what it was. He knew anorthosites, but he was unwilling to
say it when millions of people were listening, for the fear that he
could be wrong. It's too bad. But that's the rock that the newsmen
nicknamed "Genesis Rock" because it would tell us about
the origin. It's the first time we had a rock—about the size
of my fist, actually a little smaller. I used to have a plaster cast
of it, but I gave it to the Children's Museum. First time we had enough
of a rock where we could destroy a bunch, do all the lab stuff necessary,
and find out that, yes, the Moon was born at the same time as the
Earth was, and meteorites, which confirmed the astronomers' assumption
that the planets are all formed in one big episode, instead of flying
in and joining the team, however else you might want to do it.
That rock, Genesis Rock, gave us that sample material to prove that,
up to that time an assumption. Now we know it. Actually, when you
look at a thin section of that rock, if it's got "Genesis",
it's got "Exodus" and "Deuteronomy" and probably
even some "Revelations" in it, but it was a battered up
hunk of rock.
Was the rock a surprise?
No, no, it was anticipated. At the end of Apollo 11, they scooped
up a lot of dirt, too, and then you get a lot of information out of
dirt, because you don't know where any of those particles came from.
Some of them could have come halfway around the Moon and be there.
John Wood, from the Harvard Smithsonian Observatory, sat there with
a microscope, picking out little white crystals, and they were all
the same composition, and he says, "The lunar highlands are going
to be anorthosite." Well, he was right, going through little
tiny pieces of it. But until you had a big piece, you wouldn't be
able to convince everybody.
Had a good find.
Yes, that was well worth it. He picked up a lot of other interesting
things, too, but that was one of the prime things, of course. There
were big cheers in the back room about it.
Were there any other highlights from Apollo 15 that you remember,
or problems or issues, both before and after the mission, like looking
at the samples afterwards? Anything that came up that was surprising
or that confirmed?
I can't remember anything specific right now, for some strange reason.
Probably because as soon as the mission splashes down into the Pacific,
the engineers are suddenly out of a job, so their game from then on
until the next launch to tinker and work with the next mission. So
we had to have the Apollo 16 landing site and all of its traverses
designed before that happened, before 15 splashed down. And since
16 was my first responsibility, my time and efforts started going
that way although I did spend a lot of time with the 14 and 15 pictures.
I got started in the Mission Control stuff right after Apollo 14,
when the rocks and everything had gotten back, sitting there trying
to look at the photos and figure out what the heck was done and where
did we find these rocks and that rock and so on. And, of course, finding
the golf ball Al Shepard [hit]—one of them was visible. The
other one he managed to sink in a crater somewhere. You can't see
it. That was easy.
So at the moment, right off the top of my head, I don't have any big
memories about that. Fun mission, two great guys. Of course, we never
really saw the third guy, command module pilot, because they were
trained by a totally different group. That was another thing about
NASA. They managed to split things up in these little segments. So
the orbital guys trained always from an airplane, looking down, the
high-flying jet. Geologist pilot would take them and do these trips.
Then they'd get done with the jet level and they'd get into a light
plane and fly at a low level over the same place, just to see what
it was that he was really describing, so he could better understand
all these things. I got to go on one of those, went from Mount Lassen
to Mount Hood. Wow, what a trip.
That must have been fascinating.
I would have loved to have done that some more. [Laughter] We also
tried having the command module pilot join us on one of these field
trips, just to have him get involved in a different perspective. He
flew over in his T-38 and then landed and came and joined us. I don't
know whether it was useful or not, but we did it. I would like to
think it would be, just so you see more in detail, so you have a better
chance of interpreting when you get up in orbit.
It's a perspective so different, as you mentioned earlier.
Quite different, yes.
Being able to see it from both angles would be helpful, I would think.
That's the nice thing about having pictures on the ground as well
as pictures from space. You can use both in illustrating the different
facets of the whole thing.
Definitely. As you were planning for all of these missions, did you
spend a lot of time looking at the samples from the earlier missions,
especially the ones you hadn't been involved with?
I never did. Never had the time. During the ninety days after each
mission that we spent there at Johnson Space Center, writing up all
the reports and everything, I'd go over to the lunar lab each day
and see what's been opened and cleaned up so I could see what the
rocks were. But there was certain [members] of my team that were assigned
to work with those rocks all the time, so they were the contributors
of the information about the rocks, and other guys would work with
the photographs. They were always periodically trying to find the
crew so we could talk to them and ask them questions.
As soon as 16's splashdown, of course, then 17 was on your neck and
you were going off of that. When 17 splashed down, it was easy. All
of a sudden all we had to do was look at the rocks in the photos and
talk with the crew. We didn't have another mission to plan. Wow, it
really was different without all those endless other commitments of
time and, "How do I get another roll of film aboard so that they
don't run out?" That went all the way to NASA headquarters before
I sold one more magazine of film. "You're sending a scientist
to the Moon, gang. Don't handicap him without giving him enough film."
Absolutely. Got to have the tools that they need.
Rocco [Petrone] agreed, and away it went. One pound. Then, of course,
the question is, what do you want to give up? They charged the vehicle
against the geology team, so we had 450 pounds or something like that.
You know, made it really look bad. "Take a wheel off." [Laughter]
There weren't any spare tires, so you couldn't remove those. They
had enough. They always keep a safety factor in these things, and
by 17 they were willing to start shaving some of those safety factors
down, they'd been so successful. As a matter of fact, by 17, they
had the fewest failures on that mission of any of them, and, again,
I guess it's just experience. You learn about these things and make
sure they don't happen again. That's a key problem.
Other than breaking fenders. [Laughter]
[Laughter] Hopefully they'll come up with a good fix for that next
Yes. It so happens that they would put their geology pick in a holder
on their pants leg so it would stick out as they would go around the
vehicle, and those fenders, of course, are flimsy as the devil. All
they have to do is stop the rooster tail of dust from coming up over
you, which is very important. You've got enough dust problems as it
is on those missions. And luckily they took along some duct tape.
Ah, the universal fixer.
The universal fixer. Right.
Speaking of like the fenders and duct tape and the weight on the lunar
module, were you involved in some of the discussions on any of the
tools that they used?
Oh, yes. Actually, the first meeting I ever went to after I was officially
blessed as being principal investigator, Gordon Swann called me up
and said, "Well, Bill, you really ought to come down to this
meeting and get a little bit familiar with things. It's on geology
So here's the geology hammer with the head, and the handle was an
oval-shaped handle that you grab onto. Some engineer had gotten in
a space suit and couldn't get the hammer to hit on the head, so they
redesigned it so that the head was askew to the handle. Well, any
normal human being would try to work it as a regular hammer. The Apollo
11 crew had a terrible time, so they had to redesign the hammer, put
it back to its original shape. Golly.
Then the other thing was, all of the tools had an extension handle
that you put on and gave a 90-degree twist, it clicked and locked
into place, except for the hammer and its extension handle, which
was a squeeze grip. You know what happens. You grab the hammer, you
hit the squeeze grip, and there goes your extension handle. So they
had to redesign that.
Here's about thirty people sitting in this room, solving a problem
of two dumb things, and I don't know how many salary dollars that
represents. It's bound to be a bunch. Then I saw later that to fix
those things and do the rattle and roll tests and make sure it was
space-worthy cost about 25,000 dollars. That was bucks in 1970. I'd
hate to think what they—I could be rich.
And then two days later, I was in Washington at a meeting, and where
should Apollo 14 land? Total other extreme from this sort of thing.
What a way to be introduced to business. [Laughter]
So many parts, they had to each come together and make it happen.
It was largely Lee Silver and Jack Schmitt working together that designed
the rake that was taken along. When you just scoop in and pick up
the soil, there's an occasional rock sitting in there, and so you're
trying to amplify the variety of rocks that you bring back. Well,
you're not going to take four scoops if you can help it, so what they
did was design this rake with the tines equally spaced so that they'd
scrape it through and shake it, and all the finer stuff would come
out and you'd have all these little pebbles that were left, just bring
them back. They represent—they're big enough pieces that you
could cut a slice and see it in thin section under the microscope
and really learn a heck of a lot more by having a variety of those.
They invented that and got it aboard. It was used in the last couple
of missions, a really useful tool.
But I never designed one. I just ended up hearing about redesigning
tools. There was a stereocamera that they were going to use, and because
of the small company bit, this little outfit got this contract. Well,
instead of modifying a Hassleblad or a Kodak camera, one of these
already workable and working, they were designing their own shutter
systems and, oh, Lordy, and they could never get any consistent workings
out of it. I made the statement, "It'll never work," and
that kind of caused a flurry of, "You're not supposed to say
that out loud" kind of thing. But it was true; it never worked.
So we didn't have it. It's all right.
Had enough other things that did work.
Yes. Some things that probably should have taken and didn't take.
I'm sure you can always think of something else.
Oh, yes. The way it goes.
We'll take a brief pause here and change out our tape. [Recorder turned
off, brief interruption]
...our geology field trips. The backup crew for the mission went through
exactly the same training that the prime crew did, so that's why I
ended up being the "backup PI" [principal investigator]
for Schmitt and Dick Gordon, who were the backup crew for 15. The
only difference was, they left about a half hour later on the field
trip loop than did the prime crew, and therefore we had two mission
controls, one for the prime crew and geologists working with them,
and one for the backup, two different sets of two-way radios on different
communication systems so that we could talk to our crew rather than
interfere with the other one by doing that.
So those field trips used to be a great chaos. The prime crew got
to drive this vehicle—I can't call it a—stop for a moment.
[Tape recorder turned off] These fake lunar rovers, ["Grover"].
[Referring to photographs] So the prime crew got to use that. Here's
Apollo 15 crew at the "Hadley Rille" Rio Grande Gorge near
Taos. So the backup crew used a jeep that had been modified a little
bit to pretend that was their vehicle they were driving on the Moon.
You can see they wore a fake backpack with all the tool hangings and
the radio and everything in the same place, filled with styrofoam
so it didn't weigh much, rather than 150 pounds of stuff they'd be
lugging otherwise. So they had the radio. Their camera was hanging
on their chest in exactly the same place as it is on their space suit,
so that they didn't have to worry about learning a new position to
take their pictures with when they used the space suit.
Everything was as close as possible in operating like we were on the
Moon, and they could take stuff off. The TV antenna didn't work; it
was just a fake TV antenna that they could move it around and pretend
they were aiming it at Earth, this kind of stuff. So the backup crew
didn't have that, but the odds of—none of them ever went. I
take that back.
Jack [John L.] Swigert [Jr.] on Apollo 13.
Yes. The measles bit stopped them. So, anyway, the training was always
the same. It was a big advantage, as it turned out for me, because
I got well acquainted with working with Schmitt and with the Capcom
that they had, who became the Capcom in 17. So Bob Parker, the physicist
astronaut, and us got well acquainted throughout all that sort of
Built a good relationship.
While you were doing some of the field training, were you involved
with them in setting up the ALSEP [Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments
Package]? Did they do any of that during these trips?
No. On these trips we never did those. It was purely the geology part
of them. The ALSEP training was done there at JSC or at the Cape.
We hauled two freight car loads of basalt near Flagstaff [Arizona]
to the Cape to cover up the seashells. [Laughter] So they could look
a little more like the Moon. Then dug craters into it, salted it with
certain kinds of rocks. I spent all kinds of time trying to find Jack
Schmitt's dissertation rocks to slip in there on the last exercise.
[Laughter] I got a hold of them two weeks too late.
[Laughter] That would have been good.
I thought that would have been great, because his dissertation area
in Norway, where mafic/ultramafic rocks are the same kinds of things
we're finding on the Moon, so it would have been logical kind of rocks,
except they'd have a little—in those days we used red fingernail
polish to paint on there and then ink in a number on top of that,
the number of that sample. But I think every geologist used fingernail
polish because it goes on easily, and when it sets up it's nice and
hard and then you use your india ink and you've got a good contrast
there. But we were just hoping and praying that we could get the dang
things, and they were hidden in the recesses of Harvard's collections.
Great idea, but didn't work. So, where were we?
Having mentioned the ALSEP, were you involved in any of the planning
for that? You said not in the setting up.
No, because each one of those instruments had his own research group
working with it, a principal investigator and the guys that were then
responsible for it. They would be there at Mission Control, too, in
case there's some problems, "What can we do now?" Like when
John [W.] Young accidentally tripped over the heat flow cable and
tore that off of the heat flow experiment. You could just see the
heat flow guy frantically trying to convince NASA that, "Yes,
we've got to fix it."
And actually it was an important thing to do and it cost a lot of
time, because what we had to do is redesign each of our traverses
so we could get back to the ALSEP area, which is right near the lunar
module, in plenty of time so if they wanted to unhook those cables
and take them into the lunar module and then try to scrape them clean
so the connectors would work, what do you have to scrape with? You
don't take files and things like that. You've got lunar rocks. So
you really don't have any good guarantee that you could make a good
The fear was that if they did want to do it, the crew might stay up
all night making sure that it would work, instead of getting a night's
rest and all this. So at the last minute it was decided, "No,
we're not going to do it." And a very disappointed PI, as you
What was the background of the experiment, if you could tell us a
little bit about it?
Well, they drilled a three-meter hole into the Moon. We hauled that
rock back with us. Then stuck this tube into the Moon, which detects
the—there are different thermometers on it, I'll call them,
that detects the heat flowing out of the Moon, which gives you a clue
as to the radioactivity or whatever it might be down there that's
causing the heat. It might be just leftover heat from the accumulation
of the planet. Most of it seems to be radioactive decay, the way it
is here on Earth, too. Some kind of rocks have lots of radioactive
materials in it and some don't. The limestones around Austin are about
the lowest background you can worry about, if you worry about those
things. If you want to get a good radiation background, go up into
the high mountains in Colorado, because you can get it out of the
sky as well as from the rocks. Beginning geology lecture here. [Laughter]
[Laughter] That's okay. It gives some good background. Were they able
to do the experiment, try it later on Apollo 17?
Yes, they did it on 17, worked all right. Of course, then they had
redesigned the cables such that there was no way they were going to
get torn apart. I remember Lee Silver behind me jittering, "Watch
out! Watch out, guys! Watch out!" as they were walking by the
cables. I turned around and said, "Lee, they're going to have
to tear the planet apart before they can get those cables unhooked.
Forget it." [Laughter] And I think that phrase—and I said
it differently. [But] it's in the Apollo 17 movie that they used to
show all the time, the half-hour things. After each mission, they
generated a film about each mission.
That's the other thing. Always in the back room there was a NASA cameraman
taking film, and quite often a still-camera guy, too. So there's gazillions
of—I don't know what they took. Very quickly you don't pay any
attention to the camera anymore and you're doing your job.
You had some rather exciting things to be focused on.
Well, yes. You'd better focus on that rather than giving a big smile
to the camera. [Laughter]
[Laughter] That's right.
Or giving them your best profile instead of the other one, or whatever
the case may be. To heck with it.
Talking about Apollo 16, and this was the one that you were starting
with and was fully going to be under you and so forth, tell us about
that and how it went.
I tried something different with the field trip training on one exercise,
just to—I wanted these guys to be able to understand how we
make maps. The only time they'd made a map was back there in '64 out
in West Texas, and that was on earth, and I'd worked in an area in
Northeast New Mexico one summer near Capulin Mountain, a little perfect
volcano that's a national monument out there, and mapped the region
for the state of New Mexico on a groundwater project.
It was the kind of an area where you had a half a dozen different
volcanoes that went, "Burp," and rolled their lava flows
out across the country. If you worked it right, you could figure here's
where they overlap, and therefore we've got to go here to see which
one's on top. So I let them make their own map of this hunk of country,
starting from each volcano and then tracing out the margins of the
flows, and then, "Okay, now where do you want to go to go and
check this out?" Luckily there are just enough roads that you
could use the roads, a little bit of walking to do this, and we went
out and did it then. So as far as I know, they're the only crew that
ever made their own map and went out and field-checked it before going
to the Moon, where somebody else made the map and there to go field-check
Did they take to the exercise pretty well?
Yes, they seemed to, because we ended up all jammed in one car instead
of the usual thing of having lots of vehicles. The other problem on
those field trips was, they always had their T-38s sitting there waiting
for them. We'd dump them there, then we'd go to the commercial airport,
and X hours later we'd be heading off. So quite often we didn't make
it to home base that night. You were in some airport motel on the
next day. Spent too many hours that way. That's one special field
trip that I remember that was different with them.
They also had decreed that you could bring wives on the Hawaii trip,
which had never been done before and never done since. That was great
for me because I got to take my wife over and we played tourist for
a couple of days before the week of crew exercises, and then we played
the weekend afterwards, and then finally back to work again. So I
doubt if she would have gotten over there for quite a while later.
I'm sure she appreciated that.
Oh, yes, yes, because I was away from home a hell of a lot. I was
averaging five and a half days a week somewhere. That gets old.
The interpretation of our landing area on Apollo 16 turned out to
be totally wrong. We thought we'd be in lunar highlands volcanic rocks,
and since they were lighter colored than the ones we'd been landing
on, it was quite clear they were not going to be the basalts. That's
the most common rock here on Earth, except the floor of every ocean
is basalt, so you don't see it. It's all those pretty colors on that
map [pointing to a Tectonic map on the wall]. But in New Mexico you've
got a bunch of basalt flows, and Hawaiian islands are spectacular
examples of them. Naturally, you run field trips into those.
But where we find these other ones, these andesites, there's a couple
of areas near Los Vegas that we used for field trips there. One was
really spectacular because here this volcano had erupted on a fault,
and the fault moved afterwards, horizontally, completely separated
[it] into two halves, so you can go right to the center of it and
work your way up through a whole series of layers of what happens
during the history of a volcano. I liked it, anyhow, as a geological
And you have gas blowing stuff out, pumice and the sort of junk that
would be blasted out, as well as stuff that comes up liquid and flows
down and stuff that comes out partly liquid, breaking up into pieces
as it flows. It's hard to call it flowing when you're breaking yourself
into a gazillion little hunks, but the inner part of it is still liquid.
It's the outer part that all breaks apart.
So they got to see a good variety of the kind of rocks that might
have been there on the Moon, except the other interpretation, which
was the minority interpretation before we landed there, was this is
simply material that was blasted out of the Imbrium basin and skidded
across the countryside for hundreds of miles, stirring up whatever
was there as well, and making these irregular-shaped mountains and
valleys. That turned out to be the right interpretation. Everything
was what that rock [pointing to plaster cast] turned out to be, "Big
So here their training was salted toward one answer and it became
pretty obvious by the end of that first EVA, where they stopped at
a couple of craters and sampled around the lunar module, no volcanic
rocks. We were all looking at each other. "Now what?" [Laughter]
"What do we change? We still have to go in those mountains and
make sure that's something different or the same [as] the stuff we
just landed on." So we ended up, in effect, keeping the same
traverses as much as we could, except, as I mentioned earlier, we
had to fight for that last one because of the false alarm on the command
So they did a remarkable job, in my view, of doing all the different
sampling procedures and getting everything the way the plans had gone,
and bringing them back. Then we'd look at the rocks and we'd resurrect
the other alternative and junk the one that we'd gone with.
Luckily their training was enough that then they could—
Yes, luckily they'd seen all the lunar rocks from before, so they
were at least familiar with the different kinds of beat-up rocks that
happen in a meteorite impact area. It gets blasted apart, partly melted,
then cemented together again as you're flying through the—I
can't say "air." [Laughter] Through space. Till it finally
gets to the landing spot. Like the "Big Muehly" had that
big glass rim on it. Probably had one all the way around it. Must
have been a terrible place to be with all these broken-up pieces and
all this glass, molten rocks as well as solid pieces. Obviously we
wouldn't have survived. It happened so long ago, we don't have to
worry about it.
John [Young] and Charlie [Charles M. Duke, Jr.] were a very complementary
pair in the way they worked. Charlie was talking all the time, jabbering
away and describing things, and John, whenever he did say something,
you'd better listen. It was important. We caught on to that pretty
quickly early in the game. John would correct things that he saw that
made him interpret it differently than Charlie. They worked together,
as I see it, quite well. Did a heck of a good job, especially with
the handicap that we gave them by telling them the wrong kind of stuff
that they're going to be finding.
Did they give you a hard time about that later?
No, they never did. We deserved it. [Laughter]
I'm sure they realized that you were just making—
What bugs me is, I liked the minority interpretation, but because
the guys that had spent their lifetime on this stuff said, "This
is the way it is," I accepted that, rather than quizzing them
even greater. The guy who stuck by this other interpretation was such
a weird character that you could see why the other ideas became the
more prevalent ones. Very different personality.
I think that wasn't the only time that you were expecting one thing
and then ended up with another.
No, we blew it on Apollo 17, too. There, there was this dark mantle
covering all the countryside, and the gospel was if there's anything
really dark or really light, then those must be new because they haven't
had time for the meteorites to turn them into the general gray dull
background that the Moon is supposed to be. Well, that dark mantle,
therefore, was supposed to be a very young deposit, and there were
little bitty craters that looked as if they could have been sources
of this stuff. Of course, they turned out just to be meteorite craters,
and the dark mantle turns out to be some of the oldest volcanic rocks
on the Moon, not the youngest.
But that dark mantle also kept us from finding out, or knowing until
we landed there, what forms this valley. The valley had a tilt. It
wasn't flat. With that tilt, I assumed that the topographers had screwed
up and this valley was supposed to be horizontal and for some reason
the geometry didn't work, the trigonometry, to get this thing level.
Ended up it was tilted and it was covered with basalt lava flows with
this dark mantle coating over the top of it. So once they got there
and landed and went to some of the craters that were in the valley
floor, and here they get these big beautiful basalt samples out, you
know what the floor is. So in the long run, realized, hey, with that
tilt and with the lavas the way they were, they should have flowed
right off out of that area. So that tilting is later. So we could
start working out the tilting history of the Moon, which we weren't
able to up to that point.
So I ended up getting to do some science rather than just the engineering
of the science by finding out that we'd landed on the east side of
a great big arch and the west side of it ducks down into the Serenitatis
Basin and some of the tilting was before most of the flows filled
in over there. Rats! We didn't have a landing site over there to get
some of that stuff. But by the numbers of craters per unit of area,
you can come up with a reasonable guess as to how old those lava flows
are there, based on the other places we'd landed on lava flows. So
you could come up with some pretty good stories about how this happened.
Within the black soil was another spot where they found the orange
soil. One of the stops we made in Hawaii was one of the very recent
craters out near Kilauea, part of that crater chain, and it only had
erupted a couple, tens of years beforehand. But because you're dealing
with water on the Earth, all these rocks come out with water in them
on Earth. There isn't a rock on Earth that doesn't have some water.
There isn't a rock on the Moon that has any, except the water that
evaporated out of their space suits, which we knew the isotopic composition
of, so that's no problem, or the Pacific Ocean, when they opened the
spacecraft, or the urine bags, which we knew the chemistry of, too,
so those were the only traces of water found on any of the specimens.
But here this volcano is a cinder cone, with all the stuff that blows
and freezes on the way back down, makes this perfect little cone,
but within it had been one of these places where the water had been
steaming through it and made it all rusty. Typical. Takes the iron
and rusts it. You've got rust colors in them. It was a nice orange
color. So when these guys said, "Hey, we're on the rim of this
crater," which had been suspected to be a volcano rather than
impact crater, "we've got orange soil here," and they hack
away and produce this thing, and everybody's eyes go bugged. "We've
got a volcano!" Hot dang! We had something interpreted right.
Well, it ain't. [Laughter] It's volcanic material, yes, but it just
happened to have been blasted out of that crater by a meteorite.
And at the time, nobody remembered that they'd found some orange soil
on Apollo 11, a few grains scattered through the soil there. They
were all over the place, but they happened to be in a specific chemistry
of volcanic glass. So it wasn't a volcano, and we cheered for nothing.
[Laughter] But it was an interesting deposit in being able to sample
it. There was even a long discussion as to whether we should go back
there on the next EVA, change things and go see that some more, but
we were convinced by the core that was taken there and the grab samples
that they had done, and we probably had enough sample material, and
let's not. And I'm so glad we didn't.
The next EVA went to the base of the mountains where these huge boulders
were. You could see it had rolled down the mountainside, so you knew
where the boulder belonged, up on the sequence of rocks that must
be up there. And they went on and did those things and accomplished
everything that I think we could have possibly have done in the time
that was available. They actually went even beyond the limits that
NASA was going to allow them to go. They parked their vehicle at the
maximum limit and then they walked. [Laughter] So they've got the
mileage, all the records of distance and time out on the surface and
all that. Probably Apollo 18 would have exceeded that if we'd gone.
Each one goes a next step further.
Yes, carry on from what you've learned. We got off into 17 there.
That's all right. One topic flows into the next. But going back to
16, you mentioned "Big Muehly" a couple of times, the rock,
and during our break you talked to us a little bit about it. Maybe
you could tell us the story for the record.
Sure. It [Apollo 16] landed, it put out the ALSEP, and then the remainder
of the time that's available, there were two big craters immediately
west of the landing site that they were supposed to go and go sample.
Well, the ALSEP took more time than expected, so they ended up going
to this one crater. They parked on the near side, the side closest
to the lunar module. They walked around, they were sampling on the
far side. Meanwhile, we spotted this rock with the TV and had Ed Fendel,
who we used to call Captain Video, to please look at this rock for
us, and he did. He zoomed in on it, saw a big rectangular white crystal
flashing at us, and figured [that] the only crystal that does that
is anorthite, the feldspar, and that's lunar crust, and that's not
what we're supposed to be finding here.
And we also saw a little crater next to it, that we thought was a
bounce crater, and it was right in the right direction to have come
from Theophilus, which we suspected might have been a possible source
of lunar crustal stuff thrown into our region. So here we were. First
stop and we've got a hunk of lunar crust. We're in this volcanic country.
What a stroke of luck. So we asked them to pick it up. Of course,
we had no idea how big it was, because there's no trees, no fences,
no nothing on the Moon to tell you size. They were clear over on the
other side of this big crater. So as they got close to it and saw
what it was that the back room wanted, they started complaining mightily
because it was so big. When finally Charlie Duke gets into the crater
and reaches over and sort of rolls the rock up the side of his pants,
we could see that, yes, this was a big rock. It's in the transcript.
I don't remember the exact phrase Charlie and John started saying,
but, "Muehlberger, if this thing makes us fall into the crater,"
or something. You can read that. So it ended up being nicknamed "Big
Muehly." It's the biggest rock that ever came back from the Moon.
[Laughter] The next biggest came from the Apollo 15 mission.
But we'd trained the guys, and everybody had told them, "You
don't need big rocks. Something no bigger than your fist is all that's
necessary for the laboratory types. So don't pick them up." And
right off the bat we did this. So they left it at the foot of the
lunar module until the very end when they knew they had the weight
and the capacity to bring it home. So now we've got it here and it
turned out to be typical of all the rocks brought back from that sample
place, that landing site.
But yet it's unique because of its size.
Yes, and it's all sliced up. There's actually a sliced-up model of
it sitting there in the lunar receiving lab, and pieces from different
places have been cut out and sent to various experimenters who wanted
to do their thing on something, whatever their thing was.
They had another interesting stop, I believe it was on Apollo 16,
where they went to House Rock.
House Rock. Yes. That's North Ray Crater, the crater we saved for
EVA 3, the big mad dash to this 1-kilometer-diameter crater. Actually,
it's a little bigger than Meteor Crater. I got it back up on the photography
that we had available for that landing site.
On Apollo 14, they're going to fly over with some good cameras and
take some pictures of it, but the cameras failed about five minutes
before the spacecraft got over the landing site, so on later orbits,
what they did was take the Hassleblad that the guy had and mount it
in the window and roll the spacecraft as the spacecraft went by, taking
pictures. So they were taking them aiming into the same place, giving
us stereocoverage of that spot by doing that.
That film has about a 20-meter resolution. That means a typical house
wouldn't show up, wouldn't be big enough. So we saw this rock on the
rim of this crater, and, of course, it got nicknamed House Rock immediately.
My photogrammatrist guy says, "We found you all the rocks down
to about 5 meters in size." "Come on, guys. You've got to
be telling me lies." I've looked at the machine and I couldn't
see some of these things they were claiming were rocks, but they put
them as Xs on the map.
[And] the radar people were telling us, "This place is so rocky,
you're not going to be able to land." Well, that was kind of
a scary thought, especially to the crew. But I don't know quite how
it got sold that, "Yes, we can land here." When the crew
tipped over and saw the landing site for the first time, they exclaimed,
"I don't see any rocks." And everybody breathed a sigh of
relief. But what the radar was telling us must have been seeing into
the Moon for rocks to be reflecting their signals back. What we learned
the hard way on that one was that the radar is sensitive to iron,
and all the other landing sites had been on basalt, which are high-iron
minerals. These things weren't. So it must have been seeing some 3D
thing, in effect, there. As it turns out, virtually every rock in
the landing site that was big enough to be in the photograph, those
guys had spotted off of that crummy photography. I still don't know
how they did it. Incredible.
Good eyes, I guess.
Yes. Great imaginations, too. [Laughter] Well, they had something.
I was impressed, to say the least.
So here the crew gets up to the rim of this giant crater, and, of
course, we're running tight on time all the time because we have to
get back and launch, keep the guarantees from failing on us, because
you don't have your friendly gas station to come out and pump up your
tires or whatever it might be. Then they were done in that area and
they suggested, "Why don't we go over to House Rock." "Fine,
go do it."
God amighty, they started walking and they'd get smaller and smaller
and smaller, and they're still not there and the time is running out.
You start fretting, and they finally got to the darn thing. Of course,
there's no pictures that show you the whole thing because it's simply
so big. Well, they got some really intriguing rock samples out of
They didn't want to walk too close to the inside of the crater, but
they did take some panoramas across there, really amazing spectrum
of rocks. That would have been a great place to have been able to
spend a lot more hours, but no way. Had to drive home.
They always have to balance those needs.
Oh, yes. Safety comes first. That was rule one. You never broke that
Absolutely. If you didn't have that, then—
Something was wrong.
—you probably wouldn't have had much support for all the missions.
No. No. That's right.
Talking about the photographs before the mission and looking at it
and planning it out, there were some discussions for going to the
Tycho region on Apollo 16, is that correct?
Yes. Well, there were all kind of suggestions. Jack was pulling for
Tsiolkovsky, which is a huge crater on the back side with a mare in
the middle of it, but to get there—well, getting there wouldn't
be any problem because the orbiting tracks were easy, but to communicate
with them, you'd have to put up some communication satellites [that
are] going around, that you could get communications back there. And
launching all that stuff used up more money than they had saved by
not sending Apollo 18, 19, and 20. So that's out of the game.
Tycho, being one of the youngest craters on the Moon, and we'd landed
a Surveyor on the flanks of it, was certainly fascinating from the
impact crater history idea. NASA was worried about the requirements
of the energy required to get off. See, what they preferred to do
was just go in the standard figure of eight, so when you blast off
of the Earth heading to the Moon, you end up looping the Moon, and
you come right back to the Earth. So if for some reason your equipment
screws up, you're going to live the rest of your life doing a loop
around the Earth and the Moon. So if you blast off into one of the
other orbits, then you've got to have the guarantee that you can get
back into the right orbit to get home again.
That Tycho being way off in the bottom of the Moon was well out of
the range that they were really interested in trying. So we decided,
because of what we'd seen on Apollo 15, the suggestion that this valley
had big cliffs and it was sitting at the edge of the Serenitatis Basin,
we were hoping that we would see the impact results of that basin
as well as the Imbrium Basin. By sitting down in that valley with
whatever leveled it off, we had some other stuff and we had this young
volcanic that was making a dark coating all over everything.
Boy, that was another one of those stupid mistakes, because right
out in the Serenitatis Basin is a big arcuate, a crater that got filled
in by younger lava flows, doesn't have a dark mantle on it, but the
rim of the crater has. So that should have told us it was old. Krrrr.
Sometimes it's hard to catch everything.
Makes you wonder. Well, I guess the only thing we can say in defense
of it is, everything was going so fast, you didn't have time to sit
and think long enough about some of these things. You're running.
If you had punched them off every six months or a year apart, you
might have had time to think these things through and come up with
a better answer. You might have ended up talking yourself out of that
spot, though. That might not have been what you wanted to do.
They did manage to come back with interesting information, even if
it wasn't what was expected.
That's right. That's right. Fascinating.
Moving on to Apollo 17, we've talked about it a little bit back and
forth here, but were there any points on Apollo 17 or any big issues
that came up besides with the orange soil and, of course, Jack Schmitt
running around and doing his interpretations?
I described how we set up the thing, so he ran the mission for me.
I appreciated the help. [Laughter]
Good to have.
Well, we went to every spot that was preplanned, with one exception,
and that was one of the craters in the first EVA after they set up
the ALSEP. They didn't go as far as we had originally planned into
this big crater field sitting out there, but as it turns out, they
were all going to be in the same thing, so the nearer one, which we
did go sample, did the job, as far as we can tell, perfectly well.
They had sort of a small butterfly net kind of a thing which, because
we had these long traverses between stops, and no samples in between,
they designed this traverse sampler where Jack would just reach out
with a little butterfly cup, you know, a butterfly net, and scoop
up a scoop and stick it into the sample bag and let us know when he
did it, so you just did it by time along these traverses. That way
there are samples scattered all over the landing site, which was never
done before in any of the other missions. I think that was an idea
of his, too. I don't remember now specifically who thought up the
Dixie Cup scoop.
It turned out pretty useful, too, if I recall, in that it got some
sample of the landslide material that it wouldn't have gotten otherwise.
Might not have gotten otherwise. That's right. Yes. There was one
spot where we stopped, and I had no idea they were going to stop.
We hadn't been told. The guy that had the gravity meter wanted another
reading in between these things, and that caused a bit of shock. "Why
didn't you let us know so we could plan and tell these guys what we
ought to be doing here?" Of course, as soon as they stop, Jack
says to us, "What do you want us to do, guys?" [Laughter]
We didn't even know they were going to stop. So there was a quick
frenzy and dream up of what's the most logical thing to do in the
few minutes that the gravity meter needs to level and get its reading
and we can get off again. I don't remember now what we did. It's in
the records, of course.
We can look that up.
Yes, some rocks they picked up and probably a scoop of soil. I remember
somewhere in there we used one of those core tubes and sunk it in,
but I doubt if we did one there. Anyway, that's the only time that
we got caught short that I know about.
Jack Schmitt called the Moon "a geologist's paradise." What
do you think about that statement?
Well, he's prejudiced. He's been there. [Laughter] Yes, what the Moon
did for us was, in effect, see the complete evolution of a small planet,
most of it sitting there visible for us, and it did it early in its
life, and a lot of the things that happened to the Moon, of course,
happened to the Earth. We're a bigger planet and we're still evolving.
We've got an atmosphere, thank God, some of these other good things.
Yes. But the Moon has a core just like the Earth, the mantle and this
outer scum we call the crust, it also preserves for us these big impact
events. Doesn't matter where you look at the Moon, there's circles
300 to 400 to 600 kilometers in diameter and they overlap each other
everywhere. The Moon and the Earth are in the same orbits. That means
we got hit, too, and these big ones on the Moon stopped a little over
3.8 billion years ago.
Until about ten years ago, we couldn't find any rocks on Earth that
were older than 3.8 billion. Now we're finding little scraps and pieces
here and there that take us back farther in time. That means we had
a crust that got obliterated by these big things, and started over
again, melted that stuff so the brains of the minerals lost their
memory and they started over after the impacts.
So that really changes your thinking about the Earth. Then, of course,
the meteorite craters that we have on Earth, which there's quite a
few, but there aren't enough. We haven't found two-thirds of them,
probably, of the big ones. They probably have been destroyed by the
geological processes that we have here. I'm sure you've heard about
the one that wiped out the dinosaurs right across the pond there in
the Yucatan. Boy, that would have been a bad day. [Laughter]
Now we've got some beautiful debris deposits ringing the Gulf on our
side, where the tidal waves hit it, took everything that was there
and tumbled it into a mess. So Houston would have had a problem. [Laughter]
"Houston, I've got a problem."
Would have been a very short-duration problem. Wouldn't worry about
it too long. [Laughter]
That's right. [Laughter] In one of the papers I've written and what
I use in some of my talks, I've superimposed Texas on the big crater
on the Moon called Orientale, [which is] on the side of it, and when
you look at it, you can see that Texas would have been wiped out almost
completely, if not by the crater itself, by the junk tossed over on
it. And if it hit Texas, that would have knocked off Miami and L.A.,
too. Those things, it's a good thing we got done with that episode
of solar history, stellar history, or planetary history, whatever
you want to call it.
So, yes, in that sense we're seeing a planet go through its lifestyle.
And turning around, looking at our own Earth, it's given us a lot
of insights [that] we didn't think about. In geology we're always
talking about the things that are going on today are what's going
on in the past, so we interpret them in that manner. Sometimes they
went faster, sometimes they went slower, and we don't really have
many glaciers today, but we can figure out where the glaciers were.
We're getting more and more aware of these impacts, and some of them
are oil and gas fields, which turns out to be a useful thing to know,
because it gives you a different thing to explore for, for oil and
gas. Probably a half a dozen oil fields in the U.S. that are in old
craters, because you crushed up the rock, managed to get it buried,
and crushed-up rock has lots of spaces to allow the oil to accumulate
In going to the Moon, in a couple of situations, as you mentioned,
you went in expecting one thing, thinking that one area would be a
certain way and it was different. In fact, the whole history of the
Moon, what had originally been thought of, changed throughout the
Oh, my, yes. It was a horrendous shock to most of us, the Apollo 11
basalts coming up to be 3.7 to 3.8 billion years old, older than anything
we'd dated here on Earth. Holy Toledo! Right off the bat. And that's
some of the youngest stuff on the Moon, because it's sitting there
in very big sheets, not very much pounded up by meteorites, just the
top few meters are all smashed up by them, but the rest of them are
visibly—they've got folds in them and you can see the edges
of the lava flows and all that kind of good stuff. Come on, guys.
That made quite a difference.
Certainly learned a lot.
The other thing it did—there's a bunch of things it did. At
Apollo 11, they had a whole bunch of different laboratories that were
analyzing for carbon, how much carbon is there. That equals life in
some people's thinking, anyhow. So when they reported their results
the day of the Lunar Science Conference that all the carbon people
gave their papers in succession, they all got a piece of the same
sample, and they came out with numbers that are really tremendously
different. As they go back through all this, they discover it's how
clean they got their lab. And as a result, we've learned how to clean
labs, which means the hospitals are a hell of a lot cleaner and our
own research labs are a lot cleaner.
That's an interesting correlation.
There was a whole—[out of] trying to see how much organic debris
there is on the Moon, all you're doing is checking how dirty your
lab was. [Laughter] Sort of what it amounted to.
One way to learn. [Laughter]
Yes. One of the cleanest labs was the one at Cal Tech, which has the
worst smog at that time in the world.
That's pretty good.
And it was all burning gasoline mostly. When I grew up there, we used
to burn our paper trash in the back yard and in incinerators. They
gave that up. That was the first thing that got eliminated, back yard
Probably just as well.
Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
As Apollo 17 was the last mission, manned mission to the Moon, unfortunately.
As you said, they originally planned for others, but for various reasons
they had to cancel them. What were your thoughts as it came to a close?
Tremendous degree of sadness that we didn't carry on the whole thing
to the end like the original plans called for, because it was so damn
exciting and you're learning so much and you're getting to work with
and compete with the best there is, which forces you to do the best
you can. Incredible competition in that whole group, the best laboratories
in the world, and now all of a sudden we're not going to do that anymore.
What are we going to do?
Well, I got involved in other NASA stuff, as it turns out, and I'm
still involved in training astronauts or trying to teach them. Hell,
you can't teach them. They soak it up so fast. All I've got is experience
over them. And once they go fly in orbit, around Earth, they beat
me out any old day.
In some ways it was nice to be home instead of the constant treadmill
that you're on, because as soon as one mission's over, you've got
to have the plans ready for the next one, and you're constantly playing
with that, and half your team is working on the next mission beyond
that. So you get schizophrenic in a way, trying to keep all these
thing sorted out.
I came back here, and the guy that had occupied this office, Hoover
Mackin, actually he died before Apollo 11, of open-heart surgery,
and they couldn't put him together. So I, being chairman, I wasn't
getting anything out of it, I decided, "I'll take his office."
So all these bookshelves were here and his maps were there for a long
time. I just filled it up with my stuff. But his memory still hangs
Really great people it was.
He was a founder in helping it all—
Yes, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and all that good
stuff, as well as being a fun guy. So.
The Apollo Program, as a whole, we've talked here about so much of
the science aspects of it and the later missions, but yet the Apollo
Program originally started for political reasons, and we talked earlier
about some of that. Actually, today is the anniversary of the falling
of the Berlin Wall, the whole Cold War.
That's right. Yes.
And a lot of the impetus behind the Apollo Program. Did you think
much about the political side of things and what it had all been about?
Not really. I generally worry about politics the day before I vote.
That's a good time. [Laughter]
I try to ignore the rest of the baloney that gets spewed out all the
When you look at the things we've learned about geology, most of them
are the results of military or political decisions. At the end of
World War II, we flew our airborne magnetometers off all our coasts
to make a map of the magnetic fields in the Gulf, as well as the Atlantic
and Pacific. That was simply to find submarines.
So you know what the background is, but what that did was show us
that the magnetic patterns are different in the Atlantic than they
are in the Pacific. In the Pacific you have these big bands of magnetism.
We didn't know why, but here they were and here's these big scarps
in the ocean floor in which the bands change their position. You can
see them here and you can match them there. So that meant there must
have been a huge ancient fault that moved in one way or another. It
wasn't until a bunch of years later that the idea of spreading ridges
and transform faults came into existence, and they actually moved
the other way, which solved all kinds of geometric problems that were
Then along comes the "Let's stop blowing off atomic bombs in
the atmosphere," and we had an agreement, but we're going to
do them underground. Now, how do we detect them? So our underground
testing section is out where we have lots of earthquakes, and the
Russians, theirs where there's lot of earthquakes. How do you tell
an earthquake from an atomic bomb? So that underground test detection
program set up for the first time identical seismic stations at many
places around the world. Of course, then with the growth of computer
capabilities, we could do more playing around to locate where that
explosion or earthquake was, not just 60-mile-diameter radius, but
a few miles.
As a result, then we started spotting these earthquakes. Most of them
in the world happened on the tops of the mid-ocean ridges or at the
big ocean trenches where the volcanoes are above them, and laid out
for us the plate ideas and where the plates are moving relative to
each other is where you get earthquakes. Political decisions get you
I actually, when I did this basement rock project that I was talking
about, that was funded by the underground test detection program.
If we can figure out what the differences are in our own crust, in
our seismographs set up here at the surface, they have to read through
that, we can eliminate all that geological noise and you can see Russia
better, the way it was sold.
So you can thank, or blame, the military and politicians for the ultimate
advent of plate tectonics, which is now the ruling thing in geology
and gives us a frame in which you can predict and interpret, where
before we had no way of predicting. We did a lot of interpretation.
Most of it was sort of like opium-smoking. [Laughter] Looking back
on it, you wonder how could you sell people those concepts?
So here's the Moon. Same thing. We're going to beat the Russians and
send a man to the Moon. Close call, but we made it.
What do you think will—this is just speculation, I'm sure, but
what would you think it would take to get back to the Moon, to continue
exploring or to establish a base?
I would think a president that's got some guts to make pronouncements
like that, because what you're going to have to do is sell Congress
for ten- and fifteen-year periods that this is worth funding. And
I don't know how that would work nowadays. With no longer this challenge
of "Let's beat somebody," you don't have that incentive,
unless you want to do it as a thing on your own. Maybe we can say
we've got too many people and therefore we've got to ship some off.
Let's find a place where we can convert it to places people can live—the
Moon, Mars. Trouble is, we can reproduce faster than we can ship people
to other places. [Laughter]
A whole new problem.
Yes, that's another problem.
Hopefully we can find a way to get back there.
But it would be fun. The cost of it, when you compare it with the
cost of other things, really fairly minimal. We spend more money on
liquor than we do on space. I do, too, probably. [Laughter] You can
make all those kind of comparisons, you know. Tobacco taxes could
probably fund a mission to the Moon. Why don't we use it that way
instead of passing it off? Some of the boondoggles we have invented
are really something.
Let's not get into those kind of—erase that off the record.
Okay. Well, after the Apollo Program, you moved in and did some work
with Skylab, is that correct?
That was obviously very different. Instead of looking at another planet,
now you're looking back at the Earth.
Right. Well, I hadn't thought about anything about the Earth while
doing the Moon stuff. The first Skylab mission, the guys came back
after putting up the umbrellas and things, trying to repair that so
it could be habitable again, Pete Conrad mentioned to the management
that, "If you taught me a little bit about the Earth, I think
I could have taken some useful pictures." Of course, they'd been
doing that in Mercury and Gemini, but for some reason there was nothing
done for that initial pair of guys going up to Skylab.
So that triggered things off, and it was only a couple of weeks before
the next crew was going up, so they got, I think, three hours' worth
of lectures from—my mind just failed me. I said it earlier this
morning. Paul Lowman. Paul gave geology stuff and another guy did
oceanographic and atmospheric things. So, bing, they're off.
In the meanwhile, though, that gives them a couple of months to put
together a group of people for the real long mission, the last Skylab
mission. Every five days you go over the same point. So I ended up
being part of that probably because the people down there knew me.
You call up people you know rather than start from scratch, to get
together a team of people to hit them up with all the spectrum of
things that you might be able to do from orbit.
So I was assigned global tectonics…wow! You only get one hour
to talk to them before they go, so what do you do? This is before—plate
tectonics had just been invented and it wasn't that big a thing yet.
But I talked about the big transform faults, the strike-slip fault,
the San Andreas, the Dead Sea fault, the Alpine fault the length of
the South Island of New Zealand, the one lengthwise in the Philippines,
and one down in South America. "They're all about the same size
and they have similarities and differences, and I don't know what
they are. What can you find out for me?" Then in the mountain-range
building, stories or different things you could get photographs of
Then what the guys at JSC would do is send us the transcripts of whatever
comments they made that were pertinent to our topic, so that five
days later when they go over that thing again, you could call down
to JSC and they could have radioed up and gotten this information.
So it was quickly put together, but seems to me worked quite well
experiment in remote sensing. Of course, they had cameras, batteries
of cameras on there that were looking straight down. They covered
the whole United States and much of Mexico and a lot of other countries
we had agreements with. Of course, in those days, also there was a
lot of political problems of "You can't take pictures of my country."
Well, don't tell them. [Laughter]
Then after the mission, of course, we got to talk to the crew about
what we were doing. They were shrewd observers. They really got a
lot of unique pictures and they spotted a lot of things we didn't
know a thing about. They talked about these cloud rings. No clouds
over the ocean, rings of clouds around a blank area [in between].
Navy guys looked at each other and wondered, and the meteorologists
didn't know anything about them. The pictures came back and then they
started figuring out and they could ultimately pick them out. They're
little tiny things on the weather satellite, because they're only
about fifteen, twenty miles across. But they never paid attention
to them before.
What it turns out is they're cold water eddies coming up from the
bottom of the ocean, so you get a circle of cold water in the tropics,
and the tropical air immediately coagulates at the edges of it, and
you've got a ring. The other thing is, that water coming up is bringing
food particles. Therefore, the fish are going to be there. So you've
got a new way to find fish.
Another day the Skylab crew commented, "There goes a big dust
storm off the west coast of Africa." Then they looked at the
weather satellite, and lo and behold, you could see this faint thing.
Of course, nobody looks at that. They're looking at cloud patterns.
That's what they're trained for. So that thing was tracked all the
way across the Atlantic into the Caribbean before it got that they
couldn't see it anymore. So that means a lot of the rain that I get
here in Austin has dust particles from Africa. Six months of the year
it comes up to the Caribbean. The other six it comes into the Amazon
basin, so the Amazon gets free fertilization from the African desert.
Maybe they get germs from there, too.
Sure. But the most obvious things are the oceanographic and atmospheric
things because they change so quickly. Then you can look into the
sun's reflection on the ocean and see the changes in the current patterns
and all the other things that are there. Geologically it'd be harder
to prove. But when they take pictures along some of these faults,
you see things that you never connected together before in your mind.
And that's one of the ways these has been useful for me, is I'll put
a picture up on the screen from one of the Shuttle crews and say,
"Look. Here's a great picture, but if you had only waited a few
seconds and got these things in line, I don't know what it'd be like,
but I think it'd be even better." So you play the competition
game and they're going to get it. If it's clear that day, you've got
yourself a much better picture of that thing.
I've used them in my teaching, because I've been along a lot of these
areas on the ground, so with these pictures taken from orbit, you're
seeing the whole forest, shall we say, whereas down here on the ground
you're seeing the individual trees. So here's a sand dune and here's
how it moves. Well, there's the whole pattern of them. Which way is
the wind blowing? You can go and on with these kind of stories. But
that's the current game to play with the Shuttle crowd, and with Skylab
you only get that one hour to talk to them. With the Shuttle, they're
going to go up in different orbit tracks and different things, different
time of day and different seasons, a variety of other ways of going
at some of these things.
But now we've got pictures taken from 1965 till now, thirty-four years,
and some of them, you're seeing the same feature but through the years,
so you've got a lovely time history. I've given talks about the environmental
destruction of Earth, using pictures ten years apart, taken from the
Shuttle in the same areas, and you can see the growth of cities, the
elimination of the Brazilian jungles, the desiccation of the Aral
Sea, [in] now today Kazakhstan and one of the other "stans,"
the boundaries between countries. Actually even between states in
the United States, you can see some of them, different patterns of
Shows again the use of the big picture plus the information from the
Make it all work as a system.
Yes, that's the current buzzword, the "Earth system."
Were you involved at all with the Apollo-Soyuz?
Yes, I was a co-investigator on that one, as logical follow-on. Farouk
El-Baz put together the team of us. Actually, it was most of the people
that did the Skylab thing. That was a kind of restricted one, because
while they were docked with the Russians, there were no pictures to
be taken. Then once we were on our own, we could do what we want.
So it was only about four days' worth of actual photography, but we'd
set up some things to do.
The things that were of most use to me were at the north end of the
Dead Sea fault zone, because Skylab got some great pictures from about
the Sea of Galilee south to the Red Sea, but the northern part we
didn't have anything, and I didn't know much about it. So we had a
couple of tracks that went right over it and they took these stereosets
which I then used with existing geologic maps and made my own geologic
interpretation, which is different from what the Turks had done there.
So they invited me over and we went and spent a bunch of time in there
and looked at all of the different things. I was right, as it turned
out. Made me feel good, or I wouldn't have told you about this story.
You definitely want to get the ones where you're right.
Oh, yes. Every once in a while you are right. You might as well talk
about it. [Laughter] There's too many times you aren't.
So you probably didn't work a whole lot with any of the Russians?
We didn't work with the Russians at all, strictly with our own troops.
In between Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz, after that there wasn't anything
for a while.
There wasn't anything for a while, yes.
Yes. Let me take five minutes off.
Absolutely. [Tape recorder turned off]
In between Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz and then Shuttle, you came back
to work and were teaching.
Yes. Well, all that time I was teaching. Apollo-Soyuz, fortunately,
flew during the summer, so I could be down there in Mission Control
during the mission. Skylab, I never was. Didn't need to. The phone
works. In those days, the mail service worked.
In coming back to teaching, did you integrate now your experience
with Apollo into the classroom?
Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Just the history of the Moon became a part of the
whole course, as it were. Still things to learn, but for a beginning
geology class, the important points of the formation of the planets,
melting, impacts, final melts, and then it's just sitting there, the
cold rock taking a beating ever since.
But coming up on the Shuttle stuff, they had to redesign and rebuild
that thing so many years, in the meanwhile they let the Skylab crater,
and that was a mistake. There was a big space station sitting up there
waiting to be added to. Too late now.
Before we ever got the Shuttle up, Mr. Abbey would send Sally Ride
and one of the other astronauts up here and spend the day sitting
here. "What can we do in geological science from orbit?"
She was assigned the job of being the scientist to think up the kind
of scientific things that could be done by the astronauts looking
out the window. So she'd come up here in a t-shirt and her jeans,
with the knees out, looking like a typical student around here. It
was just amazing. I've got a picture of her over there when she was
on the field trip in New Mexico that I set up.
We evolved some ideas, and since none of them knew anything about
geology, almost none of them, figured that they needed some kind of
a field trip, and since I'd spent a lot of my career working in northern
New Mexico, earlier for the New Mexico Bureau of Mines and later on
NASA grants and teaching our summer field geology course and things
like that, I got quite familiar with it. So I figured there would
be a good four-day field trip, pick them up in Albuquerque and take
them a vanload at a time. So I could talk at them at any time and
they could ask me questions at any time. Four-day cram course is what
it amounts to.
Of course, I started out with just Skylab pictures and Apollo-Soyuz
pictures, of things from orbit, and you've got volcanoes up there
of every shape and size and chemistry. You've got river-cut canyons
of different shapes. You've got glacial-cut canyons. You've got ancient
and modern sand dunes. You have continent to marine right through
the beach and transition. So, a lot of good things and it's pretty
country. I could do the same thing out in the Big Bend, but there
half the time you're surviving rather than learning, and that's not
the point here. You want to do it in a nice place to learn.
So after we talk about the details, I can show them these pictures
taken from orbit so they can see what the pattern of these things
looks like from their vantage point. It seems to have been useful,
because it's still going on. Of course, the trip itself has evolved
through time, too, as I add new pictures or lately I've been talking
up some of the Mars analogs that are in those things or in some of
that area. I also have them stand at the edge of the canyon here and
look into the canyon, say, "There's Hadley Rille," and show
them these pictures with these guys doing these things. Dave [David
R.] Scott standing at the rim of the crater or the canyon. And I've
even got telephoto pictures taken so that they can see what you can
really see on the other side. We're actually standing over here in
this road when I'm talking with them. That was taken from the other
wall. So I can give some ancient history. We trained 15's crew here,
kind of stuff.
I'm sure they get a kick out of that.
Hearing about that.
And then the Mars analogs. And this last time, added a day into the
field trip on geophysics. We were doing gravity studies on the Moon.
This all evolved from Pat Dickerson, who got her doctorate from me
three or four years ago. I've forgotten how many already. But she
works down there on the Earth Obs [Earth Observations Office, Building
31] group at JSC. We'd gotten involved in this Mars meeting over at
LPI [Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston, Texas]. "Okay, we've
landed on Mars with people. What do we do now? What equipment do we
send with them? How do we train them? What kind of mix of skills should
there be? How do we communicate with them?" These kind of questions,
because the Mars missions, the engineers had worked out all of the
orbital stuff. But then this chapter of, "What are we going to
do while we're here?" was a blank. And that's what this meeting
was about. So that gave me the impetus to talk about some of these
things that are up there in the Mars version, rather than the terrestrial
Pat had sent a Christmas card to Paul [W.] Bauer, who's the assistant
director of the New Mexico Bureau of Mines in Socorro, a guy we know,
and he answered back saying that, "We're doing a groundwater
study in the Taos area." Well, hell, you know, we stay in Taos
for this field trip. He didn't have any geophysics done, so it was
a logical thing to let it grow. I was delighted to have Pat work this
idea up, so we got laser rangefinders and GPS [Global Positioning
System] units to hold and locate ourselves, two-way radios, gravity
meters. The Socorro crowd was up there. They had all of the things
laid out for us on what each crew would be doing.
So out they'd go, locating where the gravity stations would be done,
and coming behind them were two more astronauts doing the actual gravity
readings, radioing them back to Mars base, where a geophysicist was
sitting there with a laptop computer, punching in all this stuff.
So by the end of the day, had all the data reduced and here you could
see the profile you just did, the change in gravity, and compare it
with the map and see the results. Turned out to be marvelous training
thing, because you're doing something useful, helping these people
locate where the bottom of the—where water is in the Taos basin.
That's what, in effect, you're doing with this instrument. And each
one was doing a separate line, so it was all new. It's not just make-work.
And it was valuable to the people of the city of Taos, the Indian
reservation, and all the rest of that sort of stuff, as well as them
learning a technique that we could use, or might use, on the Moon
or Mars, looking for water. So it's now a five-day field trip instead
of a four-day field trip. Luckily, Mr. Abbey bought it, no trouble
at all, because that cost time and [that] equals money. So the New
Mexico people got a lot of data and we got the experience.
Good for everybody.
Yes. Well, probably none of the people that did this will go to those
planets, but by the time we do go, they'll be up in the management
positions and they'll have a little feel, a better feel, for what
it is that these guys are going to do or try to do.
How do the Shuttle astronauts adapt to the geology training? Are they
pretty receptive to it?
Oh, my, yes. Out of the couple hundred that went through this thing,
I think there's only one that I have any qualms about as being uninterested.
Every time we look at these pictures after a mission, they say, "God,
it was better than that." You've got them on the screen, big
megasize, and I'm thinking, "Wow, isn't that fantastic,"
and they're saying, "Hell, it was better than that." I don't
know what they can really see. This has been one of the ploys I've
tried to get so I could go fly. "I don't know what they can really
see, because they're telling me it's better than these pictures. And
if I did, maybe I could then find out and do a better teaching job."
Sounds like a good argument to me.
I tried that out on Senator John [H.] Glenn [Jr.] when I briefed his
crew. He was really listening. He was really interested in the subject.
It was afterwards I discovered he had to go buy his own camera in
the drugstore when he flew [the first time], so he could take his
own pictures. NASA wouldn't furnish him one because they didn't want
him to be fooling around with this other stuff. But, about halfway
through, I stopped and said, "Damn it, John, I could have been
the geriatric specimen on this mission. Besides that, I could find
out what these guys can really see. They keep telling me it's better
than this." And he smiles and says, "After me." [Laughter]
Then you need to call him up now and say, "It's my turn."
Yes. He's gone. I go down next week. I think I'll go and see Mr. Abbey
and bug him about this, once again.
There you go.
Sorry. It's an off-to-the-side thing, but I was delighted to see him
so interested in learning, asking good, intelligent questions.
He wasn't along for the ride. He was going to be doing something.
That's good. And that's good that so many of them were interested.
Half of them, roughly, in the past, anyhow, used to be military pilots,
flown all over the world and don't know what they've been looking
at. So here I am helping them find out. "When you're flying to
L.A., you're going to go over this and this and this." "Oh,
When I show them some of the picture taken from orbit, every once
in a while I get some 35-millimeter slides taken from somewhere they've
been flying in some T-38, "And if you can identify these, Bill,
you can have them," one of those kind of things. [Laughter] Luckily,
I've been able to work them out since they give me a long enough string
of pictures that you can find something that is familiar enough that,
"Oh, yes, they've got to be in this region," and you can
Sounds like you've got a pretty good rapport with them.
Yes. Of course, looking at the Earth is different from all the other
stuff. They're trained to work checklists, got to do this, got to
do this. If this happens, then I do this. That's the whole kind of
training. All the equipment that they're going to be working with
in the laboratories on the Shuttle, they learn how to operate all
that stuff. That's a different attitude or approach than exploring,
where you don't know what you're going to find, but let's see if we
can find it and figure it out or work these things together.
Exploring the Earth is a different thing. You see something that grabs
your eye you didn't know about, take a picture of it. Very often those
pictures have been educational as the devil. There's one Shuttle picture
looking at the eye of a hurricane, with little thunderstorm topknots
sitting in various places. The weathermen hadn't realized that you
might have thunderstorms inside a hurricane, which equals tornados.
These extra real strong bursts that they talk about apparently are
those things. Until that picture came along, they hadn't even thought
about it. That's only about five years now that that idea's gotten
in. God knows how these pictures will change something.
A lot of benefits.
And they don't cost much to take, and they're all sitting on the Internet,
so all of us get to use them.
Good for everybody.
Good for everybody.
We're going to pause here real quick and change our tape out, if that's
okay. [Tape turned off and changed]
You mentioned the hurricane and that particular picture and how much
can be learned from that. Are there any others that you can think
of offhand, pictures taken from the Shuttle Program, that made a big
difference in any particular areas of earth science?
The pictures they've been taking of active exploding volcanoes are
an obvious thing. There are actually at least two volcanic eruptions
that the only report about that eruption is the picture. The locals
never mentioned it or you never got to some place where—because
there at the Smithsonian has a volcano. I've forgotten exactly what
they call it. Research Center, in which they are interested in how
active is the earth. How many volcanoes are erupting at any given
time, [that] kind of a problem. And how big are some of those, and
this sort of business.
When Rabaul went off, we had pictures from the LANDSAT spacecraft
that looked straight down, but when you look at the Shuttle pictures
looking in from the side, you see that there's two layers of clouds.
Two volcanoes were going off simultaneously. One was dominated by
water, so it was making a big white plume. The other was dominated
by rocks, with a brown plume. And if you look straight down on it,
you only see one of them. That opens the eyes of the volcanologists
who would be on the ground looking up at the things, if they're not
dead. So the volcano business, it's been a very helpful kind of a
In my own interests, which are the business of mountain-building and
this sort of thing, many of these pictures have opened my eyes to
things I hadn't thought about, and also the pattern of things. You
see them in a diagram in a textbook, but until these things come along,
they don't work in my brain that well. So they've been really helpful
to me in visualizing the whole thing.
I've put together a CD on the Arabian Plate, its boundaries, and when
I go down next week I'm going to proofread this thing that should
be ready to—it's on the CD, but now let's see if we've got all
the links and connections done right. And that's for astronaut training.
Coming around [through] the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, it's pulling
apart, and along the Dead Sea fault they're sliding by, and over through
Iraq and Iran, they're crunching up and making big mountain ranges
and volcanoes. So you've got all the different kinds of boundaries
on that one plate, as well as a lot of places where we don't have
any decent pictures.
So there's a big "please" built into this thing. "We
don't have any pictures of this area, and we'd really love to have
some to help us on down the line." And these things supposedly
will go on the Space Station, sit there as their library of stuff,
and if for some reason we need a picture of some specific place, then
they can refer to the CD and look at this frame and just left of the
E that's printed in there, or whatever, there's what we're looking
for, and we need a good 250-millimeter lens picture of it, or whatever
you want to dream up.
There's two pictures taken on [Skylab], the southern half and the
middle half of the South Island of New Zealand, the Alpine fault,
and that had been one of their targets for their 84-day mission. They
figured they'd taken enough pictures of it, so they X'ed out worrying
about the Alpine fault anymore. The commander happened to float by
the window as we were going by one of the last couple of days of the
mission, looked down, saw this late afternoon, perfectly clear, spectacular
view, grabbed the camera and got those two pictures. We've yet to
improve on those pictures. Here again, it was just serendipity. Luckily,
he looked out the window at the right time.
And, heck, here's an old Xerox copy, so you can't see it in the camera
very well, but that's Gemini, the best picture we still have, looking
south along this thing. And here it is on the cover of the Journal
of Geological Education, 1968. How educational. God, there's no people
in that picture. Literally aren't, because you don't have the Nile
River [in it]. I've been there. Golly, that's empty. I used to think
that West Texas and Chihuahua Desert were deserts. They're tropical
jungles compared to Egypt and the Sinai. Ridiculous how empty it is.
It rains every fifteen years, once. I happened to be there about a
month after they'd had one of those rains, and their two-lane asphalt
road, which runs along the Red Sea, where it goes across the wadis,
as they call them—we call them arroyos—the road's gone.
When it rains, it really rains.
That's right. And because there's no soil to soak in the water, it
just runs off and away it goes.
There's a lot to be learned.
There's lots of other pictures, and I'm sure that as soon as we stop,
I'll think of them all. [Laughter]
Of course. That's how it works. You mentioned using the CD for Space
Station. Have you done other planning ahead for Space Station Earth
Yes, the project I've been working on for the last six months is the
India Plate crash, which occupies most of Asia. The reason I started
with the Arabian plate is that it hasn't moved very far yet, so you're
dealing with beautiful structures and simpler problems, but India
has been jamming in there for 50 million years and is beaten up stuff
clear up by Lake Baikal, 1,000 kilometers to the north. So you need
to work out all these different pieces. Boy, am I learning a lot of
geography and geology by doing this. That's fun for me. And I get
paid for it.
That's even better.
On occasion. [Laughter]
That's good to still be able to keep learning and building on all
That's what life's all about. Keep learning. Otherwise, you'll have
big footprints crawling up your back.
Looking back over your work, specifically on the space program, was
there a point that you would consider your biggest challenge?
Biggest challenge. I'd say the whole Apollo Program was that, was
one continuous challenge. I don't know what to discriminate out of
that as the max problem time. It could have been when we had to defend
saving the last EVA on Apollo 16, where you had just overnight to
get the documents together to sell management to say yes. Instead
of a seven-hour EVA, they gave us five, and we ran with it.
And pulled it off successfully.
And pulled it off, yes. If only that House Rock hadn't been so far
away. [Laughter] If we'd known, probably would have told them to drive
there. Then we would have had the TV camera there. As it was, we didn't
see anything. All we were doing was hearing them. They'd gone over
Good reason to go back.
That's right. Go back and really look at that crater. Just land it
on the rim. Heck, that'll be a skill.
But they could.
Certainly have enough technological advances to help.
Well, even then, though, they were landing within a couple of yards
of the pre-planned point, except for Apollo 11, and there they deliberately
had to go downrange to miss all the rockpile.
That's interesting that that's the only one that they had that problem
Isn't it, though? Dumb computers. [Laughter] But look at where we've
landed at Mars. Every one of them has been a rockpile. Luckily, the
rocks aren't too big, so you wouldn't sit there tilted too badly,
but you don't want to be tilted too much.
Is there any one point that you would say was your most significant
accomplishment or contribution to the space program?
Well, I like the fact that I did get some science out of it, namely
this business of the buckling of the Apollo 17 site and the wrinkling
of the lava flows out in the mare basins that I ended up writing about
and contributing that aspect to the history, rather than running a
team of guys who were all smarter than me and who were doing the science
while I was doing the running around to make sure that the—to
get the engineers off their back.
Would you have ever imagined where, as you were starting out, that
you would even be involved with the space program?
Never dreamed that I'd ever been seeing anybody go to another planet,
much less be involved in it. I've always been a science fiction fan,
so I've always had that attitude. Never thought it would come to pass.
Here it did.
Here it did, and hopefully it will continue.
Before we close, I'd like to ask Kevin and Sandra if they have any
I did have one. I wanted to ask you about being a scientist involved
with NASA, which is traditionally an engineering organization—
It has to be.
—how the relationship between the scientists and the engineers
I think the biggest problem at the time was during the Apollo days,
when you had the really big names of the geochemists and the geophysicists
working, and they were the types that wanted their way, now if not
Egos you mentioned before?
Yes. And that kind of thing automatically sets up conflicts. There
were four of them, nicknamed the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
[Laughter] They'd get together and dream up something, you know, and
hit the top brass either at JSC or preferably at headquarters, where
the brassier types lived. Having been half an engineer myself and
then a geologist, I think I could see the engineer side a little better,
and I'd like to think that because of that I got along better with
them and was able to work with them. Let's accomplish the practical,
but let's make sure the practical includes every damn thing I want.
[Laughter] But, you know, don't say it quite in those tones. Push
it to the max, but you can do it in a nice way. Sometimes you get
Sometimes it's like that big ten-foot rubber ball you see the people
hitting and running along with, whatever that game is. Then you're
the only one standing on the other side and you run like hell and
you run into it, and you sink way into it. You think, "Man, I've
made some progress," and the next thing you know, you're on your
back. [Laughter] And the ball's rolling all over you. That'll happen
in any of these big agencies.
I think I had more trouble with the USGS people that I was working
with. I guess a government agency assigns these people to their project
because you've got money, not necessarily that they're going to work
for you. So I had some guys that were off doing their own thing, and
I figured since I was paying their salary, they should work for me
100 percent of their time. A couple of them, I was lucky to get 20
percent. That irked me. I figured that was a waste of my tax dollar.
So do you think, then, NASA placed a high enough priority on the science
in the Apollo missions as much as was practical?
Once they got sold on the idea that the science needed to be done,
yes, I think they did. That was largely the selling of Gene Shoemaker,
who sort of invented the whole thing himself. He made the first geologic
map of the Moon, demonstrated you could do it using these photographs.
He organized the Astrogeology Branch of USGS. He told NASA that, "Once
you're on the Moon, what are you going to be doing? Geology,"
and making sure that that was done. Eventually he was pushing so hard,
he got crosswise with NASA management and they didn't want him around.
So we took over. He was PI for the first missions, Gordon Swann the
middle set, and me the last set. Gene's gone, killed himself in a
car wreck. But Gordon Swann's the one you ought to get, because he
was Gene's backup and my backup.
We'd love to talk to him.
So he's been through the whole thing and he lives just west of Sedona,
so you'd probably have a lousy time having to go to Sedona.
That's all the questions that I had. Thank you.
One question occurred to me. You mentioned Gene Shoemaker. Of course,
we've talked about Jack Schmitt. Had you ever considered becoming
part of the astronaut program yourself, or trying to?
Only recently, since the Shuttle days. By the time I got involved
in this thing, how old was I? I was in my forties. So that was an
old man to those guys. No, I guess not really, because [John] Glenn
is two years older than I am. Or am I two years older than he is?
Close enough. I think you fit in the category together.
Yes, I've thought about it, but at the time I could have done something
about it, it was too late. They were all picked and they were all
competing with each other. I've applied to go in the Shuttle, been
turned down. Could try again. [Laughter] Actually, one of our Earth
Obs people did go, but he worked for the Office of Naval Research,
so there's a big lobby organization. University of Texas doesn't have
a very big lobby front down there.
Well, who knows what might be possible.
And you certainly had quite an important contribution with what you
It was fun.
We appreciate you sharing it with us today. Thank you very much.