In this past weekend, the world has remembered the first men who walked on the Moon 50 years ago. Much has been said about the astronauts, the research teams, the technology, the equipment, even the methods of televising the whole affair. However, very little has been mentioned about a very important step that needed to happen beforehand … making a map of where they could land, and what it might look like.
After all, you want to pick a fairly flat sort of spot to land on, without any hills or valleys. The big, obvious craters and mountains were well-known from telescope images, but as far as detailed topography, very little work had been put in at all.
Professor Gerard Kuiper was one of very few people who was studying the Moon’s surface at the time. Back in 1955 he’d asked other astronomers to help him in his project to map the Moon and received only one response, the many others attending saw the Moon as a hindrance to other astronomy (being a bright object in the sky) rather than as a subject for serious study. However, that was enough to get started and progress from the rough, hand-drawn maps that were our sole knowledge of the Moon’s surface.
Kuiper’s team worked with the best telescope images and photographs of the Moon that they could source from other observatories. They published two atlases of these photographs and were working steadily to improve their knowledge as best as they could.
However in 1961, the spotlight was suddenly thrown onto their work. America announced their goal to send men to the Moon, and they needed a map first.
Over the next few years, Kuiper’s team started to image the Moon with custom-built telescopes to generate the best quality images. However, a major problem remained. Although their telescope image quality had improved, they were still only viewing the Moon from one side and producing 2-dimensional photographs that distorted the further edges of the Moon’s surface.
This was actually a fairly serious problem, as they couldn’t accurately map significant portions of the visible surface of the Moon. But the team did overcome this problem. They projected their telescope photos onto a large white sphere so that the distorted edges were stretched back to a normal scale on the sides of the sphere.
They then photographed the sides of the sphere to provide a non-distorted view of the Moon’s edges, and published these in a third Moon atlas, aptly named the Rectified Lunar Atlas.
With this atlas and the later, even more detailed 4th atlas, Kuiper’s team helped NASA to locate smooth landing sites for lunar probes. Kuiper himself correctly located early crash sites and even the eventually landing site of Apollo 11, even despite NASA claiming different landing locations.
It’s a fascinating story, and highlights the importance of a research group that had begun as a very niche and under-regarded group and ended up playing a vital role in correcting and developing NASA’s locations for Moon landings.