Thursday, 12 July 2018

Becoming President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

Astrophotographer Alan Dyer,  Canada Post Stamp Advisory Committee member David K. Foot, incoming RASC President Chris Gainor and outgoing RASC President Colin Haig unveil two new Canadian stamps honouring astronomy and the RASC. Alan's image of the Aurora Borealis was used for one of the stamps.

Canada Day this year was a very special day in my life because that’s when I became President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

I took this national office at the end of the RASC’s annual General Assembly in Calgary after having served for six years on the national executive of the RASC and five years on its board of directors.

For my friends who don’t know what the RASC is about, I thought that it would be a good idea to use my blog to explain.

Today the RASC is Canada’s premier organization for amateur astronomers. We have around 5,200 members across Canada, most of them affiliated with one of our 28 clubs (we call them Centres) from coast to coast and as far north as Yukon. Each Centre holds meetings, observing sessions and other activities for its members and the general public. The National Society supports the centres and publishes the annual Observer’s Handbook, Skynews Magazine, the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the Observer’s Calendar, and various special publications. It promotes observing through certificate programs, and it works for dark skies with our Deep Sky Preserves.

This year we are celebrating 150 years since the RASC was founded. Just a year after Confederation, a group of astronomers in Toronto formed a club that grew into today’s RASC. We are celebrating this milestone with many activities. Shortly before our General Assembly this year, the Royal Canadian Mint issued a most unusual $20.00 coin honouring the RASC - unusual because it includes a small fragment of a meteorite. At the General Assembly I helped my predecessor as president, Colin Haig, launch two new stamps from Canada Post that mark our anniversary with beautiful views of Canadian skies.

I joined the RASC back in 1966 when I was finishing off elementary school. I was an active member of the Edmonton Centre, and I attended my first General Assembly in 1968 in Calgary. Little did I know that my life in RASC would take me to another General Assembly in Calgary and the presidency 50 years later. 

I left the RASC temporarily when I finished high school and moved on to university and other interests. But I rejoined at the Vancouver Centre in the early 1990s and shifted to the Victoria Centre in 1996 when I moved across the Salish Sea. I eventually became President of the Victoria Centre and then I moved on to the national level of RASC.
In the 1960s the RASC was a different organization. Professional astronomers formed a big part of the Society back then, but when the growth of professional astronomy in Canada caused the professionals to create their own organization, the Canadian Astronomical Society/Société Canadienne d’Astronomie or CASCA, RASC became the voice of amateur astronomers. I’m glad to say that we still have strong associations with Canada’s professional astronomers. Many professionals still belong to RASC, and I was among the many RASC members who took part in this year’s CASCA meeting in Victoria. I’m delighted that the President of CASCA, Dr. Rob Thacker, sits on the board of the RASC.

The RASC has long been run by volunteers, and although volunteers remain at the heart of our activities, in recent years we have hired staff to help us deal with the growing challenges of our larger membership. The capable staff in our National Office in Toronto is headed by our executive director, Randy Attwood, who before taking that job was already known around Canada through his many media appearances promoting astronomy.

As president, I head a board of directors that faces the challenges of balancing our budget, providing services to our members and centres, and advancing astronomy in Canada. Until recent changes to governance legislation in Canada compelled us to establish a board elected by the members, the RASC was a federation governed by a council where all centres were represented. We are still establishing a new role for our National Council that ensures that our 28 centres keep a powerful voice in the running of the Society. We must strengthen our bonds with amateur astronomers in Québec. Our society needs to better attract women and members of our multicultural population to the hobby, and I was gratified that all the featured scientific speakers at our recent General Assembly were women, one of them of Iranian origin. 

I am the first national president of the RASC from the Victoria Centre since Dr. Alan Batten held the job 40 years ago. I was pleased that Dr. Batten was at our General Assembly this year, sharing his knowledge of the history of astronomy gained during his distinguished career in science. I am the first professional historian to be president.

There is no pay for being president, but my involvement in RASC has given me friends and associations in every part of Canada and even some beyond our borders. Through our General Assemblies, which take place in different parts of Canada each year, I have gotten to know our country better. The knowledge I have gained about the universe through my friends in the RASC have played no small part in whatever success I’ve enjoyed as a historian. 

I’m already looking forward to many astronomical activities in the coming year under clear skies, and to the 2019 General Assembly in Toronto in June.

The 1968 RASC General Assembly in Calgary that I attended was a more buttoned down affair than RASC meetings are today.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

History Suggests Proposed U.S. Space Force May Not Fly

Many U.S. military space and cyberspace assets are part of the U.S. Air Force Space Command

This week President Donald Trump announced that he is ordering the creation of a new U.S. Space Force as a separate branch of the U.S. military.

If history is any guide, the president will have a very difficult time getting his wish. A Space Force separate from the the U.S. Air Force (USAF), U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and the Marine Corps (which is officially part of the navy), can only be created with the formal consent of Congress and the acquiescence of unhappy branches of the military, particularly the USAF, that would lose out with this change.

I have extensively studied and written about the history of U.S. military missile programs in the decade following World War II. Those events were shaped by the conflicts that preceded and followed the creation of the USAF on September 18, 1947. Prior to that time, the air force had been part of the U.S. Army, and both the army and navy fought hard to prevent the creation of the air force as a separate service, knowing that it would break with tradition and fearing correctly that such a new service would reduce their funding and their powers.

A major arena of this conflict was Congress, where many members of the House and Senate had longstanding relationships with the army and navy due to their own past service, the presence of major bases or plants in their districts, or relationships with military figures. Congress had blocked several attempts to reorganize the U.S. armed forces before President Harry S. Truman tried again in December 1945 with a plan to reorganize the military under a single Department of Defense. 

Congress passed the National Security Act reorganizing the military in 1947, but only after what one knowledgeable reporter called "the worst feud among the armed forces that the United States has ever known.” The bill was greatly watered down from Truman’s proposal, and required major changes later on to create a coherent Department of Defense. The newly created USAF spent its first decade battling with the army and navy for control of missile programs. 

The navy took extraordinary and successful measures to prevent its aviation assets from going to the USAF. All navy air assets have always been fully integrated into navy operations, and there has never been a naval air arm that could be easily broken away. In the name of defending naval aviation, top navy officers fought air force efforts to get control of nuclear weapons in the late 1940s and into the 1950s.

Soon after it was created, the USAF began promoting the concept of "aerospace" to defend its own jurisdiction in space, and this word still forms the core of its view of space operations.

For more than 30 years there has been talk of a Space Corps under USAF control or even an autonomous Space Force, and President Trump has raised this idea several times since taking office last year. All this talk, including Trump’s Space Force announcement this week, has been met with criticism from leading military and congressional figures.

Such a space force would presumably include America’s strategic missile force, much of which is controlled by the air force. An important part of the strategic missile force is submarine launched ballistic missiles controlled by the navy. And both the air force and navy possess other important space assets, including the global positioning system and other military satellite systems. The army has strong links to anti-ballistic missile systems and other defensive missiles. Since the 1980s, U.S. spending on military space has exceeded civilian space spending, so there is a great deal at stake.

Donald Trump stands out from all of his predecessors in that he came to his office without any previous military or governmental service. The issue of a Space Force is not of special interest to his political base, so the president may be in for a rude shock when he tries to breathe life into his idea of a U.S. Space Force. Many people in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill support the military space status quo, and history suggests that they will fight to defend it.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Canada's Space Program: Not Even on WFIRST Base

Artist's Conception of the proposed CASTOR space telescope

More than two years have passed since I have written about the state of Canada’s space program. That’s because I have been busy with other activities, especially my historical writing. 

But truth to tell, there has been very little meaningful action relating to Canada’s space program during that time. Most of the space news in Canada has been bad, caused by neglect from the federal government.

In January 2016, I wrote about the newly installed Liberal government of Justin Trudeau doing nothing while a major Canadian space contractor, Com Dev International of Cambridge, Ontario, was absorbed into an American firm, Honeywell. Since then, Canada’s largest space contractor, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, has turned itself into an American firm now known as Maxar Technologies.

In both cases, the contractors suffered from a lack of meaningful orders from the federal government. Canada has had no coherent plan for space activities for years. The downhill slide of the Canadian Space Agency began years ago under Stephen Harper’s conservatives but has continued without even a pause under Justin Trudeau. 

The continued decline of the CSA flies in the face of the hopes that many had for the Liberals before they were elected in October 2015. Several leading space scientists backed the Liberals, and one of the most important figures in the Trudeau government is the Minister of Transport, former CSA president and astronaut Marc Garneau. 

Expressions of concern from the space sector have become louder of late, including an article in March by the Globe and Mail’s respected science writer Ivan Semeniuk proclaiming Canada’s space program as “Lost in space.”

On Friday, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, who is responsible for the CSA, announced $26.7 million in space spending that will benefit 33 Canadian companies and involve nearly 400 jobs. The minister, who appeared at a plant where the long-awaited Radarsat Constellation satellites are being prepared for launch later this year, also promised that a long promised and long delayed Canadian space strategy will be released “in the coming months.”

These rare morsels of good news on the space front followed yet another piece of bad news for Canada’s space program. Canada will not take part in the Wide Field Infrared Survey Satellite or WFIRST, which is America’s major space telescope after the Hubble Space Telescope, now nearing the end of its operational life, and the James Webb Space Telescope, which is slated for launch in 2020. Word of Canada’s non-involvement in WFIRST circulated at last week’s annual meeting of the Canadian Astronomical Society in Victoria, but has not yet appeared in the media.

While Canada was not a partner in Hubble, it is taking a prominent role in the Webb telescope, and many Canadian astronomers and contractors hoped that Canada would also participate in WFIRST. Although the Trump administration announced that it would not support WFIRST, Congress responded by continuing funding for WFIRST as American scientists indicated their strong support for this space telescope. 

Fortunately, there is another option for those who want Canada to stay in the forefront of space astronomy in the coming years. Canadian astronomers have been promoting a Canadian-led space telescope known as CASTOR, the Cosmological Advanced Survey Telescope for Optical and ultraviolet Research. 

The CSA is currently conducting a study of CASTOR, which would fill a hole in space astronomy that will be created when Hubble and its ultraviolet capabilities cease operations. The Webb telescope and others on the drawing board are planned to conduct infrared observations, leaving ultraviolet astronomers without an instrument.

If the Liberal government wants to reverse its neglect of Canadian space industry and Canadian space science, going ahead with CASTOR is a good place to start. CASTOR promises new work for Canadian space contractors and prominence for Canadian science.

A new space strategy for Canada needs to address questions like the future of Canadian remote sensing capabilities beyond Radarsat Constellation, and plans for Canadian astronauts beyond David Saint-Jaques' flight to the International Space Station later this year. 

Canada's space program is small compared to those of other advanced nations, and shrinking. The Trudeau government is running out of time in this mandate to reverse the damage to Canada's space program caused by years of neglect, and realize the hopes of those in the space industry who supported the Liberals in 2015. 

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Book Review: The Canadian Space Program

The Canadian Space Program: From Black Brant to the International Space Station 
By Andrew B. Godefroy 
Springer Praxis Books: 2017
ISBN: 978-3-319-40104-1

This book review originally appeared in Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly, 25:1 (2018). 
Until Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield lit up social media during his time as Commander of the International Space Station in 2013, many people and even some Canadians did not know there was such a thing as a Canadian space program.

In reality, Canada’s space activities go back many years and feature many colorful and sometimes controversial events, including leadership in establishing communications satellite technologies and the most serious attempt so far to use cannons as a means of launching satellites.

Andrew Godefroy, a military analyst and historian based at the Canadian Defence Academy in Kingston, Ontario, established himself as the leading historian of Canada’s space program with his 2011 book, Defence & Discovery: Canada's Military Space Program, 1945-1974 (UBC Press), which outlined the military roots of Canada’s space activities.

 Now Godefroy has written the most comprehensive history of Canada’s space program, going back as far as the early studies and agencies that began during World War I and expanded in the years that followed. Following World War II, Canadian physicists associated with the Department of National Defence worked to better understand the ionosphere and its impact on radio communications in Canada’s north.

 This scientific work led to Canada’s first satellite, Alouette, which NASA launched in 1962 to add to our knowledge of the ionosphere, and it was followed by a second Alouette satellite and two satellites in the International Satellites for Ionospheric Studies (ISIS) program.

Other defense programs led to the creation of the Black Brant sounding rocket, which was later successfully commercialized, and to the short-lived attempt to turn a cannon into a space launcher.

In the 1960s, the Canadian government’s main interest in space turned to communications satellites, and while Canadian space efforts were fragmented under different departments and agencies, John H. Chapman, a physicist with a background in defense work, assumed leadership of Canada’s evolving space program. Godefroy’s treatment of these early years of Canadian space exploration is the centrepiece of the book.

While the Canadian government turned the development of Canada’s communication satellite infrastructure over to Telesat Canada and the private sector in the 1970s, Godefroy’s account of this time emphasizes the Canadian government’s actions that led to Canada’s participation in the U.S. Space Shuttle Program. Starting with the development of the Space Shuttle Remote Manipulator System or Canadarm.

 The Canadian Space Program then chronicles the events that led to the creation of the Canadian Astronaut Program in 1983, and then the long awaited establishment of the Canadian Space Agency in 1989.

 Starting with Marc Garneau in 1984, eight Canadian astronauts flew into space during the life of the Space Shuttle program, six of them more than once. Godefroy’s book covers these flights through Julie Payette’s second shuttle flight to the International Space Station in 2009, which coincided with Robert Thirsk’s first Canadian long duration mission on the ISS. Canada earned its way into the ISS with its contribution of the Mobile Servicing System, an advanced version of the Canadarm.

This book explains how Canadian government policy directed and sometimes hindered Canada’s many space accomplishments, many of which depended on cooperation with the United States and other spacefaring nations.

Godefroy acknowledges that “there is much to be learned about the history of Canada’s space program,” and he calls this book a first step that he hopes will be followed by others on this topic. As someone who follows Canadian space history, I hope that some of those books will come from Godefroy himself.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The 2017 Total Solar Eclipse

Totality during the 2017 Solar Eclipse as seen from Madras, Oregon. Note the prominences inside the Corona. Audrey McClellan Photo.
The Great American Eclipse of August 21, 2017, is over, and most people who made their way to the narrow band of totality that extended across the United States from Oregon to South Carolina were rewarded with a clear view of a memorable total solar eclipse.

I travelled nearly 400 miles in each direction by car and ferry from my home in Greater Victoria to Madras, a town of about 7,000 people in the desert of central Oregon, to see this celestial spectacle. Tens of thousands of other people also descended on Madras, including friends from across Canada and around the U.S. The group I watched the eclipse with included David Levy, the co-discoverer of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, and his wife Wendee. 

One of Madras’ big draws was its probability of good weather. That promise held true on August 21, but it was a closer thing than most expected. Smoke from nearby forest fires darkened skies just a few miles away from Madras during the eclipse. And though the weather in Madras was generally clear around eclipse day, clouds filled the sky just two days later. 

Madras also drew many revellers to the Oregon Solarfest held at the town’s Exhibition Grounds. A major New Age encampment widely compared to Burning Man took place not too far away in Prineville, Oregon.

Madras also attracted many members of the news media. I was interviewed by CBC Los Angeles Bureau Chief Kim Brunhuber, who wrote a great article about the scene in Madras on the eve of the eclipse and broadcast my recollections of the 1979 total solar eclipse, the only one I had previously seen. "Somebody has pied the sun!" I  said of that long ago eclipse. "It looked like somebody had stuck a pie plate in it."

Watching the partial phase of the eclipse in Madras, Oregon. Chris Gainor Photo.

Looking at a fully eclipsed Sun in person is different from any image of such an event because of the brilliant nature of the light coming from the Sun’s corona. During the 1979 eclipse, which I saw in Manitoba on a cold February day, the luminous white corona surrounding the blacked out Sun reminded me of cream from a freshly thrown pie.

This time, I got a different impression of totality. During the two minutes when we could look at the eclipsed Sun without any filters or protection and view its corona, I had the more conventional feeling that I was looking at a ring of fire. The corona appeared to have a hint of yellow, perhaps an artifact of the smoke in the air around Madras. None of the photos that I or anyone else took showed that colour, though.

Like many other observers, in 1979 I focused on the Baily’s beads and the Diamond Ring effects that mark the beginning and end of totality. This time I paid more attention to the dramatic and sudden arrival of the Moon’s shadow that darkens the landscape and the sky and lowers the temperature, followed by its equally dramatic departure at the end of totality.

Something both total eclipses had in common: the period of totality flew by too quickly. In the short time of totality, there is so much going on in every direction that it is nearly impossible to take everything in.

While it is fun to look through filters as the Moon moves across the face of the Sun during the partial phases, it is difficult to explain what an incredible sight totality is. For that brief period, you can just look up with your naked eyes and take in the strange sight of the solar corona and the dark sky around it. Venus and other planets are briefly visible. The corona's brightness usually and misleadingly appears in photos to be wispy. It is a whole different thing in person. That's why people travel hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles at great expense to experience totality.

I am not an especially skilled astrophotographer, so I spent most of the two minutes of totality just enjoying the sights and sensations. My wife Audrey McClellan, on her first venture into astrophotography, got some excellent photos of the partial phases and totality, far better than anything I’ve ever got.

While the crowds in Madras and other places in the band of totality were not as large as some people hoped or feared, they were still huge. Many local residents set up encampments on their land for last minute arrivals. We stayed 30 miles from Madras, and the drive back to our hotel took four long hours. 

At the Oregon Solarfest in Madras. Mary-Clare Carder Photo.

Though large numbers of people in the U.S. and Canada were interested in the eclipse, many were quite content to see a partial eclipse and stayed home. Many of my fellow members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada who were unable to go to the U.S. for the eclipse wound up helping out at public events where large crowds of people waited to see the partial eclipse through properly equipped telescopes and scarce eclipse glasses.

Back home in Victoria, the usual group of volunteers was depleted because so many of us were in the U.S. Those Victoria volunteers had to cope with crowds of hundreds of people who turned up at the Royal B.C. Museum, Mount Tolmie in Saanich, and the Metchosin Cricket pitch. I salute all those volunteers for their great work.

Other people just arranged impromptu eclipse viewing events around greater Victoria. I was also pleased to see that B.C. Premier John Horgan stepped outside of his legislative office for a look at the eclipse.

Smith Rock, Oregon, a favourite spot for rock climbers. Chris Gainor Photo.

Those who stayed home also missed out on the fascinating sights that come along with travel. On our trip to Madras, I enjoyed visiting central Oregon, where the attractions include Smith Rock and the Cove Palisades State Park, along with the High Desert Museum in Bend. Like many people I know the coast of Oregon, and I probably would have missed the lesser known features of Oregon's interior had it not been for the eclipse.

The next total solar eclipse in North America will take place on April 24, 2024, and its path of totality includes parts of Eastern Canada. I’m already thinking about where best to see that eclipse.

Kim Brunhuber’s article about Madras:

My blog entry on the 1979 eclipse:

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

In Quest of New Views of Spaceflight History

This week, a new film about the U.S. space program, "Hidden Figures," is opening in theatres around North America. The film tells the story of the female "human computers" who did the number crunching necessary to keep the first U.S. astronauts on their correct courses since even the most powerful computing machines at that time were not up to the demands of space travel.

"Hidden Figures" focuses on the story of three African American women who made major contributions to the success of America’s first astronaut flights. Like most Hollywood films, "Hidden Figures" often departs from the truth for dramatic effect, but the basic facts behind the film are correct. In at least one scene, "Hidden Figures" invites comparison between these poorly paid and anonymous African American women and the famous white male astronauts who were immortalized in the 1983 film, "The Right Stuff."

People like Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race,” have taken us beyond the experiences of the high-profile astronauts and flight controllers to tell the stories of lower profile and more marginalized people who made previously unsung contributions to humanity’s move into space. 

"Hidden Figures," like the book that inspired it, shows that we now look at the history of space exploration differently from the way we did back in 1983 or in the 1960s. 

The emergence of stories like this is only one change to the history of space exploration in recent years. Even before the Cold War ended 25 years ago, the previously inaccessible archives of the Soviet government and space program opened up and changed our understanding of what the Soviets did in the space race of the 1950s and 1960s. That and other changes have caused us to reconsider many ideas about the development of the U.S. space program, something I have been working on in my time as an historian of technology.

The early histories of space exploration were written by promoters of spaceflight, and they concentrated on particular artifacts such as rockets or spacecraft. Today new perspectives - including highly critical views of spaceflight - are being reflected in recent histories, and the social forces that affect technologies and many other things are considered in these histories.

The death of John Glenn last month completed the passing of the first group of U.S. astronauts. This year will mark 60 years since the launch of Sputnik opened up the move into space. The events of those early days are moving beyond living memory at the same time as a new generation with its own perspectives starts to put its own slant on space history.

In 2016 I added to my own historical work when I took on a new job as editor of Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly. Quest was started 25 years ago, and is the only peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the history of space exploration. I have subscribed to Quest since the beginning, and I have contributed several historical articles and book reviews over the past 20 years.

As editor of Quest, I am searching for historical articles about space exploration, and I hope to encourage new people who want to work in this field just as the three previous Quest editors helped me find my way as an historian.

I also hope that Quest will continue to grow with provocative and ground-breaking articles and reviews that help explain the whys and hows of humanity’s first tentative steps beyond our home planet. The most recent issue of Quest, for example, contains two articles by newcomers to the field of spaceflight history, one from a professor of journalism and another from a student of visual design.

I’m proud to facilitate the dissemination new perspectives on history, and I look forward to what is coming up in future issues. I don’t know if any work in Quest will lead to a movie, but I’m sure it will be interesting just the same. 

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Dr. David Strangway's Work in Lunar Exploration

Dr. David Strangway in 2011 (CTBTO - Flickr)
Dr. David Strangway, who is well known as a leader in Canada’s advanced education system, died this week at age 82. Dr. Strangway first gained notoriety for his scientific work on lunar samples from the Apollo expeditions to the Moon.  

 I interviewed Dr. Strangway in February 1996 and wrote about him in my first book, Arrows to the Moon. The following is based on that interview:

Although several Canadian scientists worked on lunar samples, most of them with the Geological Survey of Canada, the best-known of their number was David Strangway, a native of Simcoe, Ontario. Aged 35 when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon in 1969, Strangway was a professor of physics at his alma mater, the University of Toronto, after work at the University of Colorado in Boulder and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As an expert on the magnetic properties of lunar samples, Strangway became well known to Canadians watching and reading media coverage of the first lunar landings. In 1970 he moved to NASA and became chief of the geophysics branch at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, where he was involved in selecting experiments and landing sites, handling lunar samples and training astronauts for upcoming Apollo missions.

During lunar landing missions, Strangway worked in the scientific backroom next to the mission control center, and he was principal investigator on an electromagnetic sounding experiment flown aboard the Apollo 17 service module. After Apollo ended, he returned to the U of T in 1973, and he eventually became acting university president. From 1985 to 1997, he was president of the University of British Columbia, and he later served as president of the Canada Foundation for Innovation and founded Quest University in Squamish, B.C.

“My particular interest in the lunar samples had to do with two major areas,” Strangway told me in an interview in 1996. “One of them was the magnetic properties of the lunar materials, and the other had to do with the measurement of the electrical properties of the lunar materials. You can use magnetism to determine the composition of the metallic materials that are in the samples, such as iron. The other thing you can do is reconstruct ancient magnetic fields. So we were very interested in reconstructing the magnetic field at the time those lunar samples were formed.”

The pure metallic iron found in lunar samples differs from iron found naturally on Earth, which is usually compounded with oxygen, as in rust. “The second thing we found in terms of the magnetic fields and the preservation of them, was that there were very clear indications that they were very weak. There were indeed significant magnetic fields present in the lunar materials. The Moon was formed about 4.5 or 4.6 billion years ago. What we found where we had samples of 3.3 billion or 4 billion years of age, they still had a significant memory of some magnetic field that we believe must have existed at that time. So that tells us that unlike today, when there is no magnetic field on the Moon of any significance, that during that period of the Moon’s evolution, there was a magnetic field or possibly there was even a small core causing a small magnetic field.”

The lighter areas of the Moon, known as the highlands, were formed about 4 billion years ago, and most of the rocks there are breccias, created from the impacts that left the Moon covered by craters, Strangway said. The darker parts of the Moon, known as seas, appeared between 3 and 4 billion years ago and are made up of volcanic basalts.

At NASA, Strangway was involved in organizing many geological field trips for Apollo crews to various parts of the U.S. and some foreign sites. “We asked [the astronauts], ‘What would you sample, what would you pick up, what photographs would you take, what choices would you make to describe the nature of the [formation]?’ There were other trips that we went on, craters in Nevada and other places, trying to understand the dynamics of what happened in the cratering process. What kinds of samples should be taken, what features should be looked for, observations that should be made so that people could understand the nature of that crater.”

The last three expeditions to the Moon, Apollos 15, 16 and 17, were aimed at obtaining as much scientific information as possible, and the astronauts were equipped with Lunar Roving Vehicles for their exploration work. Strangway recalled simulations involving astronauts driving an Earthbound version of the lunar rover across a simulated Moonscape, while scientists watched by television from their backroom in Houston.

“They would be down there running a mockup of the lunar rover around, and the medical guys said we have 10 more minutes of science. What do you want to do in that time? So there were all kinds of simulations of that kind, which were very interesting exercises and actually forced you to look at your priorities and to think of what you wanted to do in that mission, so that you could get the maximum return after whatever crisis came up. What it did was force us to deal with the competing interests, the physicists, the chemists, the geologists, the astronomers, all of these people who wanted the maximum information return. What it really did was force us to exercise our minds as to what was really important. I think it had a real impact on the actual design and the actual layout of what happened in the missions.”

The results from Apollo’s research into lunar history have taught scientists a great deal about the early history of the Earth as well as that of the Moon, according to Strangway. Before Apollo, the Earth’s early history was obscured because of the Earth’s atmosphere and the forces that continue to change the Earth’s surface, he said. “The lunar samples that are 3 or 4 billion years old look as fresh as lavas that came out last week on the Earth. They are absolutely unaltered from the point of view of their chemical composition.

“What became very clear is that the rate of impacts taking place in the solar system was very non-uniform. It was very high up until 4 billion years ago, then slowed down immensely between 4 and 3.3 billion years ago. What this suggests is if you look at the period between the formation of the solar system, 4.6 billion years ago, and then the end of this most intense period of bombardment, 4 billion years ago, the solar system itself probably underwent an intense set of bombardment activity. And therefore, there was a whole piece of the Earth’s history that was probably the same as the early history of the Moon, but there’s no surface left of that age anymore, so we didn’t even know about that. We learned a lot about the Earth’s early history in a way that we hadn’t been able to record.”

Apollo 16 astronaut John Young doing geological fieldwork on the Moon, April 1972 (NASA)