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Thinking Your Way to the Moon and Back

A conversation with Dr. James Head III , a planetary geologist who worked on the Apollo missions.


Now Here This: Every February, Brown and RISD space nerds convene at Brown’s School of Engineering for the annual Space Horizons conference, where attendees get to listen to scientists, engineers, science fiction writers, and even astronauts discuss research and ideas on the cutting edge of space exploration. I’m one of those kids who exhausted my school library’s space science collection within a few years of learning how to read and then never stopped bothering my science teachers—and now professors—with questions about space. So when I heard one of the presenters mention that Brown professor Dr. James Head III worked on the Apollo missions to the Moon, a lightbulb went off in my head: maybe he’ll let me bother him with questions about space, too! And indeed, despite Dr. Head’s hefty workload from Brown, NASA, and other space agencies, he generously agreed to speak over Skype about his experiences working on the team that put humans on a previously unexplored planetary body.

Dr. Head: I can remember during Apollo 14 or 15, we were working with the astronauts while they were on the Moon after they landed. They were out on the surface collecting rocks and deploying experiments and then they went back to the Lunar Module and prepared to go to sleep for their sleep cycle. We took the time off for us to sleep too. I remember walking out of Mission Control in Houston. Mission Control has no windows ’cause it’s all wires. You don’t even know whether it was day or night. We walked out and it was night, and we both looked up at the sky and there was the Moon. It was unbelievable. We just realized, “Oh my god, we just put them to bed up there. Unbelievable.”

Now Here This: Just a few years before, Dr. Head had found himself in a position familiar to college students everywhere: he was about to complete his degree, and he needed a job.

Dr. Head: I looked in the College Placement Manual, which is a book of jobs, basically, and I looked at the index, and it said “geology: page 15–25,” and then there was page 42, so I was really interested in what that outlier was. I turned to that page and it was just simply a full-page picture of the Moon—an Earth-based telescopic view of the Moon, and it just said in bold letters, “Our job is to think our way to the Moon and back.” and I thought, “Oh my god, how do you do that?” So it just completely excited me and engaged me.

Now Here This: Dr. Head would soon have a chance to work on that question—NASA hired him while he was still a PhD student.

Dr. Head: I was working in geological training of the Apollo astronauts before they went to the Moon, site selection of the landing sites where they would land when they went to the Moon, and then traverse planning: what do you do when you get to the Moon? You know, you don’t just sit down and say, “Ok, we made it. Now what?” Ok, you want to go explore. That’s the reason you go to specific landing sites. During the missions we’d go watch the launch and send them to the Moon and then we’d go back to Houston and work in mission control while they were on the Moon, and then when they came back from the Moon we would debrief. We would sit down, go over all the data, unpack the rocks, and think about what it all meant.

Now Here This: As it turned out, part of “what it all meant” was new theories about the history not just of the Moon, but of the Earth as well.

Dr. Head: Although the focus was on the first person to land on the Moon and get returned safely, nonetheless, it wasn’t a one-trick pony. It was, like, we’re exploring the Moon, so we now know that the Moon formed from an impact of a Mars-sized object into early Earth, and the residue from that, the ejection, was what formed the Moon, and we know how it worked, so that it cast really great light on our formative years of Earth history. The Earth is so dynamic we can’t really understand our childhood because it’s been erased, and so now we know that, okay, and we have great insight into that.

Now Here This: Just how did astronauts gather the evidence that led NASA scientists to these new conclusions? In one case, we have Apollo 15 Mission Commander David Scott’s keen eye, and an atypical procedure to thank. During a routine trip on the lunar rover, Houston told Commander Scott and James Irwin, another astronaut, that they were running low on oxygen and should wrap up their work. At first, the astronauts’ response seemed completely normal.

Dr. Head: So they’re driving back and Dave Scott says, “Houston, Houston, I have a problem with my seatbelt. I’m going to stop and fix my seatbelt.” Turns out what he’d really done was looked over and seen this beautiful vesicular rock. And he knew that if he said, “Houston, I see a rock. I want to stop and pick it up,” they would have said, “No, get back to the Lunar Module.” So he said, “I have a problem with my seatbelt.” He got off, collected the rock, brought it back to the rover, put it in his pocket, documented it, and then got back on and said, “Ok, my seatbelt is good.” So all the scientists now call that the seatbelt basalt.   

Now Here This: Of course, in addition to a scientific expedition to gather rocks like the seatbelt basalt, Apollo was also responding to President Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the Moon and return him safely by the end of the decade—a Herculean task by any measure. And so I asked Dr. Head what made it possible for a group of scientists and engineers—many of whom were only in their twenties at the time—to accomplish such an ambitious mission.

Dr. Head: I think one of the really wonderful things about Apollo was that we had a goal, a national goal, so when Pres. Kennedy said we want to send humans to the Moon and return them safely by the end of the decade, that’s what attracted me: “How do we think our way to the Moon and back?” It’s like, oh my god, well, how do we do that? And there’s two parts to that equation. One of them is essentially pride and the other is prestige. When you do something, have a goal like that, the pride is, it’s not arrogance, it’s just wow, can we do this, can we really do this, what do we think of ourselves, how do we think of ourselves? And then prestige is wow, if we can pull this off, this would really be a demonstration of what we’re capable of doing, and I don’t mean in a nationalistic sense so much, but just simply what humans can do. And so I think what motivated us was “can we do it?” and then also wow, what are we accomplishing here, what’s the legacy, and how can we engage everybody in it, because it’s a real human endeavor to set foot on another planetary body and explore.

Now Here This: Despite the Cold War context of the Apollo program and in contrast to how the program is often remembered, for Dr. Head and many of his colleagues, Apollo was a national project but not one inspired by nationalism. Instead, it was the grandeur of a mission that proposed to expand the capacity and knowledge of all humankind that inspired Apollo scientists like Dr. Head to think their way to the Moon and back.

Dr. Head: And I think the other thing about Apollo is—and it’s not so easy to imagine in this day and age—but when you were working with a deadline like that, petty grievances and rivalries and things like that were just minimized. You didn’t have time for that kind of stuff. If somebody said, “Oh, such and such is a jerk,” somebody would tap their watch and say, “Hey, we’re launching next Tuesday. We don’t have time for that stuff.” And it’s all “Sorry. Yeah. Ok. Yeah, yeah. Yeah.” It was really, “What do you have to offer?” When we walked into a room for a meeting, everybody was heard. If you had something to say, it was your responsibility to say it. It wasn’t like, “Oh, only so and so had the word.” That kind of thing, you just get caught up in that and it’s really, you say why can’t we do this with other things. Of course we can, but we seem to be in a little bit more of a petty, ideological bickering mode of politics now, and it’s really not very productive at all, but maybe Apollo can provide a good example of what we can do if we work together.

Now Here This: When I asked Dr. Head what he wanted people to learn from Apollo—in addition to the science it enabled and the lessons about collaboration it offers—he boiled it down to a simple message:

Dr. Head: In a sense, science is really simple. People make it complicated as the Devil but it’s really simple. It’s just the exploration of the unknown. There’s so much out there that’s unknown, and scientists strive to find out those secrets and piece them together in a way that we can understand them. It’s not like, “Oh, can we afford this?” We cannot not afford it, okay?

Now Here This: So what’s the next unknown frontier for Dr. Head and his colleagues?

Dr. Head: I think I would like to have a more comprehensive view of Venus, for example, because we are in a position now where we can look below those clouds and see what is the most Earth-like planet in our solar system. If I could have two, that would be great, okay?

Now Here This: Sure, what would be the second?

Dr. Head: The second one would be just simply be a broad, more distant view of exoplanets. When I was a young graduate student, we didn’t think, most people didn’t think there were planets around other stars. I always felt that was very acosmic and terracentric, you know what I mean, it’s like, how can that be? Well of course, we’re special, everybody knows we’re special, but we’re really not. So we’ve discovered thousands and thousands and thousands of planets around other stars, and so I think that’s the new vista.

Now Here This: As Dr. Head and his colleagues explore that new vista, they’re finding that in other solar systems, Jupiter-like planets are closer to the sun than rocky planets—the opposite of what we have in our solar system.

Dr. Head: What’s the story there? That kind of says, wow, that’s a different mechanism of formation than we might think. So every new observation we make about a solar system is challenging our view about how our own solar system formed. That’s the next big field, is exoplanet research and taking what we’re learning about our solar system and understanding whether we’re unique—highly unlikely—or where we fit in that scheme. It’s pretty damn amazing.