To the moon & back


POSTED: Monday, July 20, 2009

As America marks the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing today, scientists and longtime Hawaii residents recall the important roles that the isles played in the Apollo program.

University of Hawaii geoscientist Jeff Taylor said Apollo astronauts gained valuable experience training throughout Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and on Mauna Kea in an area now known as Apollo Valley.

“;Astronauts came out here with geologists and studied different volcanic settings to understand earth science,”; said Taylor, a professor of planetary geosciences at the UH Institute of Geophysics and Planetology. “;They didn't know what they were going to expect when they got to the moon, so they studied volcanology.”;

On its return to Earth, the Apollo capsule splashed down in the Pacific, and the astronauts' first landfall was on Oahu.

“;Hawaii was central to the recovery of the Apollo 11 spacecraft,”; said Roger Launius, senior curator for space history at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., by e-mail.

Carrying Neil Armstrong, Edwin “;Buzz”; Aldrin and Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 re-entry capsule landed some 800 miles southwest of Hawaii on July 24, 1969, and was brought into Pearl Harbor by the Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet.

A heroes' welcome awaited the first men to set foot on another celestial body.

“;Unquestionably, this event will stand as a truly historic moment in ... man's eternal quest for knowledge about the universe around him and his own origin and destiny,”; said Gov. John A. Burns, who spoke aboard the Hornet.

Many local residents remember precisely where they were when Armstrong uttered his timeless, if muddled, remarks: “;That's one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind.”;

Like many people across the globe, Mrs. Lawrence M. Judd of Maunalani Heights was captivated by the success of the moon landing, calling it “;the most exciting thing in the world,”; according to a Star-Bulletin article.

Fred Duennebier, a geophysics professor at UH's School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, said he was at NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston when he watched the Apollo 11 crew land on the moon. With him was the late George Sutton, a former UH professor.

“;Very exciting times,”; Duennebier said. “;We watched the Apollo 11 landing in Building 30 ... in an auditorium where they had set up a 14-inch TV set on the stage.”;

Sutton, a member of the Apollo Lunar Seismology team, designed seismometers for the moon that recorded ground movements and studied data from almost every Apollo mission.

Later, for Apollo 17, astronauts trained with the Lunar Roving Vehicle, a glorified dune buggy, on the Big Island.

“;We chose several locations on the island to represent geological situations similar to those the crew might encounter on the Moon,”; wrote former NASA hand Donald A. Beattie in his 2001 book, “;Taking Science to the Moon: Lunar Experiments and the Apollo Program.”;

“;The final three days were spent at Kahuku, Hualalai, and the volcanic ash wastelands at the crest of Mauna Kea (elevation 13,796 feet), chosen to represent what astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmidt might find at their designated lunar landing site, the Taurus-Littrow Valley,”; Beattie wrote.

Apollo 17 brought the manned moon program to a close in 1972.

But there is no question that it ushered in a new age of space exploration and generated renewed interest from the scientific community that has led to numerous space expeditions.

“;There's a compelling reason for society to go back to the moon,”; said Armstrong during a NASA press conference on the mission's 30th anniversary in 1999. “;That case will not be made by me or any of us here, actually. It's being made by scientists and technologists around the world who are developing increasingly better reasons to go back.”;