Apollo 12: How a Passionate Scientist's Keen Eye Led to the First Pinpoint Moon Landing 50 Years Ago

Space.com | 11/14/1969 | Timothy Swindle
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This article was originally published at The Conversation. The publication contributed the article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

When Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, it was a giant leap for mankind and a huge success for American engineering, but there was one aspect of the mission that hadn't really gone as planned. When Neil Armstrong manually guided the lunar module to a safe touchdown, he had to override the computer which had the craft landing in a field of boulders. It left the demonstration of precision automated guidance to Apollo 12.

Years - Month - Apollo - Meters - Target

Fifty years ago this month, Apollo 12 successfully landed within a few hundred meters of its target, 400,000 kilometers (248,500 miles) away from where it lifted off. A key figure responsible for that precision landing was an unassuming Englishman living in the Arizona desert, Ewen Whitaker. Without the aid of computers or GPS, but with patience and an exhaustive knowledge of the geography of the Moon, Whitaker pinpointed where a robotic spacecraft had landed two years earlier.

As a scientist interested in the chronology of events on the Moon, I ultimately found myself analyzing rocks that had been brought back from the Moon by Apollo 12, working in a laboratory that Whitaker had helped establish. And even though Whitaker retired within months of my arrival in Tucson, it was a delight to get to know him and learn the stories of his quiet heroics.

Whitaker - Moon - Scientist - Gerard - Kuiper

Whitaker had long been fascinated by the Moon, and when pioneering planetary scientist Gerard Kuiper put out a request for collaborators at an international astronomical gathering in Dublin in 1956, Whitaker was the only one who responded. He went to join Kuiper at Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, then accompanied the group when it relocated to the University of Arizona and founded the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

As...
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