Amherst, Mass. - Geoscientist and lunar expert Don Wise’s pocket diary for July 16, 1969, records his impressions – “calm expectation” and “not the intensity you might expect” – among NASA scientists as they counted down the final 20 minutes before the Apollo 11 mission blasted off for the moon 50 years ago this week.
Wise, 38 at the time and now a professor emeritus at UMass Amherst, was deputy director and chief scientist for NASA’s Manned Apollo Landing (MAL) team, with a “ringside seat” as he recalls, to the drama of the first lunar landing. His small scientific team of geoscientists was charged with selecting target landing sites for the Apollo crew’s mission. It had to have good radio contact, be close to the equator for orbital considerations, and “the flattest, smoothest, blandest terrain that no geologist would ever want to go to,” he quips, for the landing craft’s safety.
After many reconnaissance missions by moon-orbiting satellites took hundreds of images of possible target locations, “we zeroed in on a site,” Wise says, “and that’s where they did land.” His 50-year-old diary says, “The fact that this is probably the most significant milestone of the century is floating in the air.” But he now stresses that his team’s role in the achievement was “a very small part of a huge effort” by hundreds of other scientists over many months and years. “I don’t want to give the impression that we were that important,” he says. “But we did our jobs.”