Apollo's 50th Anniversary: Ivo and Baerbel Lucchitta

Jul 16, 2019

This week we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. Everyone who walked on the moon first trained in Flagstaff. We’re hearing stories from the people who worked to make it happen. NASA estimates it took more than four hundred thousand people to get Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon. Baerbel and Ivo Lucchitta were two of them. A husband-and-wife team in Flagstaff, Ivo taught geology to astronauts at places like Sunset Crater and Meteor Crater, while Baerbel made detailed maps of the moon. As young scientists they’d studied the geology of Earth, but were swept up into the Space Age after hearing the unmistakable sound of Sputnik, the first satellite in space.

Baerbel Lucchitta on Grover, 1972
Credit U.S. Geological Survey

IVO: I was a sophomore at Caltech and I was walking across campus from one building to another, and they had these loudspeakers making this funny sound. I realized that a watershed in human history.  

BAERBEL: It never occurred to us to do planetary geology. In other words, neither one of us was one of these people that was aiming all their lives to work on this kind of stuff. We just sort of slid into it.

Ivo Lucchitta, center
Credit U.S. Geological Survey

IVO: We came here in October 1966…. In my outfit we were all terrestrial geologists…. When the actual astronauts were coming out here, wandering around describing things, somebody was nearby—one of us geologists—and you would sort of evaluate how they were doing things. Were they doing things well or not well? And if they were not describing very well, we would try and tell them, okay, why don’t you try describing this this way? That improved things quite a bit. It was sort of practical training.

BAERRBEL: At the time when Ivo was heavily involved with astronaut training, I was busy making lunar maps. Drawing circles. The base maps were not photographs. They were these airbrushed maps that made things look much prettier. But they weren’t always exactly the same as the photographs, so you had to guesstimate where it was and you did a lot of line drawing, and since there were a lot of craters on the moon, you did a lot of circle drawing….In the beginning I didn’t like working on lunar stuff, because it was craters and craters and craters, and to me they weren’t all that interesting. But once you dig into a subject, it becomes interesting.   

IVO: And that’s why Flagstaff was such a good place, because you would go and look: what features does a volcanic crater have in detail? What feature does an impact crater have in detail? That gave us the means of providing the astronauts with some criteria, things to look for on the moon, to decide: which is it? One or the other? So that was another program we had hear called analog studies.

BAERBEL: The astronauts had to know what they were up against. They carried maps with them which were the traveler’s maps that told them exactly where to go, here, there, and everywhere. But in order to interpret what they see, they had to some kind of a background. The background is where the geology comes in. 

IVO: When the word came that they had landed, it was a remarkable moment. For two reasons at least: one was we realized we were witnessing a unique moment in human history, when humans finally managed to go to another planet, but then also because they were down there, they had landed, and chances were very good they’d get out there and do some field work. So we felt all this work is finally going to pay off. With regard to Apollo, the Apollo program, that was my significant moment. 

Tomorrow in our weeklong series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, we hear from Carolyn Shoemaker and Gerald Schaber about the start of Flagstaff’s astrogeology program. Today’s audio postcard was produced by KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny.