For Professor Olivia Jensen on the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing

Photo courtesy of NASA
Photo courtesy of NASA

By McGill Reporter staff

It has been called the greatest technological achievement of all time and a seminal moment in human history. On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong disembarked from the Lunar Module and took his “great leap for mankind” on the moon by becoming the first person to ever set foot on another celestial body. Like many people, Dr. Olivia Jensen was transfixed by the events that day. A PhD candidate at the time, Jensen is a professor of Geophysics at McGill’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the mission, the McGill Reporter asked Dr. Jensen four burning questions about what Apollo 11 has meant for her.

1. What do you remember about July 20, 1969? Was the lunar landing something that was important to you and your friends and family?

I was then 26 years old and half-way through my Ph.D. in seismology at UBC. Apollo 8 and 10 had successfully orbited the Moon in December of 1968 and May of 1969 and so there was some expectation that this next step, the lunar landing and return, would be successful too. I was a graduate student, then, in the Department of Geophysics and Astronomy and the Moon was our academic “territory.” The astronauts were to deploy seismographs on the surface, laser retroreflectors to measure the varying distance to the Moon, drill some shallow holes for a heat-flow measurement and return rock and soil (regolith is the better term) from the Moon. This was geophysics. Actually, for my M.Sc. degree, I worked with a colleague, Robert Meldrum under the supervision of R.D. Russell on the development of a feedback seismograph system that could have been deployed on the Moon. Our development was so delayed, though, that another design was chosen. The seismographs deployed did perform magnificently and returned what is the only real view of the Moon’s interior structure and moonquake activity.

It was an extremely important event to us. My parents had a colour TV which was somewhat new at the time and so I watched the landing there with them and a couple of friends from school. We started watching well before the landing, before noon on the 20th and watched right through to about midnight (almost 4 hours after Armstrong’s first step onto the Moon). These times are PDT rather than EDT, hence the 3 hours difference.

We were absolutely amazed though somewhat disappointed by the images obtained live during the EVA. Later missions provided much more detail and eventually live colour images. We do have colour images that were returned from these first steps on the surface but they were not returned live to TV.

We can all recall Walter Cronkite’s reportage. He was on for 12 or 14 hours that day.

2. We know quite a bit more about the solar system now than we did 40 years ago. Can you give us some context of what people’s impressions of “outer space” and the moon were in 1969?

By 1969, we had already learned much about the Moon. The Soviets had photographed the back side of the Moon earlier in the decade. We had robotic landers already on the Moon. Later in November, Apollo 12,  landed so close to Surveyor 3 that pieces were collected from it that showed that bacterial spores could live for years within the insulation materials on the Moon’s surface. By July 20, we already had a pretty good idea about what the surface of the Moon would be like. We didn’t expect deep dust fields (We wouldn’t have chanced a landing if the Lunar Lander would have sunk into dust.) and we didn’t expect a difficult landing on the relatively flat Sea of Tranquility. That is, we expected that the Lander could set down on a surface flat enough that the return module could relaunch to join the Lunar Orbiter.

There was, by July 20, trust that NASA had its act together and would succeed in this mission.

3. How did what you saw that day affect you personally? Were you inspired? Did it have a big impact on the education and career paths you later followed?

I had already committed myself to becoming a geophysicist who would study the physics of the Earth and planets. That had been driven by the very successful global scientific project called the “International Geophysical Year” in 1958. The Soviets had launched Sputnik and the US Army, following the failures of the Navy’s Vanguard launches in late 1957, had successfully launched Explorer 1. The Van Allen radiation belts around the Earth were discovered by this satellite. By late 1962 (I think I have the date about right.) Canada’s first satellite had been launched for us by the new NASA – Alouette.  It was designed to sound to the top of the ionosphere. This was a clearly geophysical (aeronomy/magnetism) satellite and some of my graduate student colleagues were working on the data retrieved by this satellite. There was an incredible rush of new knowledge into geophysics and space science through the 1960s. We were learning more, faster than ever before and possibly ever since.

4. Looking back now, what was the real impact of the Apollo 11 mission? Was it as giant a leap for mankind as we were told it was?

I regard it as the most remarkable demonstration of human technical ingenuity and commitment so far in our history. I don’t think it will be “easy” with our current technology and social structure to repeat it. I don’t think it will be a “given” that we can successfully return to the surface of the Moon. Why I think it may not be possible to repeat this success is that that project required the unequivocal commitment to success by thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians along with the political will to make the project succeed. I teach students today and find very few, if any at all, who would seem to be open to the necessary commitment to this project. There are students who are equivalently committed to other projects like, for example, Medecins Sans Frontieres. But I don’t see students or mature engineers or technicians – there are some aging scientists who do but then the project requires engineering and political commitment beyond science – committing to a decade of intense work that would be necessary to success. I don’t see many engineers whose goal is to make such an engineering statement as the Apollo project was; I see students who are chasing the financial rewards of careers. Our society has changed. It has become remarkably more individually greedy. The attitude of “We can do it!” is lost, I think. I think it is replaced by “I can make it!” where making it is no deeper than a house in Westmount and a Mercedes Benz.

The 1960s were, in my opinion, a remarkably and innocently, perhaps, idealistic period in human history and everyone was idealistically affected. Engineers were idealists; scientists were and some still are. There was political idealism, left and right, that has not been recovered. The politics, and one might see the political drive for Apollo as a rightist politic, merged with the idealism of the engineers and scientists and the youth of the land who were largely political opposed to most pieces of the rightist agenda – the war focusing the opposition. Still, showing the Soviets that the technical power of the US was superior to theirs – this being the real goal of Apollo – joined the spectrum in common cause. I don’t think it can be done again.