The University of Arizona Displays Its Role in Apollo 11's 'Giant Leap'

Ford Burkhart,

For a solid week in July, the University of Arizona’s Moonfest celebrated its crucial role in NASA’s Apollo 11 moon landing 50 years ago.

The crowds included wide-eyed children just learning of those events that marked the UA’s arrival at the pinnacle of planetary science. And UA space scientists made sure every child, as young as 5 or 6, could do things to start learning space science.

During Moonfest, thousands packed halls for lectures and videos. Youngsters clutched strings on moon balloons. Kids made moon models as grad students explained why the moon has craters (The reason? The moon has no atmosphere to burn up descending space rocks). And experts recalled how NASA looked to the UA to learn exactly where to bring the small spacecraft called the Eagle safely down to the lunar surface on July 20, 1969.

Alongside names like Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, the first moon walkers, the UA honored its own many lunar science heroes.

“This is a great day,” said Robert Strom, a pioneer at the LPL, as the UA’s legendary Lunar and Planetary Lab is known. “It’s the 50th anniversary of one of the landmarks in human history: the moment when the first human set foot on another celestial body.”  Strom came to LPL in 1963, not long after President John F. Kennedy set a goal of walking on the moon in that decade.

William K. Hartmann, one of the first grad students at the LPL and now a noted planetary scientist, recounted the history of the late 1950s and 1960s when the Russians sent up Sputnik and the University of Arizona shifted into high gear. “It was a B plus astronomy school that set out to be A plus,” he said. And it did just that, hiring Gerard Kuiper, the noted Dutch astronomer, who assembled the team that created moon maps that guided the Apollo 11 to its landing area on that July day in 1969.

Moonfest was like a county fair, one of the grandest such moments ever for UA space science. The sites along the mall included the Flandrau (officially the Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium), the Kuiper Space Sciences Building, and the Special Collections gallery at the library, along with the stunning Caris Mirror Laboratory under the football stadium where visitors watched a giant telescope mirror being built.

The dozens of videos of the Apollo 11 astronauts also recalled the UA’s own astronaut corps, 6 in all including Dick Scobee who received his B.S. in aerospace engineering at the UA in 1965, and died in 1986 while commanding the Challenger. The others were Woody Spring; Tom Jones; Don Pettit; Joe Acaba; and Fernando Caldeiro. You can read their stories at

Special Collections showed off some of the UA’s prizes, books, printed as early as 1543, from the days of Galileo and Copernicus, and Kuiper’s original, never-before-shown images of the moon’s surface, projected on a round surface matching that of the moon.  In 1963, the UA Press published Kuiper’s “Rectified Lunar Atlas,” which showed for the first time undistorted images of lunar features.

One speaker, Christopher Cokinos, associate professor of English, said his moon studies here have “given me a whole new level of appreciation for the pioneering role that this university played in the modern scientific understanding of the Moon.”

Moonfest showed the spinoff benefits outside of astronomy from the UA’s five decades of space research. For example, Gene Giacomelli, of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, or CEAC, on North Campbell Avenue, offered tables of food that could grow on the moon — including special greenhouse tomatoes whose stems could be ground up to form a substrate in which a space station could grow oyster mushrooms. He showed Red Romaine lettuce seedlings growing in rockwool, a basalt product made from rocks.

The UA space horizons keep expanding. Moonfest showed how the UA is imaging Mars and Saturn’s moon, and is mapping the asteroid Bennu to pick an ideal site for the OSIRIS REx spacecraft to collect a sample that may reveal the origins of life itself.

More “giant leaps” are almost certain.