Moon Atlas

25 July 2014 by Susan E. Swanberg, posted in Blog Posts


Desert Moon

Credit: Photograph by Susan E. Swanberg, from a poster by Flaudrau Science Center, Tucson, Arizona. 

I remember my father pointing skyward and saying, "There goes Sputnik." Following his gaze, I saw a small dot, winking and blinking as it crossed the darkened skies. Could I really have seen Sputnik that long-ago evening in Framingham, Massachusetts?


Sputnik Credit: Public domain courtesy of NASA

When I viewed Jason Davis’ new documentary Desert Moon in July of 2014, I was reminded of that long-ago vigil and how Sputnik sparked a space race between the US and the then Soviet Union. Desert Moon is a film about the University of Arizona's contribution to the first manned moon landing.

The race to the moon was well underway when US scientists realized they needed a lunar map adequate to guide the landing of a lunar expedition.

For all we knew, the surface of the moon was made of that mythical green cheese. A more scientific hypothesis was that the surface of the moon had a layer of dust so deep that it would quickly swallow any craft or creature attempting a landing. Clearly mapping the moon was a priority.

Waiting in the wings was Gerard Kuiper, a renowned planetary scientist who moved to Tucson to take advantage of Arizona's dark skies and clean air. Kuiper had already created one photographic lunar map at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory. He was well-poised to make the maps NASA needed for a successful lunar landing.

Amateur astronomer enjoys Tucson, Arizona's dark skies.

Amateur astronomer, Darlene Sims, enjoys Tucson, Arizona's dark skies. Credit: Susan E. Swanberg

Kuiper, born in the Netherlands in 1905 and educated at Leiden University, came to the United States in 1933 and became a naturalized US citizen in 1937. In 1960 Kuiper founded the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. There Kuiper focused on the solar system at a time when most astronomers had their eyes on more distant, more exotic objects. The astronomy world had no idea how important planetary science would become.

With the help of a group of researchers he assembled at the UA, Kuiper orchestrated the production of a new, more complete photographic lunar atlas. Eventually Kuiper's team would produce three lunar atlases. Without Kuiper's efforts, the July 20, 1969 landing of Apollo 11 on the moon could not have occurred.

The filmmaker, Jason Davis, is a young science journalist who recently graduated from the University of Arizona. Davis' exquisite documentary describes with gravitas and humor, the story behind Kuiper's lunar atlas. Narrated by Captain Mark E. Kelly, retired astronaut, and co-produced by Shipherd Reed of the UA's Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium, this film deserves its own place in the annals of space history.

You can watch the trailer for Desert Moon (with Davis' narration) at: If you live near Tucson, Arizona, you can see the complete film (with Kelly's narration) at Flandrau Science Center.

And yes Virginia, if you were in the right place at the right time, you really could see Sputnik traversing the sky.


Disclosure: I attended journalism school at the University of Arizona with Jason Davis and have done background research for another Flandrau Science Center project.


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