Mapping the Moon

When we went on a road trip to a new place when I was a kid my dad would pick up a map from the nearest gas station. There were no gas stations on the way to the Moon, but the first astronauts to land there had a map anyway, thanks to the work of Harlan “Buzz” Reese and colleagues. His son, Tom Reese, talked about his father’s work at the most recent meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

“What I’m honored to share tonight are images mainly from our dad’s collection, which for more than 50 years was pretty much just stuffed in boxes and cardboard tubes, but we now think of them as artifacts,” Tom Reese said. His father, who passed away in 2013, worked for many years at the Aeronautical Chart and Information Center (ACIC) in St. Louis. It was an office of the Air Force and was considered the premier mapping organization in the country. The elder Reese was a civilian who worked on the project creating charts of the Moon for NASA.

“They worked with the photographs from any source they could get, the best pictures that were available,” Reese said. That included images made by ground-based telescopes and lunar orbiters, and later photos shot by astronauts during Apollo missions. There was no image-editing software in the 1960s, but the folks at ACIC did have a cut-and-paste operation; they literally pieced together many of their charts by making copies of photographs, cutting them out, and building maps of larger areas as mosaics of many images. Some of them were huge, room-sized. They’d sometimes build these maps on the entire floor of a large room and walk around in stocking feet so as not to damage them too much. The charts include handwritten notes and tell-tale identification of the people who made them.

This photo of the Apollo 11 landing site was made by Apollo 10 and includes a handwritten overlay by Harlan Reese. Photo: Tom Reese.

“My dad’s smeared fingerprints and careful mapping marks are also a down-to-Earth tribute to the other 400,000 human beings whose efforts made the journey possible,” Reese said.

Reese, an independent journalist, photographer, author, artist and teacher whose work as a newspaper and magazine photojournalist was nominated for Pulitzer Prizes during his career at The Seattle Times, spoke of a sense of awe and wonder when making a photograph of the Moon.

“I think it was with the same sense of wonder that my dad saved all these things that were actually scraps of his work,” Reese said, “but I also think he thought of these as a gift to be shared.”

Part of that wish came true this year, when several of the charts were included in the Destination Moon exhibit that wrapped up earlier this month at the Museum of Flight. Reese said he hopes the entire collection can some day wind up in a place where it can continue to tell a part of the story of the Apollo missions.

Tom Reese spoke about his father’s Moon mapping at the Sept. 18, 2019 meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

It’s amazing to think that the lunar orbiters that preceded Apollo were shooting photos using film, processing that film in space and then sending the images to Earth via radio. Today’s digital cameras on spacecraft capture far greater resolution. For the cartographers who mapped the Moon there was a good deal of art to go with the science.

“On the early maps of the Earth you can see where they would come to the limit of the known world and simply mark down ‘terra incognita’ or ‘beyond this point there be dragons,’” Reese said. “In the early mapping of the Moon precision was key, of course. But the audacity to fire three men packed into a rattling tin can to an unexplored world also required calculating on the unforeseen.” The mappers analyzed all of the data they had to give accurate representation of the sizes of and distances between lunar features so that the maps would be useful guides.

You can see many of the images Reese shared during his presentation on his website.

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