Shooting the Moon

How a clever camera and its irascible inventor captured the lunar surface—but not the hearts of Apollo astronauts.

Tom Gold
Courtesy of NASA

THE APOLLO LUNAR SURFACE CLOSE-UP CAMERA has to be the ultimate point-and-shoot. It cost $1.3 million—and that was 30 years ago. Designed to shoot close-up stereo pictures of the moon’s surface, it was also called the Gold camera, not because it was pricey but because the man who thought it up is Thomas “Tommy” Gold, a British scientist who fiddled in his basement with a 35-mm Nikon and a wooden template until he had the proper angles, focal length, and other requirements for the moon camera’s optics. (“I took a beautiful picture of a grasshopper—it was absolutely gripping,” Gold recalls.) Kodak provided the technology and built the camera, known officially as the ALSCC; it was used on the moon by Neil Armstrong, Alan Bean, and Alan Shepard during Apollo 11, 12, and 14.

The slide pairs produced by the Gold camera, seen with a stereo viewer, show stunning 3-D glimpses of the lunar surface in segments measuring seven by eight centimeters (2.8 by 3.2 inches). They show what you would see if you could get your nose within about 11 inches of the surface, something the astronauts could not do in their stiff spacesuits. Altogether, the three astronaut photographers took 48 slide pairs, and most of them show a surface structure you would never imagine from standing head height. The slides are strikingly beautiful, but the camera, like its originator, was a source of tremendous controversy.

Gold has spent his career in a veritable boxing match of scientific theorizing. He earned an undergraduate degree in engineering from Cambridge University in 1942, but he is essentially self-taught in the several disciplines in which he has had a significant impact. Physically, he would fit nearly everyone’s stereotype of the absent-minded professor: somewhat shabby, glasses uncleaned, an air of vagueness. He’s mild-mannered and soft-spoken with an unidentifiable European accent, and a bit stooped—except that when he’s involved in a scientific argument, he seems about two feet taller. But the mind in that 81-year-old body is anything but absent. Ask him any question about a wide variety of specialized scientific fields and he will patiently explain a theory or a process either in the most lucid terms that virtually anyone can understand or in the complex jargon and mathematical formulas of the specialist, depending on who’s asking. His knowledge of the minutest details of the physical and biological worlds is staggering. An afternoon with Gold is like a browse through an interactive encyclopedia.

His mind draws him to disciplines in which some experts do not consider him qualified. So far, his major efforts besides engineering have included physics, biophysics, astrophysics, astronomy, and geology—not to mention incursions into aircraft accident investigation and lunar photography. Gold’s style is both unique and abrasive: He does his research and ultimately proposes a theory considered outrageous by the reigning experts in the field who first revile and then ignore him. Though some people credit him with spectacular mistakes, in the long run he is, more often than not, proven right.

When World War II started, the British sent Gold to a Canadian internment camp—his family, though German Jews, carried Austrian passports—but after nearly a year he was allowed to return to England. By then Hermann Bondi, whom he had met in the camp, was working with Fred Hoyle at the British Admiralty, where they were helping to develop radar. Gold became part of the radar development group. He tells stories about living with Bondi in a small house at the end of a runway used by heavily laden departing bombers, and only a hundred yards from the spot where damaged bombers dumped the bombs they had been unable to drop on German targets. The windows in their little house were often blown out. “Once I opened the door to my room just as a bomb went off,” Gold says. “The violence of the explosion shattered the ceiling and I ended up with a giant piece of plaster in my mouth. Bondi said, ‘Did you hear that?’ ”

After the war, Gold did research on the human ear that was discarded as “rubbish” by the experts. More than 30 years later new research proved him right while, by the by, proving a Nobel Prize winner wrong. Gold, with the collaboration of Hermann Bondi, generated the only scientific theory of the creation of the universe, besides the Big Bang theory, to achieve significant credibility. Though Gold’s Steady State theory has been unpopular for the last couple of decades, it now shows signs of resurgence amid new debate over the Big Bang. He also formulated the generally accepted theory that pulsars are rotating neutron stars. He is particularly proud of being an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, an honor shared with only a handful of other people in the world, among them the Duke of Edinburgh.

Gold is now professor emeritus in astronomy, physics, and applied physics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Yet he still puts in a full work day and until very recently served as principal investigator for various contracts, including geophysical research into the origins of petroleum. While he has no current contracts, he is working privately on a problem in quantum theory, the solution for which he believes will have significant impact. And he’s still controversial. Gold’s 1997 book, The Deep Hot Biosphere, which proposes, based on his earlier contract research, cosmological rather than biological origins of oil, has petroleum geologists in a fury of rebuttal. If he’s right, the future will hold an abundance of energy and the world economy will be consequently transformed. In all of these enterprises, Gold has taken punches from some of the best scientists of at least two generations and counterpunched quite effectively.

But it is his “deep dust” theory that plunked Gold into boiling water with other lunar researchers, and merely hot water with NASA and the astronauts. As the story goes, Gold predicted as far back as 1955 that the surface of the moon was a miles-thick layer of dust and that a lunar lander and its crew would simply sink out of sight in it. Sitting next to his new Macintosh G4 in his very large and very cluttered home office, Gold insists he never said that: “A long time ago, someone—it might have been Gene Shoemaker—misquoted me in the press, and everyone has been using that ever since.”

Gold points to several passages in his articles that state clearly his views about the lunar surface as a fine powder. That dust, Gold theorized in 1955, was moved by electrostatic forces—electron bombardment gives the grains charges that cause them to repel each other and, thus, move downhill—from the upland craters to the mare, where it could be several kilometers deep. But, Gold says in a 1964 NASA-published article titled “Ranger Moon Pictures: Implications,” “.... it is important to keep separate the discussion of the origin of the material and its present mechanical properties.... [I]t has often been implied that if the low ground is filled with dust sediment then it will be loose and soft to some great depth. This is no more a direct implication there than it would be in the Mississippi basin.”

Don Wilhelms participated in the scientific debates surrounding the Apollo program and in 1993 published To a Rocky Moon: A Geologist’s History of Lunar Exploration. Wilhelms is one of those who says that Gold insisted before the landings that deep dust would swallow any spacecraft. He says that Gold, with his denials after the landings and to this day, is recanting. “He never said it in print,” says Wilhelms, “but everybody heard him say it at conferences and other places.” When asked if he personally heard him say it, Wilhelms replies: “Oh sure,” and he lists several instances in which other scientists refer negatively to Gold’s hypothesis. He adds: “Gold’s insistence on these ideas cost NASA a lot of time and millions of dollars because they had to investigate them.”

The fundamental disagreement raged between the physicists and the geologists, with Tommy Gold as the lightning rod through which flowed much of the highly charged discussion. In the Apollo days, Bruce Hapke, a professor of planetary sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, had proposed, with Hugh Van Horn, a “fairy castle” model of the lunar regolith (fine powder). The theory described the first few centimeters of the surface as a fine powder consisting of “towers leaning at crazy angles and connected by lacey bridges and flying buttresses.” The explanation was that molecular surface bonds were heavier than the extremely small particles, so that the adhesive forces formed these three-dimensional fairy castle structures. Hapke’s model was usually—incorrectly, says Hapke—lumped together with Gold’s deep dust model by the geologists and scorned in the same breath.

The ALSCC inevitably became part of the controversy. Critics proclaimed that the camera was simply Gold’s desperate effort to keep “his” fairy castle hypothesis alive. Gold says he was concerned about what lunar samples would not reveal. “The one thing the investigation as it was proposed would not tell us was how the top surface material was emplaced,” he recalls. For astrophysicists, the answers to such questions also provide small bits of data for the larger project of determining the nature of the universe.

Gold’s considerable fame as a scientist had earned him an invitation in 1964 to join the President’s Science Advisory Committee for Space, and he proposed his camera idea to that group. The committee members approved, and another committee was formed with such members as Edwin Land of Polaroid fame and Edward Purcell, a 1952 Nobel Prize winner in physics; Gold served as chair. The committee would provide the parameters and Kodak would be recruited to build the device. But there were complications.

Foremost was timing. It was November 1968 when Edwin Land talked to Kodak management about the camera. Chuck Spoelhof, who was then assistant to the director of research and engineering at Kodak, says that even though Kodak was very busy with Air Force contracts and had a shortage of personnel, “somewhat reluctantly we said okay. But a month went by and we heard nothing. Then a package came in the mail, several inches thick, containing a Request for Proposal with all the standard boilerplate for NASA procurement contracts. We realized there was no way we could meet those requirements and meet the date, so we sent back a ‘no bid’ to NASA. That shocked them.” But NASA was determined and agreed to negotiations on abbreviated procedures and the shifting of responsibility to Kodak standards. Those negotiations ended just before the Christmas holidays, giving Kodak barely six months to design the camera and produce the required number of units—six flight models and four training models—by June 10, 1969, so the first one could ride on Apollo 11.

Bruce Elle, now deceased, was put in charge of the camera design group. Bill Wilson, project engineer in the group, says: “We were given a building of our own and isolated from the rest of Kodak so there would be no distractions.” Besides the time limitation, the Gold committee’s parameters were complex. For example, the camera had to be capable of withstanding temperatures of plus or minus 250 degrees, collapsible for storage in the lunar module, easily extendable by astronauts with fat gloves once it reached the moon, and as simple to operate as a point-and-shoot camera. It would have built-in flash for consistent lighting and a means of shutting out ambient light. The take-up film cassette had to be easily removable because the camera itself would be left on the moon to provide more space and weight for returning lunar soil samples.

The final product is a highly refined version of Gold’s basement experiments: Inside the cowl at the base of the cane-like handle are two separate “cameras” at slightly different angles—about 11 degrees apart—a design that enabled center lines through both lenses to meet at a distance of about 11 inches, where the surface to be photographed would be when the camera was set down. The trigger on the handle operated both shutters simultaneously and set off the flash. With the camera’s cowl shutting out ambient light, the flash ensured that the lighting of every picture would be optimal. The two resulting photographs, when viewed through a stereo viewer, would show the surface in an illusion of three-dimensional reality.

Though NASA was pleased with the camera’s initial testing, the buck really stopped with the astronauts who would actually take the camera for a walk and snap the pictures. They were exposed to the camera in the training sessions, and Gold had a half-hour to talk to whichever astronaut on each mission was scheduled to handle the camera. And here the road was often as bumpy as the lava rock terrain the astronauts used for training. While there was no obvious hostility between Gold and the astronauts that could compare with the open and often expressed antagonism among the scientists, some tension was there.

Three decades have not diminished Gold’s habit of referring to the astronauts as “prima donnas.” He has a special place in the darker part of his heart for Alan Shepard, who “played golf instead of snapping pictures,” and has never really overcome his disappointment over the small number of ALSCC stereo pairs—48 total for the three missions that carried the camera.

For the astronauts, Gold was an irritant, and few would have said that he was the sort of irritant that produces the pearl. In a recent exchange of e-mails, Neil Armstrong answered “no” when I asked whether the astronauts resented Gold. But he added: “We objected to the camera being put on the flight very late in the pre-flight process without normal coordination.” Harrison (Jack) Schmitt, a geologist who walked on the moon with Apollo 17 and was mission scientist for some of the earlier flights, says much the same thing. “What bothered the astronauts the most was that this camera came in at the last minute and modified the training program. Most people don’t realize how intense these training programs were, especially for Apollo 11, where we’d never done it before.” He adds: “The only way anybody would agree to use it was to shoot targets of opportunity. If we had the time we’d pull it out and take a few pictures.”

Alan Bean, who used the camera during Apollo 12, has a different perspective, perhaps because his mission included no hurried addition of the camera to the checklist. He says he would have liked to take more pictures (he took only 15), but the camera was the last thing on the checklist before extra-vehicular activity termination. Bean reads that section of his checklist aloud: “Stereo close-up photos. Retrieve ALSCC. Deploy skirt. Photo: unexpected features, glassy features, rock-soil junction up and down hill, undisturbed surface level and sloped, rock surface, boot prints, LM footpad, material adhering to boot, craters and clumps. Put film in equipment transfer bag.” Bean adds: “We had seven minutes to do all that, from 2 plus 48 to 2 plus 55. Deploy the camera, get it ready, get the pictures, take out the film cassette. So you can see what kind of priority it had.” Bean also praises the camera itself, as it was very astronaut-friendly. “You could just put it in the right place and pull the trigger.”

Besides the camera, at least some of the astronauts had problems with Gold’s science. Schmitt insists that Gold had no rationale for his theories about the lunar dust: “Tommy was flying in the face of what had already been proven erroneous, and he just wouldn’t stop. But he could get the media to listen to him and rattle the cages of NASA headquarters people.” Armstrong says succinctly: “We found the predictions of Dr. David Carrier and the Soil Mechanics team to be more persuasive than Dr. Gold’s.” Bean agrees that Gold’s theories “were usually something that was detrimental to the possibility of having a successful lunar landing and exploration…. He was taking the negative side and we were taking the positive. It was frustrating, but it does make you do your homework.”

But it’s safe to say that the astronauts’ principal concern was for “a safe lunar landing and exploration,” which can be taken as Bean’s euphemism for living. Most were not scientists and had no real involvement in the debate as science. But behind the scenes of preparation for the Apollo missions, the scientists were engaged in a war of theories. Ian Mitroff wrote a book, The Subjective Side of Science, published in 1974, about the scientific skirmishes waged in a period beginning just after Apollo 11 and ending after Apollo 17. He interviewed 42 major scientists working on the Apollo project and on lunar science. When asked why he gave the scientists pseudonyms, he responds: “Because the things they said about one another sometimes crossed the line into slander, often laced with profanity. I respected every one of these guys, but the number of times they told me to turn off the tape recorder—but I couldn’t turn off my mind—and the F-words they said about one another were just incredible.”

As part of that study, Mitroff classified his scientists into categories, ranging from high-level theorists to data-gatherers. He shows a clear preference, both in the book and in recent conversations, for the theorists with large ideas, the people who take the risk of being either spectacularly right or spectacularly wrong. He puts Gold in the theorist category. “There are two kinds of geniuses, the ordinary and the magical. The ordinary ones just have a bigger computer. The magical ones come up with things you can’t imagine. Gold is what I’d call a scientific metaphysician. People like that take ordinary science and apply it to the universe in a way that’s almost mystical.”

Bruce Hapke has a different take on Gold. He believes that the source of the intense antagonism directed toward him was Gold’s style. Gold was educated in the British system, in which it’s considered good sport to destroy the opposition with wit and sarcasm; afterward you all go out and have a beer. American scientists, on the other hand, were simply offended. Mitroff’s book has a quote from one of his subjects describing a colleague’s behavior at a conference. “Once at a conference someone asked Park [pseudonym] a question at odds with Park’s beliefs, and Park cut him to pieces with a joke. The audience laughed and the guy was dead, and Park carried on.” He may have been describing Gold. But considering what Mitroff discovered about slander and profanity in his interviews, it seems that the only difference between Gold and his antagonists was that Gold did his dissecting in public.

Many of the principal players in lunar studies of the Apollo era are now dead—Eugene Shoemaker, Harold Urey, Gerard Kuiper—but the battle over the moon’s surface composition, in the absence of further lunar missions, still rages. Wilhelms was a member of Shoemaker’s astrogeology team, and he argues that virtually everything Gold said about the moon was wrong. And he still burns over a remark attributed to Gold: “Geology is so simple that someone like Kuiper [an astronomer] could learn it in a day.” Hapke, while recognizing that Gold liked the limelight and tended to say outrageous things, generally credits Gold with good science. He says that the closest Gold ever came to saying there was “deep dust” was in warning that the transported dust might hide crevasses similar to those in the Antarctic snows. Most of the surface is solid enough, but if you step on the drifted covering of one of these crevasses you disappear. Gold, says Hapke, was merely erring on the side of caution. “He kept saying: ‘Look, this is a new world. We don’t have any experience with it.’ ” From the vantage of the year 2001, “Gold was closer to being right than anyone else,” Hapke says. “It’s time to give the Devil his due.”

But it’s still fair to ask whether the stereo photos have ever revealed anything of scientific importance. Gold responds: “What I learned that I didn’t expect was the glazing.” He is referring to a phenomenon observed by the astronauts and recorded in some of the stereo images in which the tops of some dirt clumps in the bottoms of small craters are covered with a glassy material. Gold proposed that a solar flash had heated the tops of the clumps enough to melt them into glass, which then dribbled partly down the sides of the clumps. Others have proposed solutions centering on the glassy material having been formed by the same impact that formed the crater or by the splattering of molten rock from a nearby event. Gold insists he is right. “The idea that this was caused by impact is ridiculous. The craters were due to impact, but the clumps are very fragile and would be destroyed by the slightest impact.” He adds: “I still regard that as a very important discovery.” And, of course, it is clear that the astronauts could not possibly have brought back any of those clumps intact, so the photographs remain the only means of studying the phenomenon. Several articles by different authors were published in Science and Icarus on this subject in the years immediately following Apollo 11.

The photographs also show another curious phenomenon. Gold describes it: “On the occasions when [the astronauts] heaved out a stone, a third of it was embedded in the soil, but there were no features to indicate from where the stone came in: no earth piled up on one side and no depression on the other. That indicated to me enough migration of surface grains to even out the soil. There is an even one-centimeter-high junction of the soil with the rock all around the stone.” Gold has used this observation as partial support for his theory of electrostatic transport. There was no way of bringing back a rock embedded in its surrounding soil, so again, the photographs remain the only means of study. Unfortunately, not one of the photographs can be identified as corresponding exactly with a lunar sample returned to Earth. Such a happy conjunction might have provided valuable information.

In 1999, Paul Helfenstein, a space scientist at Cornell University, and Michael Shepard, a geologist at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, published an article in Icarus, “Submillimeter-Scale Topography of the Lunar Regolith,” in which they listed several studies by Shoemaker and others based on the 3-D photographs. Helfenstein and Shepard have used the stereo pairs to produce digital topographic maps to compare against radar and photometric studies of the lunar surface.

The Gold camera was dropped from the last two Apollo missions for a variety of reasons: continued opposition from the astrogeologists, increasing competition for space for scientific experiments, and perhaps a feeling that Gold had had his turn. The camera Gold keeps at Cornell is the one that was scheduled to go on the Apollo 15 mission. It sits forlornly on the top of a bookcase, and the slides from missions 11, 12, and 14 are all jumbled in a box, some of them with broken glass. Another Gold camera, a training model, is currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum. The rest of the most expensive hand-held point-and-shoot cameras ever made rest lightly on the surface of the moon (though one, placed aboard the aborted Apollo 13 mission, now sits somewhere at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean). One of them has stick-on lettering that says: “Return to Bruce Elle, Eastman Kodak Co., U.S.A., Earth.” But if you can wangle yourself a trip to the moon, two more are available.

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