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'What's A Heaven For?': 50 Years After Apollo 11, Utah Man Shares How He Helped Make It Happen

Photo of Jim Taylor.
Kelsie Moore / KUER
Jim Taylor stands with an early iteration of the map the would eventually help NASA determine a location for the 1969 Apollo 11 lunar landing.

July 16 marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch. Like any adventure, those astronauts needed a map to get them there. But how do you chart a landscape 238,900 miles away? KUER’s Elaine Clark spoke with Stansbury Park resident and retired physicist Jim Taylor about how he helped map the moon.

Elaine Clark: What was the problem that NASA had to solve?

Jim Taylor: The basic problem was to find a place on the moon flat enough that the astronauts could safely land and take off again.

EC: This is philosophical ... What is a map?

JT: Oh. Hayakawa tells us that “The map is not the territory.” It's a representation of the territory. But if you believe the map you can get in a whole lot of trouble. It says, “It's flat here.” OK. You put your foot down it turns out — yeah, it's flat but it's quicksand. And you can't tell that from the map.

EC: I was thinking about the old cartographers’ maps, right …

JT: “Here there be dragons.”

EC: “Here there be dragons.” I mean, were you practicing in the legacy of those old adventurers?

JT: Yes, in a way. In order for somebody to sail around South America, somebody had to build a boat. Somebody had to provide food. If you've seen the movie “Hidden Figures” about the ladies in Houston who were calculating how to get there — how to get back — how much fuel it was going to take to get there. There were so many people involved — everybody who is working on the thing is just doing their very, very best to bring the guys back. Everybody had a piece of work to do, and we did it to the best of our ability and it turned out our ability was good enough.

Photo of Jim Taylor and close-up of map.
Credit Kelsie Moore / KUER
Jim Taylor worked with a team of scientists to determine how to create a topographic map of an object that was 238,900 miles away without the assistance of digital cameras or printers. The final product (not pictured here) covered about 20 square feet.

EC: So, how did you get involved in the mapping project?

JT: I was working in Ohio for a company called Data Corporation. Data Corporation's expertise was in reconnaissance and surveillance. In particular we were making maps from aerial photographs. And because of our experience, when NASA said we need to make maps of possible landing places on the moon, they brought the problem to us.

EC: What did you know about the surface of the moon when you started?

JT: We didn't know a whole lot about the surface of the moon. We knew that it was full of rocks that were ejected from various impacts that created the very famous craters.

Somebody had figured out that the amount of light reflected from the surface of the moon was related to how it was tilted with respect to the light source. And that was a critical piece of information, because in aerial photography you normally take two pictures from different locations and then use stereo to essentially create a 3-D model.

Where you were taking one picture from straight down, there was no stereo effect at all. And if we had not been able to use the reflections of the moon's surface as a function of the incident angle we would never have been able to do the job.

EC: What were some of the other challenges that you had?

JT: To get a good idea of what we were doing, Kodak came out with their first digital camera in 1975 which was eight years after we delivered our product. There was no such thing as digital photography.

So the lunar orbiter took pictures. And the pictures were scanned with a light beam and a photocell and sent back as an analog signal by FM radio to the folks at Jet Propulsion Lab in California. And they took the analog signal and recorded it on 35 millimeter film and we got the 35 millimeter film with the dissected images.

Then Richard Pratt — who was the mathematical genius of our team — devised a scheme where he could create a 3-D version of each strip of film. So, he wrote a mathematical transformation and now we had a 3-D image of the moon in digital form.

Photo of map close-up.
Credit Kelsie Moore / KUER
A close-up view of this early version of the map created by Jim Taylor and his team. Light hitting the lunar surface is represented by white areas, revealing a crater near the center of the image.

Then we had to make contour maps from the digital images so we could print a map for the astronauts that said, “This place is bumpy. This place is smooth. This place has got steep cliffs.” My task was to devise a technique to go running along this image and create the contours.

Then, “How do we print this thing?” Well, we ended up with a print train whose largest dot was a tenth of an inch square and whose smallest dot was about a sixty fourth of an inch square. 
[Note: Printers today print at least 600 dots per inch.]

So we finally were able to print strips of our final image — as large as they were — and then we had a problem. OK. “Where do we put it together?” So, we took all our printouts down to this school. We spread them out on the floor in the assembly area and taped them together. Now we had a 20-foot-square picture sitting on the floor of this elementary school and a photographer took his view camera up into the bell tower and photographed our moon maps. And then [we] sent them to the air chart and information center in St. Louis, Mo., where they ended up printing the actual maps that the astronauts used.

EC: How do you think America was thinking about exploration at the time?

Photo of newspaper.
Credit Kelsie Moore / KUER
Jim Taylor saved this copy of the New York Times from Monday, July 21, 1969.

JT: Jack Kennedy was young and handsome and everybody adored him. And he said, “We're going to put a man on the moon.”

And everybody said, “Yeah! We're Americans! We can do anything. We'll put a man on the moon.”

And then Kennedy was murdered. And yes, all of those who were involved in the Apollo project followed John Kennedy's vision all the way to the moon and back. And then we started worrying about all kinds of things other than exploration.

We could have been on Mars in the 80s easily. But the spirit was gone. And a whole lot of people quit doing all kinds of really interesting things because there was no money to pay for it.

Photo of Jim Taylor unrolling map.
Credit Kelsie Moore / KUER
Jim Taylor unrolls an early iteration of the map.

EC: Does exploration matter?

JT: We celebrate [frontier explorers] Lewis and Clark and people like that because they made the world bigger. The future is not for people who sit at home watching television. It belongs to the guy who puts his life on the line. Whether he's a mountain man or an astronaut.

The Apollo project represent[s] the highest aspirations. What's it say? “A man's reach must exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?”

We didn't have to put a man on the moon. But it was something we could all work together for a single goal — and do our absolutely very best at everything we knew how to do. And we did it. We need to recover that spirit.

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