Landmark geological study of the Moon from the early years of the space race

Robert J. Hackman and Arnold C. Mason (et al.) / Prepared for Office, Chief of Engineers, Department of the Army, ENGINEER SPECIAL STUDY OF THE SURFACE OF THE MOON. Washington: U. S. Geological Survey, 1961.
2nd ed. (after 1st of July 1960). Three large maps plus large table, all housed in manila envelope with printed title. Minor wear to envelope, else excellent.

Suite of maps from a landmark study of the Moon by the U. S. Geological Survey, from the early years of the space race.

The race to the Moon began in August, 1958, with the launch from Cape Canaveral of the Able 1 lunar orbiter. The rocket exploded soon after takeoff, as did numerous succeeding lunar missions launched by the United States and Soviet Union. The Soviets eventually won this first round, when, on September 14, 1959, their Luna 2 impactor reached the Moon.

Against this background, NASA was formed on October 1, 1958, though its resources were for a time limited, and other agencies continued their lunar research programs. The Army’s Project Horizon, for example, studied the possibility of a lunar fort, while the Air Force’s LUNEX study scoped out a manned mission to the Moon. Enter Arnold Mason of the U. S. Geological Survey, who in early 1959 “proposed to carry out an analysis of the moon’s terrains to determine their suitability for spacecraft landings, travel on foot and by rover, and base construction.” Eventually he received funding from the Army Corps of Engineers—of all places!—and set to work, assisted by Robert Hackman and Annabel Brown Olson from USGS’ photogeology branch.

The result, first published in July 1960, was the Engineer Special Study of the Surface of the Moon. As I understand it, the Special Study is significant as the first systematic mapping of the Moon by an agency of the American government, conducted at a time when the “space race” was a matter of deeply-felt national urgency. Of greater interest, it is an early (the earliest) effort to map the moon’s surface as the outcome of geological processes, much as the earth had begun to be mapped in this way some two centuries earlier. Finally, it is the “the first attempt to map lunar features for scientific and engineering purposes,” that is, with an eye toward manned exploration and exploitation of the lunar surface.

The Special Study comprises four sheets, including three large maps of the near side of the Moon and a mammoth table. The maps are based on stereoscopic analysis of images from large earth-based telescopes, “which under the best viewing conditions could (they estimated) reveal features on the moon no smaller than about a mile across. In fact, features 10 miles wide were barely discernible in most of the photographic images they used.” Each map is on a scale of 1:3,800,000 and depicts a different aspect of the Moon’s physical geography: Sheet 1, “Generalized Photogeologic Map of the Moon,” depicts impact craters, uses color coding to differentiate three layers of strata, and as such is the “first major lunar map to show stratigraphic relationships”; Sheet 2, “Lunar Rays,” uses radiating red lines to depicts streaks of ejecta, vaguely resembling the spokes of a wheel, surrounding the Moon’s more recent impact craters; and sheet 3, “Physiographic Divisions of the Moon,” identifies dozens of geologically-distinct “terrain units” on the lunar surface. Sheet 4 is a large untitled table summarizing the implications of the geological findings for “landing and movement” and for “construction.”

There is no denying that there is much that Mason, Hackman, Olsen et al. got wrong: For instance, many geological features they identified as volcanic were later determined to be the result of meteorite impact. Yet it was a major step forward in lunar geology, and as such helped lay the groundwork for later lunar science, and in particular the lunar landings of 1969-72. The study also had its pop culture moment, when it was used by lunar explorers in chapter 12 of Arthur Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In all, a pioneering and impressive attempt to map lunar geological processes and assess their implications for human exploration of the lunar surface.

All cited text from “1961: USGS Astrogeology’s First Published Map,” accessed on line at (Jan. 2020).

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