Some warned Christopher Columbus the world was flat, but he didn’t need a flat surface to make a safe landing.
Some warned NASA the moon wasn’t flat, but the lunar lander needed a flat surface to make a safe landing.
“If I say the moon is flat and they land on the moon with a lunar lander that cannot stand more than so much tilt and it tips over, I’ve killed the guys,” said Jim Taylor of Stansbury Park.
Taylor, 86, is a popular interview on the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing. KUER, KUTV, The Salt Lake Tribune and the Tooele Transcript Bulletin have published or aired interviews with him about his role in mapping the moon for the Apollo 11 mission that flew July 16-24, 1969.
Luckily, Taylor is comfortable around media. His father reported for the New York Times, and his mother worked as a “sob sister,” writing human-interest stories for Hearst’s Chicago American.
However, journalism did not take with Taylor.
“I grew up taking light switches apart and putting them back together again,” he said.
This led to building radio sets and tinkering with cars, and eventually a physics degree from the University of Illinois.
Data Corp. in Dayton, Ohio, hired Taylor in 1962 as an optics engineer. The Corp.oration produced maps from aerial photographs, and was a government contractor for reconnaissance.
“Data Corp. had photo scientists and people highly skilled in the art of making maps from photographs,” he said.
In 1962, Taylor taught himself a programming language from an ad explaining what it could do, and started programming Data Corp.’s one, desk-sized, transistorized computer. There was one other Data Corp. programmer at that time.
But Taylor considers himself only a moderate pioneer of computers.
“Grace Hopper [the woman who pushed the Navy into early computers] was a real pioneer of computers,” he said.
In 1967, the vice president of Data Corp. called Taylor and four other engineers into his office. NASA wanted Data Corp. to produce contour maps based on information on 35mm film strips.
The 35mm strips were photographed, developed and scanned by the lunar orbiter and sent to earth via radio signal from 238,000 miles away. The Jet Propulsion Lab in California recorded the radio signal onto 35 mm film.
At this point, NASA brought the problem to Data Corp. because of its expertise in creating maps from photographic images. Data Corp. had invented an optical instrument called a microdensitometer that could focus on extremely small spots and measure their darkness. The darkness could be interpreted to represent different slopes using a mathematical function.
“We had to solve the problem of really, really messy input, and then produce output that astronauts are going to bet their lives on,” Taylor said.
The 35mm film strips were analog, which provided an additional challenge.
“Because the whole process was analog, the scanner swung back and forth so it was not linear, so things were not where they should be,” Taylor said.
The first digital camera would not be developed until 1975 by Kodak.
At that first meeting with Data Corp.’s vice president, Taylor suggested making a computer matrix to place every dot where it should be, then drag the camera marks to the correct place. The suggestion immediately got him appointed project leader.
“I think I can solve any problem that somebody gives me,” Taylor said. “I immediately turned to Richard Pratt and said, ‘Richard, can you do that?’”
Pratt had a degree in physics and a masters in math.
“He was able to turn light and dark into up and down,” Taylor said.
Pratt also created a computer program that calculated the distance the points from the film would have to move to be in their correct position.
“Looking at the thing at the beginning, it looked like a hopeless mess,” Taylor said. “But we had the microdensitometer. We had a computer that was capable of doing the job.”
First, they spliced the 20 strips of film together. They ended up with a picture that was in stripes where the edges were dark and the center was light.
“That stuff had to be fixed,” Taylor said, “NASA wanted a contour map of the landing sight, not a picture of the moon.
“We turned garbage into that [a 3-D image], and then turned that into the contour map,” he said.
Taylor wrote a program to create the contour map from the 3-D image, and the image was printed out.
The printouts were taken to an abandoned one-room elementary school with a bell tower above the assembly area so a photographer could photograph straight down with a view camera. The team taped the printouts together in a 20-foot square on the floor. The Air Chart and Information Center in Missouri printed the contour maps sent to the moon from those photographs.
It took about a year from the first meeting to have a map ready for NASA.
Taylor avows to a shaky confidence in maps, arising from impossible compass bearings taken on a map in Bear Mountain State Park in New Jersey as a boy.
“Your compass points towards the huge lump of iron, which is the mountain,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you want to go.”
Taylor loves the quote, “The map is not the territory,” by S.I. Hayakawa, a scholar and U.S. senator.
“The whole point is the map is not real; the map is someone’s idea,” Taylor said.
The contour map gave no information about the composition of the moon’s surface, and NASA did not know that data either.
Which was a concern because space suit tests on lava shredded the boots.
“A couple of steps and there goes your air,” Taylor said. “They had no idea when Armstrong put his foot on the moon floor whether he would sink up to his knees, or get shredded.”
Some NASA employees thought the Apollo astronauts were stark staring mad, according to Taylor.
“They had no idea what they were getting into,” he said.
He thinks we know more about what to expect in a Mars landing now than we did for a moon landing in 1969.
“In 1967, I said there is no place on the moon flat enough for them to land. If you look at how close those contour lines are together, it’s not flat!” Taylor said.
His team mapped a dozen possible sites. NASA rejected many as too rough before the maps were completed. Armstrong had a 24-by-24 inch Data Corp. contour map on the mission.
“He did not use it,” Taylor said.
As the lunar lander drifted over the moon, Armstrong did a visual and saw that he could not land as intended, according to Taylor.
“He had about 30 seconds to find a flat spot. So his acuity for flatness was just immense. So he picked a nearby spot and landed there,” Taylor said. “You have to have an incredible faith in your abilities to do that.”
“We went to all this trouble … But the map gave him a good idea of what to expect when he got there,” Taylor said.
“The minute someone set foot on the moon with a camera in his hands, our work was of no importance anymore, because he could bring the film back and skip all those steps,” Taylor said.
If there is anything Taylor would preach from the mapping project, it would be a quote from Proverbs.
“Strive,” he said. “‘Whatsoever the Lord set thy hand to do. Do it with thy might.’ Didn’t know if we would succeed. But we turned to it with our might and we did.”