Saturday, June 12, 2010

Gold Dust

During the Apollo mission developments in the early and mid 1960s much thought was put into where exactly the lunar module should land. The moon was still largely an unknown entity. All through the decade it was consistently visited by probes which chipped away at her mysteries. Still, some scientists were raising flags and calling for extreme caution, some much louder than others.

One such scientist was Cornell astronomer Thomas Gold. Despite pictures radioed back of Surveyor probes sitting unharmed on the lunar surface, Gold was convinced that the astronauts would be in terrible danger. Due to eons of bombardment from meteorites, he believed, the moon’s surface would consist of a layer of fine powder, dozens of feet thick. He envisioned the lunar module sinking down below the surface after touching down, and urged the astronauts to drop colored balls onto the surface for observation before any landing was attempted.

After data from numerous Surveyor missions eased NASA’s worries, Gold took his arguments public, and thus earned much scorn and ridicule from his colleagues.

In fairness to Gold, though, he had later revised his estimates of the sinking factor to about three centimeters – which was confirmed by Apollo 11 astronauts. Armstrong and Aldrin even confirmed that in one area they sunk five to eight centimeters while exploring, and samples brought back did reveal the lunar soil to be fine and powdery.

Also, Gold was a harsh critic of the shuttle program, correctly deriding its trumpeted objectives of flying 50 low-cost missions a year. He was a well-acknowledged trailblazer in many fields in his long career, as well as occasionally being on the wrong side of things, such as the steady-state theory of the universe and, well, a moon covered in, essentially, quicksand.

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