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An Interview with Gerald G. Schaber

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Jerry Schaber

A "must read" Open File Report that is a comprehensive account of the USGS participation in the Apollo era, from its conception through the end of Project Apollo, has been completed by Gerald G. “Jerry” Schaber during the time he was with the U.S. Geological Survey, Branch of Astrogeology, working as a Scientist Emeritus. We talk with the man behind the book, who filled that significant gap of history with regard to the participation of the USGS.

Every story has a heart and a soul, and Jerry hands these rich gifts to the reader with respect and perspective. Now Jerry shares with us, the thinking behind the book.

Hear the interview! Interview with author Gerald Schaber (MP3 audio, 17MB)

Q. Tell us, how does it feel to have completed the open file report?

A. Well, it feels very good as you might expect. It was a long time in coming.

Q. How long did it take?

A. I started in 2000, encouraged by Wes Ward, Carolyn Shoemaker and other people at the time to do it. I finished in 2002, but it was in editing ever since.

Q. What inspired you to volunteer to fill this gap in Astrogeology, USGS, history?

A. I was one of the few that remained here after the Apollo geology team, after Apollo. And I was involved in lots of other planetary missions. Since I had retired in 1995, and there was no one else to do it. A lot of younger people tried to put it together , but didn’t finish. Since I was there, lived it, from July 1965 on, I felt it was my obligation and actually my honor. I enjoyed every minute of it, putting it together. A lot of it is other people’s words from other books but it is in chronological sequence, which other books did not possess.

Q. What was the hardest part of writing the open file report? Why?

A. The hardest part was getting all the pieces together. Although we saved a lot of stuff in the data facility--photos and things. I had to route through all photos, and lot of them were scanned from contact prints because the negatives were either in bad shape; we don’t have a facility to process negatives anymore, so I scanned a lot of contact prints. Getting together reading the books that Don Wilhems wrote and Don Beattie wrote. Beattie wrote a book right at the right time for me because it came out after I started and he was the one at NASA who gave us a lot of our money when he was at NASA headquarters. So he wrote a book about taking science to the moon and he did a lot of that background work for me. And then there was a book by Don Levy, who wrote the Life of Gene Shoemaker.

Q. We live in a time when there are numerous choices for entertainment. What would you like to say to people who may be hesitant about reading the book?

A. It’s not a “reading” book as you might expect. It’s very long. It’s more a history of the early years of Astrogeology. The story is pretty remarkable when you read it: how much work we did in a short time,(say from 1960-1972) to the end of the Apollo Missions. But, I think for anybody, a student of history, of Arizona history, or a student of NASA history…it’s a piece that’s missing. A lot of the special programs, and NOVA specials have been put together about the history of Apollo, but they completely ignore Flagstaff’s role. And I’ve made a point of trying to correct that in those NOVA specials; in fact, we had one change: we had one NOVA called To The Moon, changed by the editors because they agreed they were lacking in doing the research on that. So they changed the first hour of the two-hour special. It’s because people want to hear about the astronauts, and the NASA history and so forth.. .but actually if you want to dig down into it, in my book, you’ll find out that any science done on the moon --we had a great deal to do with. Training the astronauts here, doing all the planning for the training. We had 200 astronaut training exercises between 1963 , which was the first one here in Flagstaff, to 1972. People wouldn’t have to read the whole thing they could look at the parts they are interested in. It’s chronological-- that’s why I did it that way.

Q. How have your friends, family, Astrogeology and local community reacted to your status as a published author?

A. I have hundreds of publications over the years, but this one I’m most proud of. It’s a combination of the early years. I don’t talk about anything Astrogeology did or I did after 1972. You can’t write it all at once. Astrogeology’s history should be written completely, even the years from 1972 on to the present. You have to take it one step at a time. This is a very large work just based on the first decade. So to do the rest of Astrogeology’s history would be a major effort. I hope somebody step forward and does it. I’ve got a good response from a few people, but that will come in time I’m sure.

Q. Many writers of the Apollo history seem to focus on high-level officials and the astronauts, but your book seem to include everyone, even those at lower levels who played important roles in the successes of Apollo; was this purposeful? Why?

A. Yes it was. We had some remarkable support people during Apollo. The secretaries-- they were at the missions doing typing-- had to type what the astronauts said on the moon; and they worked really hard during and after each missions. Without them, we wouldn’t have had been successful as we were. Remember we only had typewriters. There was no word processing. None of us had hand held calculators in those days: it was slide rules. When electric typewriters came in-- that was a big thing. So, most of what we did was the secretaries typed on these electric typewriters. All of our photo printing and stuff, we did in Houston to make reports after each mission was done with the help of the secretaries and assistants. The photo lab people were rated some of the best in the world. Our little photo lab here generated more pictures that were distributed in books and magazines in the world than any place. And when visitors came here, they couldn’t believe the size of this place. Every time somebody from JPL would come here for the first time , they would be absolutely in awe, of how small this group was. We only had two buildings at that time. We did an amazing job from a very little town at that time, in Flagstaff. The small people were 80% of our effort. We couldn’t have done it without the surveyors, the photo lab people, the secretaries, the computer people, and remember we were developing computer processing at the same time with images. We were pioneer. In fact we developed a program, which later ended up being like a word processing program, you use today. We actually developed those to use on Apollo and the secretaries and some of our computer people did a lot of work on it. So I owed it to everybody who did work on Apollo. It was over two hundred thousand people or more who worked on Apollo. We had as much as 230, 240 people here at one time, just in Astrogeology. That was back in 1971, I guess-- 250 something I believe. Many of them were support people.

Q. As you conducted the interviews of some 66 employees, was it like reliving these times again? And if you could do it all over, would you?

A. The answer to your question is yes. Yes! It was like reliving it. It was a wonderful experience talking to people I haven’t talked to for a long time. Fortunately I talked to them in 2001, for the most part in 2000. Many of them, unfortunately, have passed away since I interviewed them, about twelve or fifteen or more have passed away since --of geologist and support people. So, for that I am grateful that I got to them first, but I am very sad they didn’t get a chance to read the book. I was very happy to do it. It was like reliving the best time in my life, anybody’s life, I can imagine. My history here, my work here in Flagstaff, after Apollo was very exciting too with the other planets, but nothing will compare to being there during all the missions, with the landing on the moon ,with Apollo 11, and being the highlight of my career as you can imagine, as it would be of anybody’s.

Q. What was your favorite moment in the making of Apollo history while working with USGS? And what was your least favorite moment?

A . There is difference between “favorite” and “most dramatic” and in “most impressive.” The most impressive was being in Mission Control right across the hall in our science support room, and watching Neil and Buzz. I was watching their heart beats actually. And when they landed on the moon and seeing Neil’s going very slowly, cause he was a really amazing individual, watching Buzz’s 200 beats per minute--that was the most impressive thing. And then of course, I think going to the Apollo 15 launch with my father and taking him to the VIP stands and watching the Apollo 15 launch , which I did a lot of work for that mission in training the astronauts and doing the maps they took. The third most exciting thing that happened during Apollo 11: after Apollo 11, Gene Shoemaker was desperate to find something of scientific value they actually did in the very short time the astronauts were on the moon. He asked us to look for a rock they picked up and brought back that we could count impact craters on. He tried his best to get NASA to actually let him photograph the rocks before they picked them up, but they wouldn’t go for it; Iit was a landing to get there and back safe; science was low priority. But we looked and looked and looked and when we got the rocks photographed that they brought back in the lunar receiving lab, we blew up these pictures. I would look at these surface photos and try to find, by accident, a rock on the surface I might be able to recognize that they picked up. It was a real task. I did find by sheer luck a rounded rock that had a shadow in one place. They had photographed it in the lunar receiving lab in Houston, exactly at the right angle, and it was number 10046, I think. I blew the rock up from the Photo lab. We had a photo lab down there in Houston, a trailer truck we brought down from Flagstaff with our photo people in it. And we blew up that surface photo of the rock and I blew up the photo taken in the receiving lab in Houston, and I was convinced it was the same rock. I walked into Shoemaker’s office down in Houston, and I only had to hold them at the door like this, and he just came unglued. He jumped up, grabbed the pictures and ran out because he wanted something, and that something was to count the impact craters that are mm to microns small so they could extend the crater density frequency distribution on the moon from 10m or 20m-- whatever we had before down to the micron size. So he was very, very excited. I felt good because of it.

Q . Can you please tell us what it was like to have developed a Geologic Field training for the Apollo astronauts?

A. That was one of the major things that Gene Shoemaker came up with. He went up to Washington to work at NASA headquarters, to work there to help promote Apollo science. It was 1963 or 64, or something like that. His goal was there to influence NASA to develop a Lunar Geologic training program to help train the astronauts, on how to select samples and how to recognize the make up of the samples. That was very successful. As a result of his work there for two years, NASA had committed for us to go to Houston, to start an Astronaut training program. That started about 1964, and that didn’t work too well because there was a conflict between our geologists, and they kept hiring geologist down there to do the same job even though NASA said they wouldn’t. It turned out we had to come back, and we started developing the Astronaut training program here in Flagstaff. So we were in charge of all the geologic field activities, and Houston’s geologist were in charge of lecturing to them about geology. In 1963, Shoemaker had his first group. I think 9 astronauts at that time that came to participate. Meteor Crater and San Francisco Volcanic Field, and from then on we were doing 3 or 4 a month, we were training both crews, after the actual crews were selected, starting with Apollo 11, mostly starting with twelve because NASA didn’t want us to do much with 11, they didn’t want us “Geologist” interfering with their landing safely on the moon. So starting in Apollo twelve, we were training the prime crew, the backup crew, and the next crew. We were training them all at the same time. It was a very large logistical problem. We were designing the areas, mapping them, picking them, and directing the training. We had geologists that were expert in each area, from the USGS involved. It was a very important thing. All the astronauts, save one, Al Sheppard who never liked geology and told Gordon Swan he didn’t. Gordon said he didn’t like Astronautics, so we’re even. Everybody learned a lot about geology, the astronauts were extremely smart and they learned very quickly.

Q . I do we believe we discussed some of your favorite moments in the making of Apollo history, but did we discuss your least favorite?

A . No, not yet. Well, my least favorite was things that happened, during Apollo, not related to Apollo, but personal. Right after Apollo 11 I had been to several simulations for Apollo 12, and we were going to be down there for mission control for all the missions because Shoemaker’s team was in charge of Lunar Geology Team. In September of 1969, I took somebody from our branch of Astrogeology to pick up his car in East Flagstaff; I went through a yield sign, and got hit by a truck, so I was in the hospital during Apollo 12 and I had a really bad crushed hip, so missing that mission was devastating to me. I came back on Apollo 13 on crutches and I went down to Houston, as hard as it was and I was going to work on 13 and then, and unfortunately for them, but fortunately for me, it didn’t get to the moon or land so I got to come back the next day. So that part was a bummer, but I guess I was daydreaming, and that’s what happens when you’re daydreaming. Most every thing was 100 percent positive during the Apollo program. Nobody could ask for a better career than I had. The worse thing after that was having Gene Shoemaker be killed in an auto accident in 1997, in Australia. That was very sad; and it still is.

Q . A final question: In this incredible period of manned exploration of space, what would you say was the most significant contributions that former or current employees of Astrogeology made?

A. Astrogeology contributions were recognized by everyone to be very, very, significant, and a tremendous effort on our part. In fact, we were the only game in town when it came to Astrogeology. There were no universities with Astrogeology or planetary science programs; there was just the University of Arizona Lunar Planetary Lab. And of course, the Houston Geologists put together, who lectured them about rocks. We did all the lunar mapping prior to going to the moon, and throughout the Apollo lunar program; and that was done in Menlo Park in our Branch out there headed by Don Wilhelms. We picked the landing sites-- in cooperation with some of the NASA headquarters’ people-- here in Flagstaff. Very little people in Flagstaff realize almost all of the traverses and lunar plans for the Apollo missions were put to together in the Arizona Branch Building, in downtown, which is now the Bank of America. We had about three of the floors in that building at that time so that’s where the manned exploration people were. We built rovers for NASA. At their request we built a simulated lunar rover, one that looks like the one they eventually took to the moon; we built that in ninety days. The astronauts used it. We built crater fields out here-- east of Flagstaff, and down in Verde Valley that they used to train on. All this was done because of the tremendous kind of people that we had: dedicated hardworking people who didn’t care about overtime. They worked tiredlessly day and night, for basically a decade, at that pace. I can’t even express the effort and value I think that the Branch of Astrogeology here and in Menlo Park contributed to the Apollo program. If you read my, history, open file report, you will get a feel for the type of effort that was going on , the hectic pace that was going on here at that time.

Q. Thank you much Jerry on behalf of Astrogeology.

A. Thank you for inviting me.

Gerald Schaber was interviewed by Janet Richie (USGS Astrogeology) June 2006.