Oral History Transcript — Dr. Don E. Wilhelms
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Interview with Dr. Don E. Wilhelms
By Ronald E. Doel
At the US Geological Survey, Menlo Park, CA
June 22, 1987
Don Wilhelms; June 22, 1987
ABSTRACT: Education at Pomona College, University of California, Berkeley and UCLA, as well as subsequent involvement in lunar stratigraphical and geological studies. Specific topics include: his field work at Inyo City, California; debates over lunar stratigraphic principles; the Apollo site selection; and NASA's Lunar orbiter, Surveyor and Apollo programs. The interval covered extends from the late 1940s through the late 1960s.
Doel:I know that you were born on July 5, 1930, in Los Angeles, California, but I don't know a great deal about your early life and about your parents. Who were they and what did they do?
Wilhelms:Oh, they were just middle-class Midwesterners. They came out to California in the twenties for my father's health. He was diabetic and they somehow thought this would help that condition. He eventually became an electronics engineer at NBC, and stayed there until 1964, when he died. My mother is still alive today.
Doel:How large was your family?
Wilhelms:I'm an only child. My father was an only child. My mother had one sister. And it shows, in our personalities.
Doel:Do you recall reading quite a bit about science when you were a child?
Wilhelms:Oh yes, always through my childhood and adolescence, I was an avid science hobbyist, and that led to where I am now, because the hobby I was most interested in, starting at an early age, was astronomy. That's because(well, I don't know what the cause and effect was. But I spent a lot of time at the Griffith Planetarium in Hollywood, and in fact almost every weekend for a while.
Doel:How old were you at the time?
Wilhelms:Oh, I suppose at that time, 13, 14, something like that. But I can remember long before that reading little popular astronomy books. I remember some pamphlet that showed airplanes flying to the planets. I still have a vague mental image of that, and that was probably when I was 9 or 10. How long it would take to get there and how impossible it was to get there and that sort of thing. I spent a lot of time at the planetarium, and I was never interested in geology in those days. In fact, I was never a rock hound or any of that sort of thing. But there were several geologic exhibits at the planetarium, the observatory. I guess I got a little subliminal message about those, especially one on paleontology I remember, narrated by Chester Stock. I think that same film was there for 40 years. I don't know how many times I heard it.
Doel:He was the professor at Caltech?
Wilhelms:Yes, a vertebrate paleontologist. So there was a little bit of geology, but I never thought about geology. I thought I was an astronomer until I found out who I was. My uncle, who was my mother's sister's husband(he wasn't related(was a schoolmate of Seth B. Nicholson at Drake, in Iowa. When it came time to go to college, he set me up with an interview with Nicholson at Caltech. I went over there, and Nicholson was very friendly, very helpful. He said, "Whatever you do, don't go to Caltech. Go to some place where you can have a little fun as well as stick your nose to the grindstone. Pomona, they have an astronomy department there." That's why I went to Pomona.
Doel:Before we get into your time in Pomona, I'm interested in the science you were taught in high school. Were there any classes or any teachers that were memorable?
Wilhelms:I went to Fairfax High School, which had a very high academic level at the time. Our science teachers were really college teachers who happened to be in this high school, so I had a really good science education in all the subjects. I can remember physics and chemistry especially clearly, and all the mathematics, all the sciences, although we didn't have any astronomy or geology. I got a very good education at that level. Also in other things: English and everything that goes into a high school education. I came out of high school much better educated than I think the average at the time, and certainly better than the average today.
Doel:Were there any particular teachers who took a strong interest in you?
Wilhelms:No, not really. There was a geometry teacher, but that's just because she was a graduate of Pomona. I had no particular guidance or inspiration from any of them, although they were very good. In that sense I was inspired, but no personal guidance, no.
Doel:How much mathematics did you have in high school?
Wilhelms:I had quite a lot of mathematics. I thought I was good at it at the time. I learned differently later.
Doel:How much interest did your parents take in your scientific hobbies?
Wilhelms:Oh, they tolerated the hobbies. I don't know. I think my father would have liked me to go out to chase girls or something, but instead of that I was a little scholar. I stuck in my room night and day over the books, and they let me alone, let me do that.
Doel:For the most part you were attending school straight through? There weren't any interruptions?
Wilhelms:Oh no, not in high school. In fact, never until much later.
Doel:You became interested then in Pomona College as a result of speaking with Nicholson. Were you considering other schools?
Wilhelms:No, I didn't have much of an idea. I guess I thought maybe I would go to Caltech, and that's why that subject arose, but I didn't have a very good concept of what schools were about, so I let him tell me.
Doel:You entered Pomona College in 1948. What was your impression of Pomona at the time?
Oh, well, I was afraid of it. I was a very, very socially... (what's the word?(repressed, very very extremely introverted, so I was awfully afraid of a new environment. The school itself was good. It prided itself on being liberal arts. I think that just means you take a lot of courses in a lot of different subjects. The astronomy department, which was really my purpose in going there, was not all that great, I thought. Professor Walter Whitney was there, and he was a good teacher for the first course or two. But then after that there was no follow-up. It became clear that mathematics was the heart of astronomy. I became a mathematics major, and very quickly found out I had no aptitude whatsoever for mathematics. I got good grades in the classes but never understood what it was all about, and still do not to this day, and that fact has influenced my career greatly. I work with the other hemisphere of the brain and just cannot do anything quantitative at all, and don't. So I got out of mathematics.
And the way that that worked was just a pure coincidence. I was in one of the liberal arts courses on Greek drama, one of the things you take as an elective, or have to take some in the general field. I didn't like the course, so I looked to see what else was given at the same hour. There was a geology introductory course. I transferred in the middle of the semester, which was all right, because I already knew the astronomy which was the first part of the geology course. They took me in there. The professor, John Shelton, was very good. He was a very good introductory teacher, got a lot of people into geology because he gave a good presentation, used colored slides a lot (which was rare at that time) and so on. And that was the beginning of geology for me. It was the first I really knew what the word meant, I think you have to say, except for this little bit of exposure at the observatory. Because I was so incompetent mathematically, I found that I could do the geologic type of thing, thinking, which is a more qualitative view of complex nature. You get out and you look around, and put together all these little pieces in this mental picture. It is an entirely different skill than the physicists and quantitative scientists have.
Wilhelms:Yes, it's very deductive, although there's a lot of inductive work too. You do have to go to an awful lot of outcrops and take an awful lot of notes and collect a lot of rocks and so forth, in geology. But then you put it all together, or else it doesn't mean anything. And I could do that better than I could do mathematics, so I stuck with geology and majored in geology the rest of my schooling, all through university.
Doel:Do you remember any courses in particular which impressed you?
In geology? Or any subject? That introductory course did. No others at Pomona. There was the grey eminence there, A. O. Woodford, who taught a good mineralogy and petrology course. He was an old man at the time I was there and is still alive today, in his upper nineties. I think from him I got some very important pointers, and also from Shelton, on the matter of geologic principles. Both of them kept saying, "What do we really do in geology?" The answer is, as I said, you put together a lot of separate pieces of information. But the way you do that is to think historically. That is, what is the sequence in which all this happened? This blocks out your subject, you see.
You have this big piece of earth in front of you, and you've got to put it in some kind of order. All human brains have to do that. And the way geology does that is to block it out by packets of rock that formed in discrete time intervals. Then you work out the sequence. If you think that way, then it all eventually fits into this framework. These guys were the first to instill me with that idea. That's the idea I've carried all through astrogeology, actually, and insisted that it be done on the moon and planets. I think that's been my major contribution, and it started back in those days.
Doel:Did you have much exposure to practice of science during your undergraduate days?
Wilhelms:Yes, we took a lot of field work in geology. We had the usual lab courses also in chemistry and physics, but Pomona was still very aware that geology was done in the field, so even in the very early courses, the introductory course, we went out and did field work. And I did a senior thesis which was a field mapping thesis.
Doel:Do you recall any episodes in detail which made a particular impression on you, so far as your later scientific work was concerned? Times out in the field that made an impression?
Wilhelms:No. I guess right at the moment, I can't think of anything specific. Again, there was always this question OK, here's all this mess, this pile of pebbles on the hillside, how can you make any sense out of it? And they showed us how to do that. No, I can't think of any specific time when any of that came through.
Doel:And these trips were all made in Southern California?
Wilhelms:Yes. A great area geologically.
Doel:And do you recall thinking about a career in geology when you were at Pomona? Were you thinking ahead about graduate study?
Wilhelms:Yes, I was. I pretty much became locked into geology, because it was my major, and the more quantitative sciences didn't appeal. Certainly at the time I was not interested in anything except science. That has changed considerably since then. Well, that wasn't quite true even then, but I was more of a scientist than anything else, and that science had to be geology. So yes, sure, I assumed I would go on to graduate school and eventually work in the subject.
Doel:Do you recall any ideas which were presented during your undergraduate days which particularly excited you, either in geology or any of the other sciences? Were there any that you particularly disagreed with?
Wilhelms:I'm not sure that I was that questioning in those days. Shelton(I wish I had a list here(presented a list of what he called "the big geologic questions." We would call them BGQ. Every time he'd come to one in his lecture, we'd write down "BGQ" and the number of it. I'd like to go back over it. I think I have that list somewhere. I'd like to go back over it and see how many of them have been solved. Some of them have.
Wilhelms:So it was that sort of thing. But I don't remember anything specific. I probably could if I thought about it, and I certainly could if I got the notes.
Doel:When you think back, do you think that Pomona taught you the latest theories which were being developed at that time?
Wilhelms:Yes, I think it did. Again, because these people had this broad view. Of course, at that time(that was the late forties and early fifties(there weren't very many latest theories. That was a very dead time in geology. They were still struggling with basic questions like the origin of granite, whether it was igneous or metamorphic, and so on, without really much new data coming in to help them one way or the other.
Doel:Did you have much contact with other geology departments in the area? With Caltech, for example?
Wilhelms:No, we didn't. When I took my summer field course, because Shelton was on sabbatical, we went with UCLA the summer of '51. So that was our first contact. And it was a very unhappy experience, because these were two totally different types of groups with different backgrounds. Come to think of it, I said we were pretty good in field work at Pomona, but now that I remember(and I do remember very clearly(UCLA had a far greater background in field geology by the time of this summer course. Also I think they took it after their senior year, whereas we took it between our junior and senior years. Anyway, we had bad squabbles with them. We were told that Pomona was so great, because it cost more, I guess, but actually they knew more than we did. This led to a lot of personal friction, which I had to overcome later when I went back to UCLA. I did so very successfully, because they were at that point very happy to make amends, and I wanted to also, so we got along fine.
Doel:This of course is at a later point in your career.
Wilhelms:Yes, I went to UCLA six years after that. But they remembered. And I remembered.
Doel:I'm curious how you supported yourself in Pomona.
Wilhelms:How did I? My parents kept telling me how poor they were. I had a number of scholarships.
Doel:Had your parents attended college?
Wilhelms:No. I guess [for me] there was mostly scholarships. Well, my parents financed me some, and I did get these scholarships. I really don't remember now. Well, I took loans. That's right, I took loans and paid them back shortly after I graduated. It's funny, I don't remember much about that, though.
Doel:And you were working during the summers?
Wilhelms:Yes, I had a little summer... (what do they call it now?) Entry level jobs during the summer.
Doel:Do you recall any of those?
Wilhelms:They were just things like working in hardware stores. That sort of thing. The summer I was to go in the field, the field camp at UCLA, I was going to go with Roger Revelle of Scripps Institute on one of his oceanographic courses. Revelle was a Pomona graduate. Woodford intervened, I met Revelle at a meeting, and it was all set up. I filled out the forms and was accepted. Then I got chicken pox. That washed that out. The course might have influenced my life completely. I might have become an oceanographer, although I don't like the sea very well.
Doel:You were spared then.
Wilhelms:Yes, it all worked out very well. It was not a smooth path, but it certainly came to the right conclusion.
Doel:Do you recall what summer that was?
Doel:What impression did you have of Revelle, meeting with him?
Wilhelms:I don't. I didn't have enough impression of him. He was the great successful Pomona graduate with this great aura. But I didn't talk with him enough to really get any impression.
Doel:What did you know of the research work that he had done?
Wilhelms:We were pretty well told what he was doing, because he was the successful graduate. Right at the moment I can't think of a single thing.
Doel:I'm curious too about any books you may have read during your undergraduate days that particularly influenced you?
Wilhelms:Historical geology. The basic textbooks, really.
Doel:Do you recall any?
Wilhelms:Well, there was the Yale group; Schuchert and Dunbar was the historical geology text. The usual things that interest all different people such as dinosaurs and paleogeologic diagrams; those did influence me. I eventually did those on the moon, and I suppose the original germ of that idea started way back in those days. I don't recall any great intellectual interest in geology at the time. I think I was just trying to get through school, plus the stimulation of this sort of thing. The big tree ferns in the Devonian or whatever they were, seeing all these in these books.
Doel:Did you or any of your fellow students try to get special courses sometimes?
Wilhelms:No, we didn't. This undergraduate experience just seemed like an extension of high school. Looking back on it, it was tied much more to childhood than to the future.
Doel:Did you feel particularly challenged during those years?
Wilhelms:No, I just slogged ahead as I did in high school, got about the same level of grades. I was challenged, socially, in the way I've alluded to. The course work just went along routinely, I guess, with a few major upsets like physics and mathematics.
Doel:Let me just ask you one last question about your Pomona times. Did you have any strong influence in your philosophy that you felt made an impression, that may have influenced you?
Wilhelms:What sort of philosophy?
Doel:Either a particular philosophy of scientific research or philosophy in general.
Wilhelms:Scientific research, no. Except again, these basic methods of geology. Philosophy, during the dormitory bull sessions, I was considerably influenced by, let's say, the left-of-center political spectrum. That influence has stayed with me to this day. I still, especially in today's America, I feel myself very much to the left, and that stuck. I was also influenced by San Franciscans who were going to Pomona, and I think that led to my wanting to live in San Francisco, which I do. That led also to my wanting to(I'm getting way ahead of the story, but that's probably the reason I joined astrogeology, because the original office of astrogeology was here in Menlo Park near San Francisco. I looked back ten years to college, at the people telling me how great San Francisco was, and it influenced me to come here.
Doel:I see. That's an interesting part of the story, and we will be getting back to that. You graduated from Pomona in 1952?
Doel:And you then went on to Berkeley to pursue graduate studies. Did you have other schools in mind that you considered attending?
Wilhelms:I applied to a number of them. I remember University of Washington as one, and that's simply because I like the Northwest. Also it had a good geologic reputation.
Doel:Did you apply to other schools besides Washington?
Wilhelms:Oh, I'm sure I did but I don't remember.
Doel:What led to your decision to go to Berkeley?
Wilhelms:Ah. Well, as opposed to Washington, I don't know. I got a teaching assistantship. But I might have gotten that at Washington too. I don't remember. Or maybe I didn't. I just don't remember. Well, perhaps it was money, because it was the University of California system and I was a resident in California. But I really don't remember.
Doel:Do you recall working with any professors in particular during this time?
Wilhelms:Oh no. You didn't work with Berkeley professors. They didn't like their students. The students were an encumbrance. That's been the attitude at Berkeley ever since the days of Andy Lawson, I'm told. It still is today, I am told. It's well known. It's not only my opinion. And that eventually was the reason I had to leave Berkeley. They were just intolerable people.
Doel:Who else was there at the time?
Wilhelms:Professors or students?
Wilhelms:Well, first the students. Howard Wilshire was there, who is here at Menlo Park now, and was in astrogeology for a while. This is a tie way back to those days. Howie stuck it out. He swallowed and got through those guys. The professors were F. J. Turner, who was an authoritarian New Zealander, and Nicholas J. Taliaferro, who was an authoritarian I guess Californian, who didn't believe that the San Andreas Fault had any strike slip, and if we did, then we were jerks. Howell Williams, an authoritarian Englishman. Adolf Pabst, an authoritarian mineralogist, German ancestry. And so it went. There wasn't really a nice guy there, except Norman Hines, Norman Ethan Allen Hines, who was the geomorphology professor and the teacher of the introductory course. It was a very difficult environment for a student. Garnis Curtis. Oh, Lord. No, that was not a nice place.
Doel:You were only at Berkeley for one year.
Wilhelms:Yes, I stayed there a year, and because of burnout, academic burnout and these professors, I let myself be drafted rather than try to get anything permanent.
Doel:This is 1953?
Wilhelms:Yes, I was drafted in 1953 and stayed two years in the Army.
Doel:Was there anything during that time you were in the Army that you felt affected you deeply ?
Wilhelms:Yes, it affected me very greatly. At the time I already knew quite a bit of German, and I traded with a guy who didn't want to leave the United States and went to Germany. That affected me greatly, because it introduced me to the civilized life of the big city, rather than the outdoors that I had liked up until that time. I've never gone back on that one.
Doel:During your Army stay in Germany, did you have any contact with German scientists?
Wilhelms:No, none whatsoever. Oh, well, one day we went to the University of Heidelberg to see the Heidelberg Jaw. They somehow thought that we were worthy enough to be shown that. But that was the only thing.
Doel:Did you continue scientific reading at the time?
Wilhelms:No. That was another part of the influence over there. I became much more interested in the humanities, history in particular. So I spent all my time learning German. I read everything in German practically, especially history, military history, which is the thing the Germans write best about. War novels, that sort of thing. That's what I did. But not science, no. You see, I was shaky on science at this time. I just had a burnout on it and I wasn't even sure, when I was in the Army, that I was going to go back to school.
Doel:What other careers had you thought about ?
Wilhelms:Well, at the time Spain was very cheap. It cost 75 cents or a dollar seventy-five a day to live in Spain. And I seriously considered taking my discharge in Europe, and being a bum. I was going to live on the Costa Brava for a dollar seventy-five a day the rest of my life. That idea popped up later. I might as well get ahead to that story. When I took my orals at UCLA, I wasn't sure whether I was going to pass, and I thought, well, if I don't, so what? I'll just go to the Costa Brava. So I was very relaxed all through my orals, and therefore passed, although otherwise I probably wouldn't have. But of course that was a fantasy. It would have been deadly to have done anything like that. Also the Costa Brava costs a lot more than a dollar seventy-five a day now.
Doel:That story did get you through UCLA, in part. You began then at UCLA after your Army discharge?
Wilhelms:Not right away. Again, I was in this period of indecision, so I went to work in a gas station. I had great fun. It was right in the middle of Hollywood. All the movie stars came by. I worked at night, right across from the Palladium, stayed up late and ate dinner late and just had a very free life, which I still look back on with some fondness today. I didn't know what I was going to do. Then one day in December(it was December of 1956(I went to New Mexico to see the Zuni Shalako ceremony, one of the greatest things that happens in North America. I stayed up all night there, then drove back along Highway 66. I saw these nice beautiful outcrops of flat-lying red rock, in the Colorado Plateau-type geology, and I thought, well, hell, I might as well be a geologist. And I remember that very distinctly. It was what happened. Then I registered at UCLA, and slogged through.
Doel:What was it that made you choose UCLA? The fact that you were back in Los Angeles?
Wilhelms:Yes. Well, I couldn't afford to go anywhere else. In fact, I had to live at home again with my folks, who lived in North Hollywood, to save money. Then with the tuition, being a Californian, that was the only place I could go. I couldn't go to Berkeley because of the problem with the professors.
Doel:Do you recall particular classes at UCLA which influenced you? How was the experience different from that at Berkeley?
At Berkeley, I was studying petrology. I guess I thought I was going to be a petrologist. It wouldn't have been a bad subject, actually. At UCLA, I went back to more general geology. There were two(well, there was one course that did influence me profoundly. It was by Professor Daniel Axelrod, in stratigraphy. This was the first I really had learned the principles of stratigraphy thoroughly as they were beginning to evolve. American stratigraphers at the time were beginning to realize that some formations, so-called rock stratigraphic units, crossed time boundaries. They were not the same age every place that they're found, a concept which had escaped Europeans. Probably by now they've figured it out. But at the time, a formation was a certain age and that was all there was to it
. So there was a so-called threefold distinction among stratigraphic units: rock stratigraphic, time stratigraphic, and time. This was just being developed at that time, which was 1957, I suppose, when I took that course. Maybe a little later. I don't remember really. The course was so well taught by Axelrod, who was a combination geologist and paleobotanist, that it sank in. It has stayed with me ever since. This was the source, really, of my career contribution to astrogeology(that plus the early beginnings at Pomona, when we talked about applying stratigraphic principles in a rigorous way to the planets. There were other good courses too(geomorphology, good mineralogy, petrology, and field trips with John Crowell along the San Andreas Fault. Again, we talked about principles. [Crowell was] another one who thought, what is geology? What is the distinction between geology and the other sciences? What do we really do? All of this. Discussions with him really helped me a great deal in establishing these principles. You have got to say Crowell and Axelrod were two influences at UCLA, the main ones.
Doel:Do you recall in particular any discussion that you had with Crowell?
Wilhelms:Yes, I do. I remember very specific places where we were going along the San Andreas, looking at the geomorphology. I remember this thing I just said coming up, in so many words, in one place. I can almost remember where it was(well, I guess I can't remember exactly where it was. At any rate, I have a vague picture in my mind of talking about it next to the San Andreas, and it just sank in for some reason at that point.
Doel:And Crowell ultimately became your thesis advisor?
Wilhelms:Yes, he was the main advisor.
Doel:How did you come to your thesis topic?
Wilhelms:Well, I was just looking around for a field area. I still felt myself deficient in field geology. In fact, I got a C in it at Berkeley. I think it was about the only C I ever got in geology. For good reason(I really didn't understand how to do it. So I worked very hard at remedying the situation. When I was talking about influences, I should have mentioned Cordell Durrell, who died recently. I did my Master's thesis under him because he was willing to help a student, a struggling student. He showed me a great deal about field work. I came out of that after spending a summer up in Plumas County in the Sierras doing a Master's thesis(
Doel:When was this?
Wilhelms:Oh, I guess the Master's was finished in '58. I still didn't have enough field, so I wanted to do my PhD thesis in a field project. This was frowned on, because it wasn't considered creative enough, but I had to do it, because I knew that geology was done in the field. So I asked different people. I finally talked to Benny Troxell and Lauren Wright at the California Division of Mines. They suggested the Nopah and Resting Springs range as a good place to do a good solid field study.
Doel:What was the question you were addressing?
Wilhelms:How does the stratigraphic section fit together with the structure? Does the presence of certain rocks cause the structure that we see there? The structures in those places were two. There was the original thrust faulting, at low angle thrust, which carried rocks from the west towards the east along these low angle faults. These follow structural and stratigraphic horizons, then stepped up through them. That was my main contribution. I'm not sure I realized it at the time. In later years Crowell said, "Gee, that was really great work; you really broke through on that one." I'm not sure I realized at the time how important it was, if it was important. It's the mirror image of the Appalachian structure, it turns out. We know now it's caused basically by plate tectonics, the Pacific Plate jamming into the North American Plate. So that, and the high-angle faulting, the Basin Range faulting. I came up with a geometry that fit the observations. Those things, mainly. But it was just a general study, to be able to do the field work, construct the map and put the whole thing together. That also was vital to my future in astrogeology.
Doel:I'm curious about what you said a moment ago, about the reaction of others to doing field work. What were the other types of doctoral research?
Wilhelms:Well, that was beginning to be the age of quantitative geology, which has now taken over the whole subject. There was a lot of laboratory work at UCLA, high pressure fabric studies. Barry Raleigh, who is now the chief of Lamont(I guess he's still the chief of Lamont Geological Observatory(was there. And Neville Carter, another well known name in the subject. John Christy was a professor. George Kennedy was there. David Griggs. They were there doing their experimental work. These are the things that any real scientist did. UCLA still at that time was very field-oriented, however, so I didn't have too much trouble convincing them to do this. God bless them, because it is really the heart of geology.
Doel:What was Crowell's own reaction to quantitative geology? Did you have many discussions with him about that philosophy of research?
Wilhelms:Well, he was a field man. He integrated all kinds of geology. I'd have to think about that some more. He was a good general geologist, and he certainly didn't snub the other subjects. It's just that he thought more in terms of what you see outdoors. I don't know how that stands today with him. He's at Santa Barbara now.
Doel:What kind of a role did he exercise over your thesis research? Was he directly, actively involved?
Wilhelms:No. None of them really were directly and actively involved. They just let me do my work. They came out once or twice, two or three or four times, I don't know, to look it over, but it was done pretty much on my own.
Doel:How much did you discuss your dissertation research as it was progressing with other students?
Wilhelms:Oh, all the time. We all did that.
Doel:Do you recall what role graduate students played in the support of research? How much contact did you have both with them and with the professors?
Wilhelms:I had a lot more contact with the professors than I would have had at Berkeley. Clem Nelson was another one who was very helpful. Garry Lane. John Rosenfeld was helpful, but he was strange. I spent a summer in Vermont because of Rosenfeld nevertheless. In fact, I ended up working in the quadrangle that was right near his summer cabin back there. It turned out, though, there was nothing to see back there, in the area that I was assigned to, although it was a very pleasant experience. That was the summer of '58. We had a good interaction with the professors, but except for providing general guidance and general encouragement, I don't recall any real contact. It came from Crowell and Durrell particularly. Well, they all did. They all gave good encouragement. I don't know. I can't say beyond that, I guess. The students were there, but I don't know whether(I just don't remember.
Doel:OK. Do you recall discussions about plate tectonics?
Wilhelms:Yes, these were talked about. I remember seminars. In fact, I remember Crowell's structural seminar. There was a great deal of skepticism. Crowell had an open mind, but I do remember that the general conclusion at the time was: well, all the Southern Hemisphere geologists believe in continental drift and none of the Northern Hemisphere geologists with any common sense believe in it. I think that was pretty much the conclusion. But I doubt that very many of them were surprised, astonished or chagrined when the plate tectonics theory came along. They were all reasonable people. They were certainly willing to accept an idea. But at the time, there was an anti feeling, I think.
Doel:Were there any strong proponents of the drift theory?
Wilhelms:Proponents of the drift theory at that time? Hm. I don't remember.
Doel:Let's turn ahead to the time after your Ph.D. research. The dissertation was completed in December 1962.
Wilhelms:Yes, it was completed on December l, and I was here working at the Survey on December 3, as I remember. I've always regretted not taking a little time in between there. In fact, I got sick soon afterwards, because of the rush trying to finish.
Doel:We first should turn back to 1961 when you had your Fulbright to study in Munich. What plan of research did you have in mind?
Wilhelms:Oh, in the Fulbright year? Well, I was to study the tectonics of the Alps. When I got to Munich, I found out that the tectonics of the Alps were studied best at Berlin, something I had no way of knowing, and I soon lost interest in the whole thing over there, and just did more the humanistic things of art, music, literature and history, more than science. I did the minimum of science. I went on field trips with the department at Munich. Just enough to get by.
Doel:Who did you work with in particular in Munich?
Wilhelms:Well, at the very end, a man by the name of Hagen, I think. Something like Hagen. He was a very jovial fellow, drank too much, and he led these very pleasant field trips. The European field trip is very different from the American field trip. I think it's pretty generally true, and it certainly was there. You knocked off about noon, and maybe you got back to the field about 2 or 2:30, and worked for a few more hours, and then knocked off again, and you saw all the castles and churches that were in the area, and went to all the watering holes and so on. It was very very pleasant. I think my advisor was Maucher who died, well, I remember seeing about it recently. All he did was sign my form saying that I was fulfilling my obligations to the Fulbright. The Fulbright didn't require that we did all that much. They knew that the main purpose of the thing, of the scholarship, was to interact with Europeans, and we did that. I don't regret at all not doing more science when I was there.
Doel:Let's go then to your career at the US Geological Survey beginning 1963. Were there any special conditions on the employment when you accepted? Were there any particular desires you had in mind that you discussed with survey people?
Well, let's go back a little bit before that. When I was at UCLA, I went to a GSA convention at USC, as I recall. One of the field trips was to JPL. And I already had a germ of interest(well, I had lots of interest in the moon and the solar system, from my early youth. This right away appealed to me, and I think even at Berkeley, now that I recall. Yes, I do recall now; I've forgotten this for a long time. When I encountered Howell Williams, a vulcanologist, I thought, well, vulcanology, that's good for studies of the moon. So I always had this in the back of my mind somewhere. I made maps of the moon when I was 15. Here's a chance to go to JPL on a field trip, and we went to see the Rangers that were being built. This was in 1961, I guess. Rangers didn't fly successfully for another three more years, but they were still working on them. They were also designing Surveyor and so on.
And really, that's what I wanted to do. So when one of my friends, Paul Merifield, who was also the guy who originally talked me into going to Munich on the Fulbright and Don Lamar work together still in a private consulting outfit in Southern California(said, "There's this guy over at Caltech who's interviewing for astrogeologists, Eugene Shoemaker." I don't remember exactly when it was. It was probably early in '62, I would guess April. I sat down with him, and he said, "Well, are you interested in Quaternary geology?" I said, "Yes," which was true. I was, I am. And I guess I said the right things. Then a few weeks later, I reminded him. I wrote a letter, one of the few times I've ever done this. I said, "Look, I'm your man. This is just right down my alley. Hire me."
Wilhelms:So he did. In those days, the Survey could hire anybody who came along. And it was just completely obvious that this is what I should have done. You asked about conditions. He said, "Well, six months in Menlo Park and then you move to Flagstaff." I said, "Well, six months is better than nothing." I don't recall that he specified jobs, the particular work(geologic mapping, of course, and that was also very much down my alley. I don't remember anything else.
Doel:Did Shoemaker talk to you about his plans for setting up the Flagstaff office?
Doel:What do you recall of those discussions?
Well, at the time when I interviewed him, it had been established that's where it was going to be. I don't remember what he told me then, but I've found out a lot about it since then. Apparently a bunch of them were sitting around in a motel down there, I suppose 1962, because Shoemaker was always going down to look at Meteor Crater and so was Dan Milton, who was with him at the time. Milton said, "Well, we come down here so much, why don't we set up the office down here?" Shoemaker said, "That's a great idea." Also his other love was down there, the Hopi Buttes, diatremes, and it was a good observing place for telescopes in those days. Of course we had to have a good place to use the telescope. It was a very favorable place, from his point of view, for an astrogeology center. He would have liked to have gone to Tucson, but didn't want to get embroiled with Gerard Kuiper, who, he felt, would dominate him. Shoemaker is a very dominant person himself, but nothing like this Dutchman, Kuiper. So he stayed away from Kuiper and set up at Flagstaff. It was all settled. They were not in Flagstaff yet in '62. They started moving in early '63.
But it was assumed that I would go down there. Now, the reason I didn't right away is because we had access to the 36-inch telescope up at Lick Observatory. The USGS astrogeology telescope hadn't been built yet, and took several more years to build. All that time, we had to use the 36-inch. It was a very lovely thing. The fondest memory of my entire career, by the way, is going up to that beautiful telescope, sitting there all night with the red light in the dome on, just looking at the stars. It's very quiet and with classical music coming in, observing the moon, it's a lovely place. Anyway, we did this for several more years and couldn't go to Flagstaff because there was no telescope yet. I don't know how much came out of that telescopic observing but it was sure fun. Mike Carr doesn't agree. He hated it. But in time the Flagstaff requirement went away. Also, there was another thing which came along at this time. There were two jobs I was supposed to do. One was the study in photometry, which eventually became called photoclinometry. You run an isodensitracer across the photo of the moon and work out the slopes. I re-invented the Van Diggelen method of doing this, without knowing about Van Diggelen until later. That was one job. The other thing was polarization.
Now, the reason for these, why both these studies were quantitative, is that Shoemaker knew his first work was too qualitative, because interpretive names were assigned to geologic units on lunar geologic maps. And people said, "Well, it's the moon, you can't know anything about the moon, so you've got to be more quantitative and describe and maybe eventually figure out what these things are. Everybody was skeptical about being able to do anything at all on the moon in those days. Geologists were skeptical. Astronomers were skeptical. Geochemists like Urey couldn't stand the thought of geologists looking at the moon. And so on. So anyway, many of us were assigned to these quantitative jobs of characterizing the moon and its units by a so-called objective means. Mine was polarization. The only place to learn polarization was at the Observatory of Paris at Mendon. And Shoemaker said, "I'm looking for somebody who speaks French," and I said, "Oh well, you know, I passed my test on the Ph.D. exam. I guess I can pick that up pretty fast." Or maybe I told him I already spoke it, I don't know. Anyway, I took a crash course in spoken French, and went over there for one of the most pleasant summers of my life.
Doel:What summer was this?
Doel:And I assume you were working directly with Audouin Dollfus?
Wilhelms:Yes. I sat in his office. He was my instructor. We didn't spend a lot of time on it, actually. He had his other things to do. But who cares? I learned what I had to, picked up an instrument, which fortunately didn't arrive for another year: the Lyot Polarimeter. When I was sitting in Dollfus's office, right opposite him, as a matter of fact, the phone rings, and it's Shoemaker, phoning from somewhere in the United States. He says, "When you get back, how about going to Houston? I've got an astronaut training program down there that we're getting started, and I'd like you to be the lunar expert." There were about half a dozen slots open down there and they needed one lunar guy. So I said, "Sure." Shoemaker was so surprised, I guess, that I was willing to leave Menlo Park, that he never after that required me to move to Flagstaff. Something for which I am eternally grateful.
Doel:What year was this?
Wilhelms:July, '63. The Houston negotiations had been going on between Shoemaker and MSC in the spring. I have letters dated March and so on, where Gilruth and Nolan, the director of the Survey, interchanged these letters which had been written by Shoemaker and Maxime Faget.
Doel:What were your impressions of Audouin Dollfus? You were at the Meudon Observatory for about six weeks?
Wilhelms:Yes. I don't remember exactly how long it was. It might not have been as long as six weeks. He spent some time with me, teaching me the principles of polarization, which really are not all that intricate, at least at the level I was learning them. He was scurrying around doing other things. He was the head of the institute. They were designing an instrument which was some kind of an infra-red gadget, I remember. In fact that's what he spent most of his time doing, working with his assistants on that. And he did some solar work there, which consisted of going out in the back yard with a small telescope and making a few measurements. I really don't remember much more than that, other than that it was an extraordinarily pleasant place.
Doel:Do you recall meeting other astronomers while you were there?
Wilhelms:No, I didn't, except his assistants.
Doel:Do you recall any discussions with Dollfus or any of the others at the facility about plans for French planetary astronomy?
Wilhelms:No, I don't. Dollfus was very receptive to our work. He had me give a little lecture, in French, which I boned up for several days before, how to do it, and succeeded. His assistants were arguing with him that you can't tell anything about the history of the moon by looking at it, as almost 99 percent of all scientists in the entire Eastern and Western Hemispheres will tell you. But he was a believer, and even though he was not a geologist, he was favorably disposed towards it. No, I don't remember anything about their plans. He was an astronomer like many others, mainly interested in instrument development.
Doel:What was the subject of your presentation at the facility?
Wilhelms:Oh, it was the history of the geologic mapping of the moon or stratigraphy of the moon, something to that effect.
Doel:Do you recall the reactions?
Wilhelms:Well, they were skeptical, as I said. Even though I tried to explain to them how you can look at a photograph and tell which crater is younger than which other crater, they didn't believe it. And that's been my experience through most of my career, especially in the sixties. It's become accepted now. There are as lot of people now who look at planets with this viewpoint. But in those days, it was like pulling teeth to get even a geologist to understand it.
Doel:You mentioned a moment ago your conversation with Gene Shoemaker concerning the astronaut training program.
Wilhelms:Yes. He had led a trip of a large group of astronauts, the third group of 14, I think it was(no, the second group of nine astronauts(to Meteor Crater in Flagstaff. He kept them working solid two days, night and day. They went to the telescope at Lowell Observatory, they looked at some of the volcanic features and all that, and this very favorably impressed the astronauts and the people from MSC who were with them. This led to the establishment of the training group in Houston, through the intermediaries of Nolan, the director of the Survey, and Gilruth, the director of MSC.
Doel:How directly involved did you become?
Wilhelms:Oh, I was very directly involved with it, because I did accept his offer to go to Houston. I went down when I got back from Europe. I suppose I showed up in October, '63, and the leader down there was Dale Jackson, who was a good old-time crusty geologist with very strong opinions about a lot of things. He was a veteran of the Marine invasion of Iwo Jima. That's the kind of person he came across as being, except that he was a brilliant petrologist and a very good politician and general geologist. The problem that happened down there was this. The agreement was all set up, signed, sealed and delivered. The Survey was going to deliver six or so people to actually be attached to MSC as trainers of the astronauts and advisors on general lunar geologic problems. But when Dale got down there, he found that MSC had decided to set up its own group. This caused heated conflict for the rest of the time we were down there. They never reconciled it. The two groups were rivals, and Dale and the leader of their group, Ted Foss, were constantly at each other's throats, faking each other out to get to the nearest reporter and that sort of thing. It was a very bad scene. The job was done, but eventually we had to pull out on June of the following year because of that, and conducted the astronaut training from Flagstaff and Menlo Park instead.
Doel:Did Ted Foss's group remain in Houston?
Wilhelms:Yes, they did. A lot of them are still there. Foss is not, but Vel Clanton is still there(he may be gone by now, but he was there until recently. Elbert King was the other one, who's now a professor at the University of Houston. John Dietrich is still at MSC. So they stayed and worked on this. They continued the astronaut training too for a good number of years, based in Houston, whereas our people worked out of our own home office. I stayed with it for another year and then pulled out because even though it was a great experience, I felt I should be back doing my lunar maps rather than spreading my efforts thin into teaching and so on, which is what we were doing at the time. It was probably the wrong decision, actually. It was really great fun being with those guys. We got to go to all sorts of geologic field areas.
Doel:When did you finish up this work?
Wilhelms:I came down with the Iceland Crud in, I think, probably the summer of '65.
Doel:Do you recall what particular principles you were attempting to show the astronauts?
Doel:Were there discussions that you had over what the proper realms for investigation ought to be?
Oh, sure, we had lots of discussions like that. The principles were the basic principles of geology, first and foremost(the ones I talked about before, about the young rocks like on top of the old rocks. Dale Jackson was a very good man on principles. The first trip was to the Grand Canyon, because you start at the top with the young rocks and you work your way down to the old rocks at the bottom. This was the whole point, and the astronauts grasped it immediately, of course. But we didn't think they would, because of this thing I've been saying. It seemed so difficult a concept for people to understand. It seemed so simple to all us geologists. But the astronauts figured it out; it was quite clear. Then: how do you do it on the moon? And second, what do we know about the moon now? That was my point, because I was the only lunar guy down there for I guess the entire time. Well, the astronauts were great learners.
We'd just pour this stuff on them, all sorts of subjects in geology and geophysics, lunar geology and what have you, and give them books, and then equipment. All of this. They were great learners, and great forgetters. They would absorb it and talk to you in an animated way with great understanding, and then next week it would be gone. It took us a while to realize that. We gave them too much. I don't count myself as guilty on this as much as some of the others. They were teaching them the formulas of minerals and that sort of thing. Al Chidester, who's a nice guy, showed them how to use the aneroid barometer to get elevations in the field, totally useless on the moon, but that didn't bother Al. Mike Collins in his marvelous book CARRYING THE FIRE complains about having learned the formula for turquoise. So there was a lot of this kind of problems, but we thought at the beginning that they could learn everything. We sure gave them an intensive course. Eventually the training work accelerated, after an interregnum for a few years, after we left. Later, the Survey rounded up all sorts of experts in many geologic subjects and really just laid it on the astronauts. I was out of it by then. They were going out every month before their missions, in the field, and becoming really good geologists, most of them.
Doel:How many of you from the USGS were involved in the astronaut training program?
Wilhelms:From the USGS, let's see. There was Al Chidester, Dale Jackson, Marty Kane, and I, then later on, Dan Milton and Gordon Swann came down, Swann from Denver and Dan from Menlo Park, for a shorter time. I guess six from the USGS at maximum, which was the original plan.
Doel:What percentage of your time was spent in the astronaut training?
Wilhelms:When we were there, all of it. I spent all my time on it.
Doel:You postponed research?
Wilhelms:Yes, right. Oh, I did a little bit, but it didn't amount to much. Well, actually, we thought we were going to continue our research, and so we ran off to the telescope every time the moon came around to the right position for observing our own field area.
Doel:What telescope were you using?
Wilhelms:We came back to Lick. In those days, there was lots of money for travel, so we just went everywhere, came back to Lick supposedly every two weeks, although I couldn't make it that often. The terminator goes through each of our areas every two weeks. We also went to the solar telescope at Kitt Peak, a marvelous place to observe. We took the astronauts there too on a field trip, where you see the moon projected on the table. We had lenses and we looked; we magnified the image on this table. We went there also for other observing. That's where I remember Kuiper walking in one night to assess the situation. Of course he stuck his nose up at it, made a few pontifical remarks and moved on, although I think he did say he saw amazingly more than he thought he would.
Doel:Using the solar telescope?
Wilhelms:Using the solar telescope, yes, because of course it was meant for the sun and not the moon, which is why we got it. They weren't using it in the night time.
Doel:I'm curious about the actual visual work you were doing with the Lick Telescope. Were you making sketches of your region?
Wilhelms:Yes. The plan was to do as much as you could from the photographs, which in those days were very crude(especially the one of my two areas. We made little sketches from those on the base map, and then went up to fill in the details, critical relations, things like this: which crater is younger than which. You can get that by seeing whether the secondaries are superimposed, whether one crater is superimposed on the other. That sort of thing. You could see it only on the telescope in those days. Also, those were still the days when people thought there was lots of vulcanism on the moon. All these little lines, and all these little lines of hills we saw were very likely to be internal features. We studied those to see if they looked like anything we'd seen on earth, and we often saw that they did. In later years, when we saw better pictures, they turned out not to. We made a lot of mistakes with the telescope. This telescopic work did a lot of things. It did field check, as we called it. Some of these relations derived from the crude photos. But we also were misled a lot by the lighting conditions. Even though we got to be pretty good observers, we were still fooled by what we saw to a great extent. I don't think it was really productive. When you take the amount of airline miles and man hours we put into it, you'd probably have to say it was not productive. But as I said earlier, I enjoyed it greatly.
Doel:Did you have any contact with the astronomers at that time?
Wilhelms:Oh, some, yes. Stanley Vasilevskis, positional astronomer, was our main access. Also Whitford.
Doel:Whitford was the director.
Wilhelms:The director, yes. They showed us how to use the telescope and they let us in. They were our conscience also. There were two crises that happened. You've seen, as I said earlier, my not moving to Flagstaff was dependent upon the continuous use of the telescope at Lick. One night Danny Milton forgot to turn off the drive, and the astronomers walked in to find the 36-inch classic Lick telescope pointing at the floor.
Doel:The lens, you mean.
Wilhelms:Yes, the lens was almost on the floor, and that was a crisis. I started to look for an apartment in Flagstaff, mentally. And one night(this is a story I've never told anybody but might as well tell you now(I let the thing get away. I unclamped the clamps, and looked over to sketch or something. When I looked up, the telescope was again heading for the floor. If anybody had walked in, we'd have been dead. That was Flagstaff. Oh(and on another night, one of my colleagues, Don Elston, saw this great smoke rising on the moon. He was going to phone the 120-inch to get them to take a photograph, only it was rough terrain illuminated by grazing lighting. If that phone call had gotten through to the 120-inch, and they would have found out what it was all about, then we would have been out. There were a number of these. Then there was another one which I really can't tell you about, involving Masursky. This was our great fear. It never happened, and I'm still in Menlo Park. I never had to live in Flagstaff, because eventually that kind of observing just went away as an important factor.
Doel:Was Elston attempting to make the phone call?
Wilhelms:Yes, and couldn't find the number or something. I forget what it was.
Wilhelms:No, in retrospect it was ghastly. It was Elston, not Eggleton. Eggleton would have known better.
Doel:OK. When you were finished with the astronaut training work, what did you see as being the next line of research that you wanted to continue?
Wilhelms:Well, it was mapping. This was always my main thing. I was brought in for this. First of all, Masursky was to have been the mapping coordinator but he went off and did other things. Mainly he was concerned in getting cameras for the telescope. In fact, he spent most of his career getting cameras for either telescopes or spacecraft. So the mapping coordinating job went to me. I was the hard core stratigrapher and field mapper, as I said, because of my training, and great passion and interest too. I was really convinced that this was the way to do the moon. So I became the mapping coordinator, and I made many, many of my own maps, and edited and helped all the others with theirs. It was my main job for ten or twelve years.
Doel:Do you recall in particular debates over methods in lunar stratigraphy?
Wilhelms:Oh, yes, there were lots of those. Lots of those.
Doel:What do you recall of them?
Well, there's an interesting interplay between what you think about origins, and what you think about ages. The more you know about one or the other, the more you can learn about the second. If you knew that all the craters of the moon were impacts, then it's a straightforward matter to rank them in order of age. But if you think that some of them are volcanic, and therefore their appearance is due to that, rather than their age, then that throws it into an entirely different level of effort. Now you have to separate the effects of age from the effects of origin. You have to see direct superpositional relations, for example, to be able to establish the age. If you know the origin in advance, then you don't have to so much, because the morphology, the degradation, tells you the age. So the debates were, I guess, not so much about the principles of stratigraphy.
Much of what we were trying to do depended on these interrelationships, which could be greatly aided by knowing the crater origins. A great deal of effort was expended in those days in the terrestrial field and in the lab and so on, getting origins, especially of craters, but also volcanic materials. The field geologists liked to go out in the field, as I no longer did because I was burned out in my field area, hot desert. These guys liked to go out to work these things out. Also, the whole subject of impact mechanics was being developed. So the debates were really about those things, about origins rather than methods, I think you have to say. The methods were trivial matters(like how you set up the map explanations and how you separate these three classes of stratigraphic units(as I said earlier, time, time-rock, and rock. That sort of thing. That was my job. Somebody else can tell me the origins. I tried my best to figure them out, essentially from first principles looking at the photos. But a lot of that was spinning the wheels, really.
Doel:Do you recall any debates which were occurring outside of those of you in the Survey?
Wilhelms:Oh, sure. Everybody that was in the game was debating vigorously. The outsiders at the time were more in the vulcanology camp. We had the famous Jack Green. Every time he got a chance, he got up and started his talk that there were calderas, and tried to convince us everything on the moon was calderas.
Doel:He was isolated in the community, wasn't he?
Wilhelms:Yes, he was isolated because he was just nutty. He pushed these ideas so far that they became totally ridiculous, including after the Apollo landings. There weren't all that many people working in the business in those days, you see, especially geologists, outside of the Survey. The old grandfathers of the subject, like Kuiper and Urey, didn't participate actively in the sixties. John O'Keefe still to this day claims tektites come from the moon, but that's the extent pretty much of his work. Tommy Gold still says that mare basins are filled with deep dust. He was doing that in the sixties, but again not doing anything really in the way of work. All through, until the end of the sixties, there really weren't too many people in this. Finally Tim Mutch came along. I guess he spent a sabbatical year 1967 in Flagstaff. Tim Mutch was a great scientist, and I miss him greatly. I wish he hadn't gone to the Himalayas.
Doel:That was of course the accident.
Wilhelms:Yes. He was killed in 1980, I guess it was?
Doel:I believe so.
Wilhelms:The story probably should be told about how he wrote his book. He came with a keen appreciation of, again, these basic principles. He was a stratigrapher basically, a soft-rock man. He came with an appreciation of how you could apply these principles to the moon. He spent a year in Flagstaff interacting with those guys, and he spent a lot of time out here with us in Menlo.
Doel:What year would this be?
I think it's '67. Maybe he started in '66. Tim could write, whereas I was not in those days a very good writer. He wrote it up, in this great book, GEOLOGY OF THE MOON : A STRATIGRAPHIC VIEW. Well, he got that from the Survey, you see. It was original with him to the extent that he knew that it could be done, but he got all the details and all the data and all the stimulus from us. I helped him reorganize it, and several of the rest of us got in thoroughly and reviewed it and helped him along. So that was really as much a Survey effort as it was his, as he well acknowledged. In fact, he apologized for writing it. He said, "You guys ought to do this." The product was, no matter who did it, a marvelous thing. It really is a landmark in our science. Then, BellComm got into the act. This is where Jim Head III and Farook El-Baz came in and Noel Hinners; they were BellComm guys. They were the advisors to NASA on matters of exploration, and Apollo. BellComm had lots of money. NASA had lots of money.
I really have to say that they were the first outfit besides the Survey that got into it. There were the universities, like Tim from Brown and Spence Titley from University of Arizona, but that was derivative work. There were a few others from the universities that really weren't very productive in the lunar business. The university problem remained with us through Mars. There's something about the university guys. They don't spend enough time(or something(and oftentimes their work has been shoddy. They're good geologists, maybe, but they just don't get in and slug it out enough to really be very productive. I don't really think it's too much to say that most of the work on the moon in geology in the sixties was Survey work.
Doel:What sort of influence do you feel that Tim had on the group here?
Well, he encouraged us, because he was obviously a very smart guy. The fact that he was interested and supportive was a great encouragement. He helped us with drawing analogies between the moon and the earth in ways we hadn't thought of. He had this gift of presentation which clarified things, not only for the public but I think also for many of us. And he kept on supporting this whole approach all through his NASA career, which I wish were still going on. He gave us a lot of ideas. That book is still a very good state-of-the-art assessment for 1970. If you read it now, it sets up the problems in a very good way. These were then tested. His alternatives for the origin, let's say(OK, I'll give you a good example, the age of the mare units in Mare Serenitatis.The rim and the center look different. Well, why? Is it because the rim's older or the center's older? And if so, why and where did the stuff come from? This is a nice illustration. The idea we had at the time was that the center was older, but he showed the other way as an alternative, and eventually it turned out to be the other way. So it was a good influence. He had some wrong ideas. For some reason, he got off on lineaments. I happen to hate lineaments. Whenever I see anybody interested in those, I always think that they're off on the wrong track. This is the quantitative scientist again. You measure lineament directions and you've done something, when actually you haven't done anything at all because they're artifacts in almost all cases. But an enormous amount of the outside work, even today, is done on that sort of thing. Grid patterns and all that. It isn't important at all.
Doel:You see these methodological differences remaining very strong in the science?
Wilhelms:I wouldn't say very strong today. They've been cleaned out. But they were sure strong then. The attempt to be quantitative. Of course, I already told you I was lousy at mathematics, so perhaps I'm prejudiced. But it just doesn't work, has not worked, on the planets. Until you get into good theory, things like Mike Carr does, it's not important. You need of course physical theory based on a broad understanding of science, but I'm just talking about mapping now, stratigraphy, working out the relations of the rocks and surface. These cannot be done quantitatively. You have to take a geologic approach, and the attempt to do otherwise is simply wasted; it wasted a lot of literature space.
Doel:How deeply involved did you become in the Lunar Orbiter program?
Wilhelms:I was very deeply involved in the Orbiter, and not at all in the Surveyor.
Doel:What were your responsibilities for the Orbiter?
Wilhelms:Well, originally site selection. At this time, all the telescopic stuff had been pretty well gathered together, and we thought we knew where to look. I was the guy who had looked most at the moon at that time, I guess, so I was involved in the later Orbiter missions, figuring out the sites. Many of us did that. We all got together in meetings, very amiable, pleasant, productive meetings, I thought. They eventually led to the Orbiter 5 site selection. Orbiter 1, 2 and 3 were a little different. Here they were looking for smooth places, so the earlier Apollo landings could be safe. That was all. Smooth in those days meant dark, because slopes were bright and secondary craters and rays were bright. Therefore the absence of them meant no craters, no slopes(therefore dark. That was the way the sites for the first three Orbiters really were basically picked. They picked the dark spots along the equatorial belt of the moon. It turned out to be a partly wrong premise, but that was the way it was done. Wrong premise because it was compositional, partly compositional, rather than slopes.
Wilhelms:Yes. Doesn't have anything to do with age, or very little to do with age.
Doel:Resuming now after a brief pause. After the work with the Orbital site selections, you then became involved in the Apollo site selections.
Wilhelms:Right. There's two kinds of Apollo sites, early and late. The late were called(during most of the time anyway(the AAP, for Apollo Applications Program. The Orbiter 5 sites that I did have a lot to do with are where the AAP sites were, intended for later missions. They were more geologically complex. The first ones, the earlier Apollo, were these dark spots in the maria, smooth places. That's all they cared about. So Apollo 11 was landed at one of those dark spots, and was in the east because that was good operationally. It also suited us, because it was an old mare and it was blue. Ewen Whitaker at the Lunar and Planetary Lab had come up with a difference between blue and red mare units that was supposed to be possibly quite important. It turned out to be important. The blue ones were higher in titanium. At the time, it wasn't known what the reason was. The later sites were very heavily geologic. They were based on the effort to sample major units(where the point results from the surface could be extrapolated to large areas.
Doel:Were there particular debates over site selections?
Wilhelms:Well, one was not debated so much. Most everybody agreed, that the Fra Mauro formation, which is the Imbrium Basin ejecta, would be a great site, because it would establish the age and the composition well, at least the age of the whole thing. It was a stratigraphic dividing horizon between the old and the young part of the moon. This was a Shoemaker stratigraphic insight from the early days. Once you could date that, you could date most of the moon, in rough terms. It was a marvelous idea and everybody went along with it.
Doel:Fra Mauro Formation was a study that you had done?
Well, among others. It was really Shoemaker's idea, and Dick Eggleton worked on it a lot. I eventually specified its distribution and details of the type area and so on. I was only one of several that worked on it. OK, that one wasn't controversial. The principles for the others were probably more controversial, because they were partly designed for this purpose of extrapolating, but also to test origins. Nowadays, it's not so much of a problem, because the origins are pretty well known. We have learned something over the years. But in those days, sinuous rilles were a great mystery. Many of the craters were thought to be volcanic.
Domes were thought to be volcanic, with different compositions. The plains, the light plains of the terra were thought by almost everybody to be volcanic. Well, not everybody. You asked for debates: here was the main debate. First of all, let me just say in those days the emphasis was on what I call special features. Everything that wasn't part of the general lunar scene stood out to the eyes. Sinuous rilles were an example of this, or domes with the so-called summit craters, or rills of any sort, or any kind of odd things. They attracted attention much out of proportion to their importance. One of the special features was the so-called hilly and furrowed terrain of the Descartes Highlands. This was right next to some of these smooth plains, smooth plains those which are light-colored and spread out over a great part of the near side of the moon. The light plains originally were classified as part of the Fra Mauro formation, or the unit that was so-called the Apenninian series. It was an old name for what became called the Fra Mauro.
It was an area of ejecta, and the hummocky terrain near the eventual Apollo 16 site in the Descartes Highlands was thought to be a hummocky Imbrian ejecta. This work was done by Dick Eggleton, the guy who taught me lunar stratigraphy when I first got here. Here's an important point, I think. In later years, as we looked increasingly carefully with large staffs of people, pouring over the telescope photos and the Orbiter photos and at the telescope visually, we began to see a lot of subtle differences, including these special features and things that looked like terrestrial volcanics. And so we began to devise rather elaborate notions of what composition these features should be. The steep ones were going to be silicic, and the flat ones were going to be basaltic. That sort of thing. This was why the Descartes site was picked. The flat plains were volcanic, and thus either a different composition or a different age from the mare.
These hilly and furrowed things nearly were thought to be ash deposits, cinder cones, or silicic volcanic domes(rhyolites or andesites or something like that. That was the reason that site was visited. It was a bandwagon thing. McCauley and I each blame the other for pushing it. But we did push it, and it was bought. Then Bellcomm picked up on it and exaggerated the ideas even beyond what we had come up with. So anyway, that was why [Apollo] 16 went. As soon as we got there, we found out it was impact material, as Eggleton had suggested in 1962. It's too bad about Eggleton. He's one of the most creative and imaginative guys in the early days, but he couldn't settle down and produce anything that contributed to the effort as a whole. When Mike Carr was branch chief, Eggleton just drove him around the bend, and Mike had to get rid of him. I've always thought that was too bad, because this guy did come up with a lot of the ideas that the rest of us ran with, and he was right more often than wrong. Well, let me return to the other sites.
The Apollo 15 site involved special features. The sinuous rille attracted people there. Also the Imbrium Basin. There was a combination of the special feature fixation: wanting to sample a big unit that could be extrapolated, the Imbrium massifs. The Imbrium ejecta supposedly exposed there, and the pre-Imbrium ejecta supposedly exposed there, were the reasons for going with 15. Let me continue working backward. Apollo 14 involved the Fra Mauro. It originally had been scheduled for 13. When 13 didn't make it to the moon, it was rescheduled for 14, because it was important. That was the best site. Unfortunately it was worked on by the geologically worst astronaut, Al Shepard, with who was it, was it Duke? No, Mitchell. Anyway, Shepard was the commander, and he didn't care about geology, never did. All through the astronaut training, he didn't care about it.
Doel:Were these people that you had dealt with directly when you were involved in astronaut training?
Wilhelms:Yes. The other guy was Mitchell. I didn't deal with him. But Shepard(when they got there, they just simply did a lousy job sampling. Here's this great site that was wasted, almost wasted. In fact, it's controversial to this day. They should have collected more material of the right sort. They could have if they'd been paying attention to what they were doing, which could have dated this thing once and for all. So the controversy still exists about it. The 15 guys were great and the 16 guys were great and the 17 guys were great, but 14 was a disaster.
Doel:What sort of contact did you have with Harrison [Jack] Schmitt?
Wilhelms:Oh, lots of it. He was one of us. He was one of the boys.
Doel:When did he join the branch?
Wilhelms:Oh, pretty early. I suppose I've got a record of that. I just saw it recently, as a matter of fact. I suppose '64 or '65. He was with the fourth group of astronauts. I don't remember that.
Doel:We can check on that as well.
Wilhelms:Yes. He was one of us, and it turned out that he was better coordinated and more motivated than some of the rest of us. He was the only one out of us who made it. Originally, when we joined the branch, all of us were told that we would be astronauts. That was Shoemaker's ambition for himself. He's told you the story, I'm sure, that he thought of that way back in the(I guess in the forties(he'd be an astronaut on the moon. Before the word astronaut was invented Shoemaker had the idea to do it, to be a Field geologist on the moon. So all of his boys that joined the branch were thought of as potential astronaut candidates. We were all supposed to learn how to fly light planes, so that eventually we could learn how to fly jets. Most of us were absurd candidates for that, and there were a couple of crashes. Dan Milton crashed one, Don Elston crashed one, there were another one or two.
Doel:You were flying as well?
Wilhelms:Well, I didn't ever do it. I wanted no part of it. But that was the scheme. Jack Schmitt was the only one who made it through. Mike Duke is now chief of the Earth Sciences and Planetary Sciences Division of JSC. He applied. Danny Milton applied. They actually went into the preliminary examinations, physical and psychological examinations. Danny Milton can't even drive a car, so they washed him out. I don't know why Mike was washed out. Jack made it through, and we used to go out and eat and talk and all sorts of things, over the years, before he went off to be an astronaut. We saw him recently. He came here to Menlo Park, and we had a marvelous dinner nearby talking about the old days. Of course, he's succeeded. He was a US Senator and he's a great guy. In those days, he was a little bit too much the Caltech man, Harvard man, but now he's mellowed into a real solid productive human being. A little too right wing for my taste, but never mind. He calls all us guys around Menlo Park "knee-jerk liberals."
Doel:I'm curious about your perception of the Menlo Park branch of the USGS, in contrast to other centers for planetary research that you knew. What was the atmosphere?
Wilhelms:Well, the atmosphere was very vigorous. It was a beehive of activity, night and day. We were all working here till midnight or whatever. It was a great center of intellectual ferment. I don't know; it was partly intellectual ferment and partly just dirty work, of churning out paper for various crisis reports. But it was very active. You see, we always kind of looked down our nose at Flagstaff. We were the scientific center, and Flagstaff was the mission-oriented center. Flagstaff spent all its time in the first few years moving offices. They were building this building, and living out of that building, and hiring people and buying equipment and all this, and we didn't think they were doing anything of any value for many years in there. They eventually got down to be the center of the mission operations, the basis for the field geology teams, and certainly that work has turned into a great contribution to lunar science. It could be debated who contributed more. I might even admit that they did. I don't know. But for a while, there seemed to be an awful lot of wasted time, effort and money down there, whereas we were slugging along doing our job here on what we considered the basic science.
Doel:By the late 1960s, how many people were directly involved in astrogeology?
Wilhelms:Well, that was the peak. I suppose a couple of hundred. We had 20, 25 here at Menlo. The rest of them were at Flagstaff. And that's just in the Survey. At that time, all the sample experimenters started to come in, so by the lunar geology and other lunar science was a big business.
Wilhelms:Now it's back to being a small business again.
Doel:Are there any other areas that you would like to discuss, of your work in the 1960s, that we haven't talked about?
Wilhelms:Let me get into some detail on the way concepts changed. This matter of the dark and light mare was quite important, both in the failures and the successes. The Apollo 17 site was picked because it had a dark deposit, which was thought therefore to be very very young, dark and smooth. It was dark, therefore young, because at that time dark meant young. There were very few craters on it, and that was another indication it was young. It turned out to be very old. Jack Schmitt(the story is well-known(called it this young volcanic deposit. It's volcanic all right, but it's three and a half billion years old. That was simply based on failure to do our own job properly. George McGill from the University of Massachusetts was here, and he said, "Hey, this stuff is embayed by the younger mare material, this is old." And we realized, yes, I guess that's right. In other words, he applied photogeology properly, and came to the right answer. He applied our principles but did it better and came up with the right answer. It was a little too late to change anything, so the mission went there, and of course it was useful.
Doel:What was his affiliation?
He was here as just a visitor of some sort, summer visitor. At the time he was, and still is, professor of geology at University of Mass. There was another one like that regarding the age relation of Mare Serenitatis where we really should have been able to see that the central mare was younger than the rim. That is to say, not really the rim, but the outside ring of older, darker blue mare. It was right there to be seen in the photos. It wasn't until stereo photos became available that it became obvious. The principles were right, just the application was wrong. Descartes was a similar one. There's Orientale ejecta that looks very much like the Descartes site, obviously impact ejecta. Yet somehow(and many of us did see that there was this connection(the bandwagon of the volcanic origin was going a little too strong at that time. So there were mistakes made, but they were mistakes in application, not in principle. I'm defending principles because I think it's very important in this planetary business. What else might I add? Well, another issue is impact melt. The whole history of lunar science has been a moving away from these special origins of special features, exotic selenological things. Well, that's a misstatement. That was half of it. The other half was making the moon into another earth, and that was equally erroneous. Everybody now understands the processes that have gone on on the moon to be quite simple.
There's impact; almost everything is impact. There's just a little bit of mare basalt which is volcanic, a very small volume of crust of the moon. So these little hills, cracks, pools, cascades and what have you in many of the young craters are impact melt features. It's not quite obvious they're impact melt. The pictures have shown that. And the theory fits in too. But in those days, that stuff was believed to be all volcanic, and some of these sites(Copernicus for example(were considered because they were going to give us this different kind of volcanic rock. Eventually all these special little features just went away and boiled down to variations of the impact process. My own contribution, again presaged by Eggleton, as I see when I'm looking over old monthly reports, which I've been doing lately was the secondary impact origin of the basin secondaries. Many of the clustered large craters all over the moon are secondaries of basins. It really comes down to this: the terra of the moon is impact basins. There are ejecta blankets and there are secondaries, then smaller impact features which are the craters. This is then covered in a few places, mostly in basins, by these basaltic mare. And that's it. It's very simple. It's boiled down to this over the years. Of course, there are many complications and many points of interest such as the origin of the moon, which is not explained that way. But the geologic problems on the moon are much simpler than they appeared in the sixties.
Doel:That's an interesting point. Do you remember debates over the lunar origin in the 1960s?
Wilhelms:Well, that didn't progress much. The three main theories of capture, so-called wife sister, and daughter were already in existence before the sixties, and they just kept on in existence through the sixties, through the seventies. Nothing happened because nobody got any data. And they all seemed wrong. The moon could not have originated any of those three ways, and somebody said, "Well, then, it doesn't exist," because we can't figure out how it got there. And everything seemed to be true. It was just an argument that went nowhere. I think I have to say the debates were not something that interested me at the time, because there was nothing new coming out. Even after the first samples came in, there was nothing new. People tried to see the origin of the moon in these samples, but it wasn't there. So it wasn't until 1984 finally at the meeting in Kona, Hawaii, that Hartmann resurrected his old theory of a giant impact on the earth, and all of a sudden everybody bought it. It just seemed to be right. These other three ideas were wrong, and they didn't work, they weren't going anywhere for 20 or 30 years, more than 30 years, but this one worked, explained everything we saw. It's been pretty widely accepted since then. It's the idea I like, certainly.
Doel:OK. Well, I'd like to thank you very much for this session. We will of course(and this should go on the tape(not make this tape available to anyone or its transcript without your express knowledge and approval, as provided in the permission forms that we have for you with an edited transcript. Thank you again.
All right, signed.
 Charles Schuchert and Carl O. Dunbar, A Textbook of Geology (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Fourth Edition), 1941.
It was 1962. [DEW]
 On a trip to Iceland. I decided to hang it up at that time. [DEW]
Mutch did perish accidentally in 1980. [DEW]
 He started work there in September 1966. [DEW]
 It was July 1964. [DEW]