Oral History Transcript — Dr. Harold Masursky
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Interview with Dr. Harold Masursky
Harold Masursky; June 18, 1987
ABSTRACT: Covers his education and career through the early 1970s. Youth in Fort Wayne, Indiana; education at Yale University in early 1940s; war-time involvement with Army Corps of Engineers; graduate work at Yale; early career with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Other topics include: his geological field studies in the American Southwest; the Atomic Energy Commission-sponsored surveys for uranium deposits; initial involvement in lunar and planetary geology; the development of astrogeological studies within the USGS and NASA; Yale's Department of Geology; his mapping of the Red Desert, Wyoming; AEC nuclear explosion crater studies; Lick Observatory lunar mapping project; and the founding of astrogeological research within the USGS. Includes recollections of Falmouth summer study on Apollo, 1965; arguments over methodologies for lunar science; research on terrestrial meteorite craters; laboratory studies of high velocity impacts; and involvement in geologic training for astronauts, 1960. Also, impressions of Soviet science; involvement in Mariners 4, 6, 7, and 9; appointment as leader of imaging team of Mariner 9; becomes Branch Chief of Flagstaff branch of U.S. Geological Survey, early 1970s.
Doel:I know that you were born on December 23, 1923, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but I don't know anything else about your family or about your early life. Who were your parents and what did they do?
Masursky:Well, my father was trained as a teacher, but they met in New York and were married and had the first two children. They then moved to Indiana, which was then from a European perspective the end of nowhere. And then they had four more children. I was the sixth child. They had five daughters and of course kept trying until they finally had a son, at which point they were contented. My father supposedly was the sole survivor of his family. All the rest of his brothers were in the military in the Russian-Japanese War and they were supposedly all killed. He had promised them that he would come to America if that happened, so he did, and he literally escaped, because he would have been drafted also.
Doel:How old was he at that time?
Masursky:Very young, I think in his late teens. My mother was nine when she left. My father was in what is now Russia, and she was from what is now Poland. And he was raised as a teacher. His family had some money, but they lost their estate because they were not allowed to own property. They turned it over to their foreman, and of course he then promptly took it over in deed as well as in the paperwork. So my father became a small merchant. Of course I grew up during the Depression so things were very difficult. But I finished high school in Fort Wayne, and I tried for a Yale scholarship that was awarded locally. The vice president of a big insurance company had a son who was at Yale and he was killed in an automobile accident. He was on the football team and was a fine student and a fine athlete, so they set up a big scholarship fund, and one of our neighborhood friends won it. I tried for it I think three or four years later and managed to get that scholarship to Yale.
Doel:I wonder, before we talk about your Yale experience, if we could talk a little bit more about your early life in Fort Wayne. Do you remember any experiences that you felt influenced your later career?
Masursky:Well, I had friends from an incredible variety of backgrounds. I had a good friend whose name was Hector Fraser. He was of course Scottish. And another good friend who was Italian, and another good friend who was Syrian. But most of the county is 95 percent German—I've been to central Germany and it matches it exactly. All the flowers and shrubs and crops are an exact duplicate. I've taken the train across central Germany and I would not be able to tell it from Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania. I had a lot of black friends, and went to an integrated grammar school and high school, so I was very pleased with having been brought up with this large variety of people. I thought it was very useful in learning to accept people for what they were, and that's I think an enormously valuable lesson. I tried to send my children to a similar school in Flagstaff, and not send them to a suburban school that had 99.9 percent WASPs. I found that the children who went to those schools and then went on to junior high and high school where they came in contact with the tougher part of the community, had a very hard time learning how to deal with the other children. It was very useful having been brought up in a very, very mixed school. I guess the thing that I found most difficult was that I was small—I'd skipped a grade or two, so I was smaller than most of my cohorts. I remember I tried out for the basketball team when I was a freshman, and of course I was cut immediately because I was about half the size that a basketball player needs to be. I remember being very, very upset at that, so I went out for the school paper and became editor of it. Then I played on an intermural basketball team that won the intermural championship, when I was a senior. Of course, small children judge their entire life on how they do in sports. I mean, nothing else exists. But for some reason—and I don't really remember how I came to this, having grown up in the plains of Indiana—I decided I wanted to be a mining engineer, and I knew that Yale had a very famous mining engineering school. I thought that's what I would do.
Doel:Do you remember how young you were when you came to that decision?
Masursky:I think in grammar school. But when I got to Yale, I found that the Yale Mining School had closed down. Yale was in the Connecticut Valley, and that's where all the brass was done; they had big mining interests. But by then the Colorado School of Mines and Missouri School of Mines had grown up, and they took the business away from Yale. So they closed that school. But what I did was major in civil engineering and geology, which is what mining engineering is. Thus the fact that the school had disappeared didn't interfere with what I intended to do.
Doel:Do you remember reading about science when you were growing up?
Masursky:Sure. And I'm sure somehow I read something that bent me in this direction. But it happened so long ago, I don't really remember.
Doel:Were there any teachers in high school that made an impression on you, particularly science teachers?
Masursky:Yes. Well, my science teacher was an irascible old scoundrel who taught chemistry, and my math teacher was very good, and my English teacher was very good. All of those teachers had a strong influence on trying to make me do as well as I could. And you know, I thought I was a tremendous mathematician until I got to Yale and met some real mathematicians, and decided that wasn't really where I would be going. I took all the standard engineering courses, that's basic physics, basic chemistry. The first engineering course we took was in sophomore year, engineering drawing. In those days engineers hadn't gained stature, so the requirement was small and a lot of people wanted it. That's how they flunked people out, in engineering drawing class. So I remember having to work very hard at this because I still am not a draftsman, and that's really what they used. It seemed like a peculiar way to select people for engineering. I finally liked the geology courses so much better, and did so much better in them, that I switched my major in the last semester of my senior year. Of course I got deferments to finish my science and engineering, and then went into the Army, the day after graduation.
Doel:That's something I certainly want to talk to you more about in a moment, your career at Yale, but I'd like to go back to your high school education for just a moment longer. Did you feel that there were any scientific subjects that you had not received sufficient training in before you went to Yale?
Masursky:Well, Indiana supposedly had very high standards of education, and I did well in high school. But I found that the scholarship people at Yale were not highly regarded. We were only a small percentage. Most of the kids had gone to very good prep schools, and their training was head-and-shoulders above the training of the kids from high school. All the scholarship kids had all been very high in their classes, and I think it was a great shock which many of them never recovered from, that suddenly they had to work very, very hard to get passing grades. I don't think any of them had ever had less than an A in their lives up to that point. But by, say, the end of sophomore or junior year, then these very bright kids had emerged again as intellectual leaders, but it took like two to three years for them to catch up to this enormous gap. What I found at Yale was that there were a lot of wealthy kids, but these were wealthy, smart, ambitious, hard-working kids. That didn't have anything to do with my preconceptions. I found that if your family had a great deal of money and they'd been able to expose you to everything possible, that was better than being exposed to less. It was a great shock. I thought that I had had a varied experience, but most of these kids had been on many foreign trips, and were coached by people who were just out of Yale, Harvard and Princeton, and the kids who didn't want to work that hard went to other schools. They didn't come to Yale and Harvard and Princeton. The ones who got there were very eager and ambitious and hard-working. I found it required my re-thinking my early experiences, because they were so different from those of the Eastern people. Wealthy people in Fort Wayne didn't send their kids to private schools. At that time in the Midwest it was just not done. It's much more now, but at that time there were very, very few kids who were sent off to private schools, even though the families were very wealthy and could have easily done it. It was just not done. My class was highly varied, and there were a lot of very wealthy kids that I knew very well, but it hadn't had much influence on their—how shall I say—high school life, because what mattered was whether they were good athletes or dominant leaders in the club structures. The wealth didn't have much to do with the high school pecking order. So it was a shock to be exposed to an Eastern environment that was very different.
Doel:I can imagine. Did you apply to other universities in addition to Yale?
Masursky:Yes, but that was the only one I was serious about, because if I won the scholarship, then I would have enough money to not worry about it.
Doel:And that scholarship would cover all four years?
Masursky:Yes. And it was a big scholarship for that time. It was like a thousand dollars a year, which now would pay about one-fifteenth of your expenses, but it covered everything then. I worked during the summers.
Doel:Where were you working?
Masursky:The first summer I was a life guard, and that was a big change. As I said, I was a little tiny kid, and every one of the other life guards—there must have been 15 or 20 of us—were all varsity athletes in Big Ten schools. We had a lot of what are now called jocks then. But by then, I was growing up a little more. I went out for fencing, and I worked very hard at it. I had to take compulsory calisthenics the first year, but I also went out for fencing, and that became a ruling passion for many years. I'd joined the Y when I was, I don't know, maybe six or seven years old, and I did a lot of swimming that summer. We had a lot of jocks but I think I was the fastest swimmer that summer, and that was sort of a new perception for me. I'd literally work out every day, the entire time I was at Yale, and every weekend. We were usually fencing. I began fencing on the freshman team, then entered varsity competition. I don't think the coach stopped much of me except that I won more bouts than anyone else. The freshman coach was the son of the varsity coach.
Doel:How many hours a day did you spend on that?
Masursky:Oh, at least two, and the swimmers spent maybe three. The Yale swimming team won all the national championships while I was there, and they would set national and international records every weekend. Then after my freshman year, we went to school year-round. The following summer I worked out with the swim team, and I did the calisthenics that the Kipplis Brothers had developed. I think had the best record of any coach in any college sport, when I finished graduate school. But my coach in fencing had the best record in American collegiate sports. He had more national championships and more members of the Olympics team than any other sport, at any other school. I got good training, and he taught me a great deal. I think this was probably as important as anything I learned academically—because the sport of fencing is very strange. You sit down or you help judge things, and you get up and you go balls-out for five minutes, and the bout's over. Then you sit down again. And if you go a tournament, you keep that up for three days. If you stay tense between bouts, by the end of three hours you're through. I mean, you can no longer react. Now I spend most of my time in three day meetings, which is like a three day tournament. Occasionally you get five minutes to talk. You have to turn on and do your best, and then relax again. So I find that that training was essential for survival in my present environment. And also he taught that you fence each point as though nothing has happened. You know, if you've lost three points and the bout is five, or even if you've lost four points, you fight each point as though the world is beginning with that point. And I succeeded in learning how to do that. It's very handy in NASA, because you lose lots of them and you have to keep fighting. Persistence is what wins almost all of the fights. So I found the things I learned in fencing probably had more to do with my being able to survive in my present environment than my academic training, because I haven't done very much that I was academically trained. My engineering training was good. In the military I was in the Corps of Engineers, in the China-Burma-Indian-Theater in northern India. I became acquainted with the advanced mapping techniques. Those were the fanciest gadgets going then, and that's been very useful since. Since most NASA managers are engineers, usually aeronautical engineers, I find it very easy to talk to them because I've been talking to guys like that essentially all of my life. I find that they're usually easier to talk to and are better managers than the scientists are, because of their training; they're trained to do that. And oddly enough, training helps. So I find that both the engineering and the fencing had an enormous effect on what I've done since that time.
Doel:Did you continue the fencing through to your senior year?
Masursky:Oh yes. I fenced when I went back to graduate school. I fenced when I lived in Boulder. I fenced here. I was the Arizona State Sabre Champion four or five years ago. I held championships in Connecticut and Arizona and Colorado, because I worked out of the Denver Federal Center ( of the USGS) for several years; I also helped coach a group here. It's just revived and I haven't been able to meet with them this past winter. But it's a continuing interest, and I used to enjoy beating the young guys. The only guy I haven't fenced here was on the US Olympic Team last time. I think I would do very badly, because he's about 40 years younger than I. That helps. That can make a difference.
Doel:What was your impression of Yale when you first got there? Did you have much contact with the scientific departments soon after arriving?
Masursky:Oh yes. I started taking science courses in freshman year because I had declared what I was going to do and had to take the freshman courses. But I got to know an incredibly varied group of people, and they're very warm friends still. We formed a whole spectrum of people, from people who had absolutely no money to people who had so God-damn much money that they didn't know what to do with it. One of our guys was from the Houston area. You've heard of Niemann Marcus. Well, his mother's name was Niemann and his father had more money than his mother did. Then they were divorced, and she married a banker, the banker bought a ranch, and they struck oil on the ranch. So Alan had a great deal of money. Our quietest friend was Paul Boyle, who was a Belgian baron—his family is roughly equivalent to the DuPont family. Paul inherited a steel mill on his 21st birthday. Harvey, one of my other room mates, went to visit him. He later said, "I think there were 16 Rolls Royces in the garage." This was slightly different from my background.
Doel:Quite an experience coming from Fort Wayne.
Masursky:It was really incredibly enlightening, because we had such a varied group of guys. I was very active then, with the fencing. I also ran the scientific magazine and belonged to several of the clubs.
Doel:What kind of science magazine?
Masursky:The YALE SCIENTIFIC MAGAZINE. It's still published. I changed it from a quarterly to a monthly, and we made more money than the magazine had ever made. We made more money in that year than they'd made in its whole previous history. It was fun to do.
Doel:Which year was that—when you took it over?
Masursky:Well, I actually worked with it for four years. I was only at Yale three years, since we went all year round. I did four years in three.
Doel:Because of the war?
Masursky:Yes. I'd come out a year of fencing, and in my last year we didn't have any tournaments, because of restrictions on travel. But since I'd worked so hard at it, we called in a bunch of Navy trainees to form a tournament. We all had to take the Navy physical. Yet being a little tiny kid in high school, I'd worked very hard; I'd go pull weights and punch a punching bag, and I'd have to sneak by the fencing coach, because he thought that would give you muscles and would slow down your speed. I think I was within the top few percent in the exams I took in my last year, because I worked a hell of a lot harder at it than any of the other kids, except the people who were doing varsity sports. So I found it made a difference. When I went back to graduate school I did the same thing. I worked out every day. And I still do calisthenics every morning while I watch the TV news. So those things—having a highly varied group of friends, knowing very hard-working people, and my profs in the geology department (I came back and had the same ones when I entered graduate school)—made a difference. My geology professors were I think the best people in the country at that time. All of them had written textbooks and those were the standard geology textbooks.
Doel:Before we talk about some of these individuals, do you recall anything in particular about the civil engineering courses that you took?
Masursky:Yes. We had a famous old guy who ran the civil engineering department, and he was a superb mathematician, but he liked to do things in a very informal manner.
Doel:Who was he?
Masursky:Oh, I can picture him exactly. I'll think of his name.
Doel:We can come back to that later.
Masursky:Yes. He had an enormous influence. Well, several of the engineers did. They were very, very good — I guess I got very fond of construction projects, because you really can see what's happening. I did that in the military too, and it's not theoretical. You actually build something, and you can see it happening. You can have an influence on how it happens. And I guess I still have a great fondness for that. And I guess that's why I like missions, because with missions you talk about something, and then you do something and something happens, and there's an immediate result. If you're building a bridge, you can't debate about what you should do. You know, they have to have an answer now. And I got used to that way of thinking and doing things. So I like missions, because they are high pressure and they require immediate decisions that become reality instantly. I think I carried that over from the engineering training, and I miss that a little in geology. But I did geology that had a strong economic effect. All the areas that I worked in had this quality: if we found something out, something would happen. My first big job was in uranium: We had a bunch of drill crews, and it turned out that what we had was the biggest uranium deposit in the country when I worked on it, but the deposit was so low grade that it never became reality. And they found the big high-grade deposits about that time. But I'll get to that subsequently. At first geology seemed a little too theoretical, but I found when I was actually doing geology, that in almost all the areas that I worked in I could have some influence on what was happening. I enjoyed that aspect of it.
Doel:Do you recall any courses in particular that you took at Yale as an undergraduate?
Masursky:You mean engineering courses?
Doel:In geology. Or either.
Masursky:Well, I remember the theory of indeterminate structures was a course I took from a Yale prof. It involves very fancy mathematics, that kind of math which is done with computers now, and if you have to do it by equations, it's extremely difficult. He'd found some very successful short cuts, because the normal mathematics of the time could not handle it; I remember his incredible cleverness at doing things in a way that gave him results that were testable. Then I took one from Adolph Knopf, whom I had several courses from. He was a petrologist, and he taught a course called Advanced General Geology, and he was an incredible skeptic. He's the only prof that I ever knew that, if a paper were published a week before his lecture, that paper would be in the lecture. And in Advanced General, he took all the fundamental geologic questions, and you studied the evolution of thought — what were the early guesses at it?,—and tried to follow through the change in fashions. He taught me to be a skeptic, and that has happily not gotten away from me. Immensely clever man, with voluminous knowledge, and systematic. He was the first one who mapped the San Francisco Peaks. He told the class about coming out here [ points to mountains outside window] with the horse and buggy and doing his geology. And one of my first jobs was working by horseback in Glacier Park, so I claim that I have gone from horseback geology to satellite geology. Which is hard to do. (Laughter)
Doel:All in one lifetime.
Masursky:And then I had Richard Foster Flint, who was the leading Pleistocene geologist of the day. That's the Ice Ages. I worked for him as a grad assistant in the summer. He had a big survey project mapping glacial deposits in the Missouri River. And again, an incredibly organized person.
Doel:Did you have much contact with Knopf and Flint during the time you were an undergraduate?
Masursky:Some, with Flint, yes, because I had my first geology course from him, and he converted most of the majors — that is, most of the majors in geology had been converted by Flint's course. He was one of the few people I've ever met that could give a freshman general geology course and an advanced seminar with equal facility. It's rare. So I had good training.
Doel:Did you get involved in actual research at that time?
Masursky:Yes. One of my student jobs was making thin sections—these are microscopic sections of rocks—for Knopf and his wife, who was as good a geologist and as famous a one as he was. So I, as an undergraduate, was involved in doing work for people who were doing research, and I was able to see how things were done. That had a strong effect also. It seemed like a very attractive life. Almost all the Yale profs and most of the Yale grad students—or many of them—worked for the Canadian and the U.S. Geological Survey, so that was the way I went, because I'd grown up in a culture closely wedded to the Survey. But they were all profs. The Survey has always had a very close contact with the academic community, and many profs—less now because the government has found out how to keep us from doing it—many, many, many profs worked for the Survey during summers. So that seemed like the logical thing to do.
Doel:Did you talk with any of them directly about future careers while you were an undergraduate? Do you recall any conversations with them?
Masursky:No, with the start of the war, I think everyone knew that they were going to go in the military. I tried to go in the Engineers, and of course I ended up in the Coast Artillery; I then had a chance to go to Engineer OCS, so I went through it. But at the time I went through Engineer OCS, and thereafter I became a company officer for a combat Engineer platoon. They had the highest casualty rate in the military forces.
Doel:Which year was this?
Masursky:This was '42, '43. So I really didn't worry very much about what I was going to do after the war. I thought that my chances of worrying about that were not too great. And a substantial percentage of the guys that I trained with were killed. They all went to North Africa and cleared mine fields. Not a healthy occupation.
Doel:You mentioned that you were in the Burma Theater?
Doel:Can you tell me a little bit about your experiences? The techniques that you were learning?
Masursky:I worked with an Engineer topographic battalion, and we had very advanced equipment. We made maps for the Northern Burma Campaign. We laid out the airfields in Eastern India, and we made the maps for flying the Hump. We were in a beautiful little town up beyond the first range of the Himalayas, because that's where the Survey of India was. We had truck-mounted color presses—they had big presses, so we could do the big maps—and we were next door to them. There are probably not any more beautiful areas in the world. It's like Boulder, only the mountains are five times as high.
Doel:What kinds of equipment did you learn to use?
Masursky:Photogrammetry by the projection plotters. The only thing that's changed is that they are now computer-run. In the Coast Artillery, we had the first radar—commanded shore batteries. I worked in the master gunner section, because I had had some surveying experience. [Telephone Interruption]
Doel:We're resuming now after a brief pause.
Masursky:I worked with the master gunner section, and we did the basic surveying. Everything was done by hand, with logarithms. We had three guys do all the computations. We were just getting calculators in, but they didn't trust them—and we did all of our ranging to hundredths of a foot; we had 15-inch gun emplacements. I went out with the master gunner section, and we would tow a high speed target, then take photographs off the rear of the little high speed boat of the splashes. You scored the artillery for range and azimuth, so that you could get two hits for every round. I remember the big guns would get like 29 out of 30 points. In other words, they were very good.
Doel:That's quite a record.
Masursky:And of course, as soon as we finished this work, all of the concrete emplacements and everything else were dismantled. That taught me about the military too. You bust your ass. Some of the guys were there for five years. I was only there for, oh, maybe six to nine months, and I did my basic training there. We had a cadre of regular Army people, and that was a revelation to me also. I went in at Fort Devons, Massachusetts, so I was with a bunch of New Englanders. Of course all the regular Army people were Southerners, so were fought the Civil War, only this time they won. Our training was really tough, because these were regular Army people and you did everything right. But I had no problems, because there was an old logger from New Hampshire—no, he was from Maine actually—and a young college kid who was a cross country runner, and I. We had three companies that trained together. We would do seven mile forced marches with full field packs, and then—because one of our officers had been an old China Hand; he'd watched the Japanese train—he said, "When you get a half a mile from camp, you run in." And we did that. The three of us always finished several hundred yards in front of everyone else.
Doel:Your fencing training must have come in handy.
Masursky:Oh yes. I had run every day. And I did calisthenics, as well as fencing. I'd run and do calisthenics and pull weights and swim, as well as doing the fencing exercises. So I was in a lot better shape than most of the poor bastards that were drafted. They got a lot tougher. But the three of us were already in very good shape, and that was a great morale builder. Then I actually got sent to Engineer OCS which is what I had wanted to do, because I wanted to be in the Navy and be an engineering officer. But hell, my vision was 2/20, so I went to New York and of course I was there for 15 minutes before going out on my ass again. But then I went to Engineer OCS, which was very difficult. They put about three-quarters of our training group in the hospital. I mean, they literally ran us til the guys fell over. But I didn't have a hard time. I mean, I was in good enough shape from all of this. They didn't work us as hard as the Kipplis' did the swimming team. They would say do 50 pushups and the guys would think that was crazy, but we had done 50 pushups many times in Kipplis' training group.
Doel:It was good preparation.
Masursky:If you're training world-class athletes, they're in pretty good shape. So I found that all of that was easy for me because I had had real training for it.
Doel:How did your field work in geology in the Burma campaign affect your later decisions about graduate school or professional career?
Masursky:Well, there were a number of people in geology. We really were an engineering outfit, but there were a number of geologists in it, and that gave me good incentive to come back to graduate school. And of course when the GI Bill came in going back to school was no problem. Then I became a graduate assistant also, so school was relatively straightforward for me.
Doel:When you came back to the United States in 1945 after the war, did you begin applying for graduate school directly?
Masursky:Actually I came back in early '46, because I didn't have enough overseas points to come back with the first waves. When I got back I was mustered out at the beginning of summer, so I applied to graduate school and had to take the graduate record exam. I went off to Northwestern to take the exam, then I got a job—
Doel:Northwestern in Evanston?
Masursky:Yes. I got a job with a construction outfit. And that's when I first learned about unions. I went to union headquarters to apply, and once they accepted me, I got put on the job. I learned quite a bit about how things were done. I was a common laborer, because that was the easiest and the fastest thing I could get. I made quite a bit of money. And then the engineer found out that I had surveying training; this was just about ten days before I left to go to graduate school. He offered me more money to stay than I would make for another ten years. So that was difficult. I was also a rock climber then and a mountaineer. I got to know the high steel men, and this was work I was interested in. They said I could become an apprentice, and of course they were the highest paid of all the crafts. I don't think I made as much money as they made until I'd worked for the Survey for fifteen years.
Doel:It was a serious temptation to you?
Masursky:It was a serious temptation, because I liked the idea of running around on the high steel. Because I did a lot of that.
Doel:Where were these construction jobs?
Masursky:In Fort Wayne. I went back that summer, and this was one of these enormous wartime plants that had been built, and was being redone. The whole guts of it were torn out, and I think it became the biggest wire manufacturing plant in the world at that time. It was an enormous factory. And again, the construction was fascinating. So it was a temptation to work with people who did things like this. And I liked the idea of the steel work. I think a big steel bridge is a fascinating thing. But I went back to graduate school to study geology, and that was a lot of fun. I worked in the summers for the Survey.
Doel:You had a remarkable choice there. Were you thinking about any other school besides Yale?
Doel:Were you looking forward to working with any professor in particular when you returned?
Masursky:Sure, because I'd had scant contact with them and their research as an undergraduate. I knew it would be different in graduate school, and it was. I worked the first summer in the Missouri Basin on Pleistocene geology with Flint, and the second summer with Clyde Ross. We worked the mountains south of Glacier Park on horseback. We'd go off for six weeks at a time, and I think most of the time we'd see one or two people in that interval. There's not a hell of a lot of people in the mountains south of Glacier Park.
Doel:You must have had some long discussions in the evenings.
Masursky:Not very much, no. We worked our butts off. I'll tell you later about a very different environment. He had worked for many years; he essentially mapped Montana by himself.
Doel:For the Geological Survey?
Masursky:Yes. And then Flint mapped most of Alaska, again by horseback. All of his work was done with horses in country that nobody else could get into. And that was also true of the area we worked in. There were only horse trails. There may be jeep roads back in there now. I'm not sure. But at that time, there certainly weren't any. And all the roads were maintained to fight forest fires. The pack trails were not automobile roads. So I remember the first day I went out on a horse, and I mapped 50 square miles. He gave me hell that night because there wasn't enough detail. Most graduate students didn't do 50 miles as a thesis in three summers.
Doel:And you had gotten this all done. How quickly?
Masursky:In one day. (Laughter) But he was one of the great mappers of the old-style Survey reconnaissance mappers. So I was brought up to do general geology—not to find some tiny niche which two other people in the world already worked on, but to map a piece of country. And this was a fascinating area, very complicated geology.
Doel:How did the experiences differ between the first summer with Flint and the second with Ross?
Masursky:Oh, utterly different. We were working out of little towns in South Dakota, using a bucket auger to punch holes in tuft? sheets, scraping down road cuts to see the layers trying to identify the different tilt sheets, and following end moraines across country. The second summer was hard rock geology, and done under the same conditions as the previous century. A lot of the country had only been mapped in the sketchiest detail, but ours was really the first honest-to-God map of the area. I learned from my profs to be more meticulous. And Ross was getting really very old then. He didn't like to get off his horse much, so he would map it from horseback. I would get off and look at the rocks and collect samples and look for fossils, and I brought fossils back. He'd look at them and throw them away. I found out that one of those collections was the only God-damned collection in that geologic unit that had ever been made up to that point. And in another unit that he gave the wrong name to, I found a trilobite this big. [Holds hands apart several inches] A trilobite means that it's Cambrian. It meant that this whole God-damned sequence was wrong. There were thrust scales, and if you walked across a little valley ten feet across, you were probably in a totally different sequence of rocks. A hole was being drilled there, and they'd gone through the Madison Limestone, I think eleven times in the hole, with thrust slices.
Doel:That's remarkable. When did you come to realize this?
Masursky:Well, fairly quickly. He knew it was thrust sheets, but the Devonian rocks had really never been described. And it turns out that they had lots of soluble units in them, so most of the places you saw them, at the surface, were collapsed, and they were red beds. Red beds are very, very infrequent, and only infrequently have fossils. But I could just tell. I was taking paleontology courses then. It hasn't been a lot of use to me since, but they were very useful in all the terrestrial mapping that I did. So I could recognize from them that they were characteristic of this unit, the same as the trilobites, and that said that the map was wrong. Ross was really pissed at me for finding them, because we had to drop back about three days, and he was mapping an enormous area.
Doel:Roughly how large?
Masursky:Well, it would be like a 250,000 quad. It's maybe 50 by 100 miles. And you have to keep moving. So we'd move camp usually every second day. I found out about horses and how slow things go with horses. You know, you see something over there, and in a jeep you'd be there in 20 minutes. On a horse, you get there by the end of the morning, afternoon when you come back. But I just rode the horse to where I could climb, and then climbed the cliffs to see what the units were. Clyde would ride until the units came down from where the creek valley went through it, then he'd ride through where the creek cut it. He didn't bother checking in-between. But in that kind of geology, lots of things happen in-between. So Ross was a superb mapper, but a terrible human being. We had two packers that summer, one of whom was a real old mountain-man type. I'm not sure he said more than twenty words during the whole trip that we were with him. The other guy was young and talkative. And they were scared to death of us. You know, they were used to taking hunting and fishing parties out, and if they got 200 yards from camp they'd get lost. But we'd go out and ride all day. I did get into trouble once, when we worked in a lot of big burns. Whenever the wind would blow, trees would fall. They'd come through and cut them and two weeks later the paths were impassible again. And I found one trail was literally impassible, and finally managed to get over the ridge with my horse, because we carried the Swedish saw. I must have cut ten logs to be able to get the horse out. I could have gotten back to camp immediately, but getting the horse back was hard work. Young seedlings were growing up through that, so you had a breastwork five to ten feet high of crisscrossed logs, with seedlings growing up this far [(Holding hand to 4 foot height)]. There were a lot of bears, because they can get through that country. But it's just about impassible for people. It's really hard on foot, and it's very difficult without the cut trails. So we'd meet bears. They would come around a little curve, and the horse and the bear would be this far apart, [About 6 feet] and they'd both turn and run in opposite directions. I always managed to stay with my horse.
Doel:This happened often?
Masursky:Enough times to keep you interested. The horses were nervous as hell because there were lots of bears and horses don't like bears much. So it was a totally different kind of experience, both geologically and in environment. Trying to plan your work when you have to do things at a horse-pace is really very, very different.
Doel:Where had you worked in the first summer?
Masursky:In Chamberlain, South Dakota, in a little town called White River Junction, which I think had fifteen people. We went to Pierre, South Dakota, which is the capital, and it had 2500 people then. I'd go through New York on my way up to New Haven—
Doel:Returning for the second year?
Masursky:Yes. I'd realize I was traveling along miles of apartment houses, and every apartment house had as many people in it as Pierre, South Dakota. (Laughter)
Doel:That changes your perspective, doesn't it?
Masursky:Yes. Different. And it also says that the South Dakotans and New Yorkers were different people. Later I went to work for the Survey on a big uranium and coal project, and that was very different, because we were working in the Red Desert in Wyoming. It was supposedly the biggest uranium deposit in the country at that time, and I had a big crew of people. Later we had four drill rigs, so that was really a management kind of thing. Very different. And the geology was very complicated, because there was a violent debate going on on how you transported uranium and how you built the uranium deposits, so it was intellectually very challenging. That is, very challenging geologically.
Doel:Had you heard discussions of the uranium project when you were in graduate school?
Masursky:No. It was invented. It was classified too. So I wouldn't have heard about it.
Doel:What do you remember most about your graduate training? Do any seminars, courses, conversations come to mind?
Masursky:Well, all of these guys were very dynamic people, very different. The most challenging person was Knopf, because he really made you look at the fundamentals, and would always ask questions of the graduate students that they should have learned in freshman geology. He never asked complicated questions, but he'd do them in. And of course he would absolutely destroy them, because they knew God-damn well that they should know those answers. He didn't care about the fancy stuff. He really wanted you to know the fundamentals, and why you thought that way. So he would destroy many geologic ideas. He'd make you go back to find out what the basis was for making various kinds of estimates and statements. I remember grad students had an independent club, and they would invite people to come talk. We invited a then relatively young Princeton prof, and that was Harry Hess, who invented plate tectonic motion. So he came up and talked to us about that, and of course the faculty were outraged at these absolute horse's ass ideas.
Doel:This is right at the beginning of the 1950s?
Masursky:Yes. Well, see, that work was all done. Harry Hess was in Navy Intelligence during World War II, and he'd gotten all the bottom profiles. He had more information than anyone had had up till that time. That's what started the whole thing. He was in the group trying to predict where the U-boats would attack and advising how to route convoys to avoid them. He'd said that the most successful people in this work were the geologists, that they were much better at this than the hard scientists, because they were used to having information. You know, they wanted information for theories, and geologists were used to dealing with half-assed information and trying to make something sensible out of very scattered, disparate data. They were better at it, because in fact their training was exactly in that direction.
Doel:That's an interesting observation.
Masursky:I thought that was very clever of him. It was true, and it was true of him. He made this great leap forward because he had very scattered evidence, but it fell into what seemed like a reasonable pattern.
Doel:Do you recall what he told you at that time?
Masursky:Exactly that. He showed us some of the data he had from sonar soundings, and how he thought this fitted into the sea floor spreading pattern. We thought that was great stuff.
Doel:He discussed Wegener and continental drift at that same meeting as well?
Doel:Do you recall the reaction from faculty members?
Masursky:Oh, they thought it was absolutely outrageous. And that's when I learned how not to trust the faculty, because they were committing all the sins that Knopf was teaching us not to commit.
Doel:What was your feeling about Hess's work at that time?
Masursky:It seemed incredibly intriguing. But of course, it took several more years for the full blown ideas to be developed. This was just the first glimmer. But I was prepared to accept those ideas, and of course they radically changed geology. Schuchert had been the previous prof. I never met him, but he had worked closely with Dunbar, whom I worked with for a number of years, and Schuchert and Dunbar was the standard historical geology text used in the US. They had to explain all of these peculiar bodies of sediments that had been eroded from lands that were off the coast of the US, and they weren't there. They named all these peculiar continents which had been there, because they'd shed, the Devonian Delta, was 10,000 feet thick and had to have come from some place that wasn't there. Hell, it was across the Atlantic. So they had all these imaginary lands. All that fell apart in the next, say, fifteen years. So it was intriguing to be brought up in the old school, and have to radically change.
Doel:Do you recall other speakers invited to Yale by your group?
Masursky:Yes, let's see—God, if I can remember his name. Yes, Paul D. Krynine from Penn State University. I remember him very well because he was the son of Dimitri Paul Krynine, who was my soil mechanics prof. He was a Russian immigrant. The Russians were powerful; they were two or three generations ahead of us in soil studies. All the characterizations of soils have Russian names because they learned it about 30 years before we did. His son was a real wild man. He was a Yale graduate and taught at Penn State, and he was the first one who figured out how red beds formed and what were the environmental conditions. He was a great sedimentary geologist, and a strange human being. Geologists tend to be slightly odd, but he was real odd. But having studied with his father for a couple of years, I could understand how he'd gotten that way.
Doel:You got to know him pretty well at that time?
Masursky:Yes. Some of the other people knew him better, because they went to graduate school with him. I also knew a number of people who had worked very closely with him, so I always felt I knew him better than I actually did because I had in-direct contact with him for many many years. After I ran this big project, I worked for Jim Gilluly who was one of our greatest geologists. He was another Yalie, and he was a best friend of Tom Nolan, who was then the director of the Survey, and also a Yalie. I had the feeling then that I was in the mainstream, because the Yale, Harvard, Princeton people dominated in the field-and Caltech and MIT weren't nothing . Now all of the hottest shots come from there, but I've never thought that they were anything like as well educated as those coming from the big Eastern schools. They still are not. They're really technologists and not scientists, I think.
Doel:They had learned the techniques and the instruments more than the theories?
Masursky:Well, they were pretty good on theory, and I think their mathematical training was better—and is better now—than the Eastern schools.
Doel:Did you feel you were exposed to the most up-to-date theories when you were at Yale?
Masursky:Oh, sure. Well, when I went to work for Gilluly we would have visitors who were all the hottest-shot geologists in the world. I mean they would all come to Nevada to visit Gilluly and Nolan, and as Jim told me, "When you're here, Hal, you're playing in the big leagues." And he was right. We had all of the hottest shots that there were. I met them all. And we worked in very, very complicated geology, enormous thrust sheets that extended two or three hundred kilometers, as well as thrust sheets stacked on thrust sheets, not like in Montana. The Montana stuff was a cinch. That was easy stuff. These were parallel sheets in inverted stratigraphy, and we had a stratigraphy of thrust plates, incredibly complicated geology. I'm not sure that we really worked it out, because many people have tried it since.
Doel:This is the Colorado Plateau?
Masursky:No, this is the Basin Range, central Nevada. It's in the Roberts thrust belt. That was as difficult a geology as was being tackled then.
Doel:Who became your thesis advisor at Yale?
Masursky:Actually Chester Longwell, a structural geologist.
Doel:How did you come to your thesis topic?
Masursky:I had two choices—no three choices—I could have done. I could have gone to work for the Survey and mapped Sitka Island, because they were mapping the whole chain of volcanic islands, and would have had everything paid for. Knopf didn't want me to do that. He thought that was too simple. At the same time Alan Bateman, who was the chairman of the department then and a great, great economic geologist, was starting a field camp. He'd gotten the property and gotten the money, so I went out and helped with it. In that area I found a mountain range that had been mapped by Darton. He had mapped a whole mountain range in one summer, the topography and geology, on horseback, and nobody had looked at it since. I got a jeep from the department and a little bit of money. It was the closest place I could find that had what looked like a fresh piece of geology that nobody had really looked at. So I did that, rather than going up to the Aleutians. Oh yes. I also could have done a dissertation on pegmatites, which were a big thing. There are a lot of very rare minerals that are of enormous economic value. They had a big, big program of pegmatite mapping, very, very detailed mapping of little tiny holes in the ground, looking at the relationships of the mineralogy to the pathways feeding the pegmatites. There were big arguments then on how pegmatites are formed. Another Survey project. But I didn't do it.
Doel:Do you recall why you chose your topic among them?
Masursky:Well, it seemed like this was a far distant area. It was part of a Shoshone Indian reservation, and it had only been looked at once. I knew that there was a great deal of detail that was totally missing, and I could get a little bit of money for it. I thought I could get by. And it was fun to do. I mean, I'd go out for a week at a time. Actually, I guess when we first started working we'd go out for three weeks at a time, and camped. I had bought myself a jeep, and I built a little camp trailer to pull behind it. I could literally go any place with it, except in the real high country. This area was on the edge of the Absaroka Wilderness, and there weren't many people. I mostly worked on Indian reservations. I remember I had a young kid with me. Two Indian gals who were married to white men rode to our camp. The father of one of them was Spanish and her mother was I think a Shoshone princess, a beautiful woman, I remember they rode into camp. They were the only people we'd seen for—I guess we'd been out for two and-a- half weeks, and literally had not seen another human being. He literally stared at her with his jaw hanging down. I was going to kick him. He's now the chairman of the department at the University of Missouri. Here this beautiful woman rides into camp, actually at the end of nowhere. I was going to snap my fingers in front of his eyes to keep him from falling over. (Laughter)
Doel:That's a good story. Who was it?
Doel:In which years were you doing the thesis research?
Masursky:Oh, '48, '49, '50.
Doel:You were already working then with the Geological Survey.
Masursky:I'd worked for the Survey earlier in the summers. Then I went back to the Survey after that. But my thesis was supported by Yale.
Doel:How much contact did you have with your advisor during the time you did your research? Did he play an active role?
Masursky:Not very. And the difficulty with it was that he retired. The whole Yale faculty retired right at the time that I left.
Doel:It was a major transformation?
Masursky:Oh, total transformation, because they brought in all the physical chemists and the theoretical petrologists, rather than the old field types. It was a total transition, and nowhere as markedly as at Yale. They went from old style geologists who mapped by horseback to guys who did test-tube geology.
Doel:You felt lucky you attended when you did?
Masursky:Well, that's what I really wanted to do, and what I did. I've been doing reconnaissance geology ever since, because it's just exactly the kind of thing that I was taught about. And when I went into general geology in the early 1950s—this was very intensive field mapping, and petrology, and paleontology and geochemistry—we found two gold deposits when I worked with Gilluly. That was in spite of him. He wanted to work on the Roberts Thrust. I got interested in the Basin Range Faults, and I found these big altered zones that went for miles. I convinced another friend to help me. We had the first truck-mounted spectrograph, so you could collect samples in the day, they'd run them that night, and the next morning you'd have the results and could go out looking for things. We were looking for alteration zones. We found all these strange staining deposits, and had a very weird set of trace metals, which exactly matched. There are only two mines still going in Nevada, which is where we got our money. All the mines were going out of business and that had been the major source of income. Ralph Erikson had come out, and we found this incredible stain zone. That winter the big heavy metals program by the survey, gold and silver, platinum, but largely gold got started, so we got a great deal of money to do that. Ralph took the whole suite of samples that we'd collected in my favorite altered zone. He ran them through for gold assay, because gold doesn't show up on a spectrograph at all. You have to do higher assay. There are new techniques now, but then, if you did spectrographic analysis, gold just didn't show, so we wouldn't see that. They ran them all through for fire assay and we had ore-grade gold, in this great suite of samples running right down through my little altered zone.
Doel:That must have been quite a feeling.
Masursky:Yes. A company that had leased all that ground, called Cortez was really a silver mine, and that's what they were drilling for in the old workings. But they had bought the leases for the whole area. Ralphie gave a talk at the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgy at Reno, and that was—how shall I say?—noticed. Because that company had the leases. But see, everybody liked it because we got half of our money from the Survey and half from the state. Gilluly really hadn't wanted to work on anything except the Roberts Thrust, and the fact that I got interested in the Pleistocene deposits and the young faulting and the long sequence upset? challenged? him, because it turned out that we got the best results. I think I was the first to suggest that Basin Range faulting hadn't started 14 million years ago, but was three times that age. I was also able to show that the most recent Basin Range faults cross-cut the earlier ones. So it went back three times as far, for three distinct episodes, in different directions. The whole Basin Range history was a hell of a lot more complicated than anyone had thought—and incidentally, three of those episodes of faulting were accompanied by igneous rocks, and they were all gold-rich. That was fun to do. That was very exciting geology, because it's very complicated. Every kind of geology imaginable, and again, very totally isolated country.
Doel:Who were you discussing these ideas with most at the time?
Masursky:We had a whole series of visitors. And that was fun, because one of them was the world-famous geologist Howell Williams, one of the great geologists. He was doing some work for one of the mining companies. He'd come out with a sequence of events that they were very interested in. He had visited the year before and Jim [Gilluly] said, "It's all wrong. Everything is wrong. Everything you said is wrong." Williams was absolutely crushed. But it turned out that Williams was right' and Jim was wrong. There was another series of faults, so the dates that Jim had in mind when he said Howell Williams' sequence was all wrong, were themselves wrong, because of the other series of faults. The stuff that Williams was talking about and the stuff that Jim was talking about were two different fault blocks. And the ages weren't transferrable.
Doel:Where were these discussions taking place?
Masursky:In camp, at night. Jim drank a quart of bourbon every night. He's a little tiny sawed-off guy, and the next morning everybody else would be absolutely destroyed. We'd drive out in a jeep and Jim would throw his tack on, and by the time the other guys got off the jeep, he was getting smaller as he went up the side of the mountain. People would come out for a week's visit and they'd have to go for a rest cure after trying to keep up with Jim drinking and running. Jim and I got along well in the field, because I was a climber and I could run as fast as Jim did, maybe faster. I talked to one of the guys who said, "Jim hates dogs. You'll have to get rid of your dog. You can't bring her with you. He likes to go fast." So when I went to interview Jim for this job, I told him that I had a springer spaniel who of course will come with me. I think he realized then it was either me and my dog, or no me. I believe he thought that I could do the work, because he had a big hunk of the area that he didn't want to work on—it was too simple. It was challenging enough for me. So I did that, and I brought my dog along. Jim actually got so he wouldn't object. He'd eat pig's knuckles and drink beer every night when we got in, and he'd give the pig knuckles to my dog. His wife came out after about six weeks, and he met her. They'd driven out from town. I think one of the other guys met them and brought them out. The first thing he said to his wife was, "Best dog I've ever seen. Doesn't bark. Doesn't poop in camp." (Laughter)
Doel:You'd won him over.
Masursky:Yes. They actually got to be friends. I don't think Jim ever thought he would be friends with a dog.
Doel:Do you recall others coming out to the camp besides Howell Williams?
Masursky:Oh my goodness, yes. Bill Rubey, and King Hubbert who invented the theory of thrust faulting. Let's call it hydraulic pressure to assist in thrust faulting. That idea was done in the little cool room off Tom Nolan's kitchen. They had some empty beer cans which they put upside down with the opening on the bottom, and of course as they warmed they would slide, because the air expanded they would slide. That was the start of it.
Doel:That's remarkable. And that took place in Tom Nolan's kitchen?
Masursky:Sliding beer cans. Let me get back to Howell Williams. I had an idea about the origin of this great mass of welded tuff. I found that in addition to the big faults, which were about two miles thick, there were bounding faults where the present welded tuffs, as particular kind of volcanic rock, were deposited. I found great slabs of rock at the edges. I then found slick insides on a fault zone where two rock faces slide against each other, polish and grove each other, and you could see those. There were also the great slabs that had slid off a cliff. These were things that were 100 meters long. I mean, these were great landslides. Enormous features. This whole sequence was formed while the faulting ran east-west. This was a big Basin range. The present Basin Range is North-South. Cutting right smack across it were these ancient faults that were the same size. I mean mountains and valleys which were just as high, with five, six thousand feet of relief. Well, it takes that to shed off these great masses of debris. Jim thought that was all horse-shit. But Howell Williams went along with me. That night we started drinking. Howell was going to get back at Jim, so he led him on then sawed the limb off and said, "Jim, why the hell don't you go and look at the stuff?" (Laughter) Couldn't have insulted him worse. That was absolutely the worst thing, sucking Jim out, until he had to admit that he hadn't seen any of this! Howell was just absolutely enjoying this. He'd gotten back for Jim doing him in the year before.
Doel:Did Jim Gilluly then go out to look?
Masursky:Yes. He spent one day in the field with me. He then gave a series of lectures for the Royal Society, which became a book. I didn't see him for six weeks.
Masursky:And he'd forgotten that he had changed his mind. We were trying to write up this stuff, and I was having a terrible time. He'd get this funny look on his face, like, "I'm not sure that what I'm writing down is right." And it wasn't. But he couldn't remember that he had, you know, actually gone out and seen it for himself. I finally got it through to him, but it was very painful. See, if I'd been able to talk to him a couple of times and been able to show him some diagrams about what I thought had happened, it would have been easy. But it was actually very painful, for while he had changed his mind, but he had held the other idea for about eight years. He had to change his ideas completely that next day, and he didn't remember it that well. It wasn't that he disagreed with it, but he couldn't remember changing his mind. So it was tough sledding. And I can run up and down ridges a lot faster than I can write. I had a lot of problems with Jim about my writing speed, because he'd sit down at a typewriter and turn out a manuscript in just an incredibly short amount of time. One of his good friends was Charlie Humm, another famous old Survey geologist, and if he took a plane back from the field he would finish writing the report on the plane, including beautiful sketches of everything. Remarkable speed. I've never seen anyone else who was even in the same ball park. He just was incredibly fast, and I'm incredibly slow, so I particularly appreciate that difference. But it was fun to do, because the geology was very complicated, and it took meticulous work. Jim was much more impatient even than Clyde Ross was, but he'd sit there and we'd look for graptolites. They're little tiny marks, and this is how you identify these shale rocks that were in these stress slices. You just sat there until you found the damned graptolites, so every one of these stress slices we pinned down by fossils, and I never thought I'd see Jim show that kind of patience. But we had to, otherwise he'd get lost entirely. Radiometric dating was just coming in, and the technique that was used then was all wrong—the so-called lead alpha method.
Doel:When had that been developed?
Masursky:It had been developed many years earlier, but it was just coming into relatively common use. The new methods weren't invented yet: the potassium argonne, lead-lead, all those things. They were all in the future. So in many cases the lead alpha dates didn't agree with the geologic relations. Jim got a violent prejudice against radiometric dating, feeling it couldn't be right. It turned out that the method was lousy. Alpha escapes, so the retention of alpha is accidental; it gave incredibly scattered and wrong results. The later methods are very good and very consistent, if you do everything just right. So we had lots of fights about the ages of the igneous rocks and the ages of the thrust sheeting. We had three great episodes, multiple thrusts, and a lot of people didn't agree with it. He had mapped everything in excruciating detail; every little outcropping of rock was shown on the map. We put all these together, and then Jim would draw lines and cross-sections making them fit. But of course it took a tremendous amount of imagination, because every God-damn little outcrop of rock was different. You could draw your lines lots of different ways. That's gotten to be an interesting area both for oil and mining, because where we found—or helped find-two of the gold mines there have been about nineteen found since then. This precipitated what is now called the Little Nevada Gold Rush. But see, everybody was happy. The companies were happy, because they made money. The state was happy, because they got taxes from the companies making money. They made back the money they had given us by a very large amount. And the survey was happy, because we'd helped find something. There are just a few times when everybody is happy. That was one. And that's what I worked on. Then I did another quadrangle, east of that area.
Doel:You mentioned you had difficulties because your thesis advisor had retired by the time you finished?
Doel:What kinds of difficulties?
Masursky:Well, the new young guys were trying to show us that things were now different.
Doel:And your thesis work was not as acceptable to them?
Masursky:Of course. I was doing the wrong kind of problem. But what the hell, that was my fault for getting involved in uranium. That was being done under forced draft, so we worked. I think I spent nine months a year in the field. And it was considered to be crucial. When eventually we found the big deposits, I actually had a big fight with the Survey. I had for two days a scintillation counter which was incredibly more sensitive than the Geiger counter, and I found an area that made the thing go off scale. But it was outside the area I'd been assigned to map. Later a big uranium mine, was started there, which we could have found, except they said, "Go back to your God-damn coal area." I said, "Well, that's not where the uranium is." But it was being run by coal geologists, who didn't give a shit about the uranium. They wanted to map the coal, compute the coal reserves.
Doel:Were these people working out of the Survey or the Atomic Energy Commission?
Masursky:No, the Survey. We got Atomic Energy money, just the way we get NASA money now. Almost all the time I've worked for the Survey, I've mostly worked on other agencies' money, where we were busting our ass to find things. And when the big deposits were found, within six months the raw materials division of the Atomic Energy Commission disappeared. Fifty percent of the Survey funds were coming from AEC at that time. They tried to take all that money away in two years.
Doel:After enough uranium was available so that the need to build up the reserve no longer existed around 1958?
Masursky:But they were crazy as hell. In ten years, they tried to hire a whole new bunch of people.
Doel:To extend the project?
Masursky:No, even the enormous new deposits for the long haul were not enough. They found a lot more uranium since then. But the immediate reaction was, "we've got more than we could ever possibly use, so get rid of them." And they got rid of all of their own people. That's why we had a hard time taking NASA money, because they wanted us to build, to be three to five times as big as we were, and the Survey didn't want it. They had too fresh memories of enormous expansion for AEC and the short termination. So I think it's come as a great surprise to them that this has turned out to be a very long-lived project. But it was very hard to convince them to allow us to build this outfit.1
Doel:Do you remember any discussions in particular? I would assume that Tom Nolan was involved in those debates?
Masursky:Yes. Actually Bill Pecora had taken over, and he came out here 25 years ago for the dedication. I remember his talk was, if he had known all that we were doing here, he never would have let it happen.
Doel:Because the facilities were so lavish?
Masursky:Well, we had a lot more going on than he really had paid attention to. We'd built a small Geological Survey.
Doel:What position did he have then?
Masursky:He was director. Pecora was the same guy that appreciated our work in Nevada. I was one of his good guys. But he was also a Yalie, you see. The connection was there. We've dominated the Survey for about 90 years out of the 110.
Doel:A good proportion.
Doel:How did others in the Survey feel about the money coming from the Atomic Energy Commission? Did people feel the direction research in the Survey was taking was not in the Survey's interest?
Masursky:Yes, but the uranium game was so overwhelmingly necessary that no one could quarrel with it. That was much more accepted, and the trauma with the termination of this funding just almost did the Survey in. They were in much worse shape then than they are now, and they're in very bad shape now. But the moon project was much stranger to them, and when I said I was coming out here, they really thought I was crazy.
Doel:Your colleagues at Menlo Park?
Masursky:Well, Menlo Park is where I came to. The people in Denver, I mean Denver held the biggest conglomeration of people, and they're all standard-type geologists. The idea of going out to work on this crazy stuff. I think they literally told me that I was crazy. Why would I do something that stupid? But I was working on the soft flows in Nevada that cover the slopes of the Basin Range, and Gene and I both gave talks.
Doel:This is Gene Shoemaker?
Masursky:Yes. I think Gene had one other person in his program then. I gave a talk about the Basin Range structure and alterations. Gene talked about his work at Meteor Crater.
Doel:And this is about 1960?
Masursky:Yes, '59 or '60. But I could see from the support we were getting for mapping from the survey that it was a hard game. I thought it was going to get harder, which it did. The Survey has almost gotten out of the standard mapping business now. But I was really interested in marine geology, and a guy that I knew quite well, another Yalie, was going to become head of the to-be-organized marine geology group.
Doel:Who was this? Also the late 1950s?
Masursky:Yes, late fifties.
Doel:Who was this?
Masursky:Pres Cloud. And he contended for the position of Chief Geologist. The other guy got the job, so he got pissed off and left. Cloud went to U Cal at Santa Barbara. With that the Survey's marine geology program died for two years. In the meanwhile Gene said, "I'm going to start this big moon mapping program." So I decided to do the space thing, because I thought, you know, it's new and exciting. But I really would have preferred doing the marine geology. A couple of the areas that I worked in had enormous transitions from plastic rocks to dolomidic rocks—the limestone rocks—and these were spectacular changes. They're tied in with seafloor spreading and the whole bit. It's a fascinating field and one that I've always regretted not having worked in, because they made as big discoveries as we made in space. They ran parallel, and they both depended on new technology, really Second World War technology. So there was a great blooming in both of these fields.
Doel:Which instruments are you thinking about in particular?
Masursky:Well, the sonar mappers in marine geology, and magnetometers, and the world-wide plotting of seismic sources. When we plotted them, they all fell along the mid-ocean ridges and the subduction zones, and the magnetic stripes were parallel with them. It was pretty hard to ignore that kind of thing. That's what convinced people. But then, the great discoveries in lunar and planetary geology were going along parallel, and that was not accidental. They both depended on Second World War technology being applied to big scientific questions. So it's been fun to do. But marine geology is a very exciting field too.
Doel:Do you recall your first meeting with Gene Shoemaker?
Masursky:Sure. It was at this Pick and Hammer meeting. He was talking about basalts on the moon. He showed his first map, and I thought, well, that sounds interesting. And I'd gotten fascinated because I could see on the moon the feeders to the basalt flows that were called Louderbacks, named after George Louderback, who was a prof at University of California. He's the first one who mapped these dip slope basalts in the Basin Range. And I had a magnetic map that showed that we could see, in this big tilted fault block that had basalts on the back side, we could see the feeder dikes in the front. We then got a magnetic survey, which showed that all these basalt flows for 120 miles were fed from one system of dikes. It's the biggest magnetic anomaly in the US. So the fact that I noticed it didn't take too much cleverness. That was later. But I thought, that sounds like a really interesting thing to work on, because we had enormous areas of basalt that were structurally controlled. I thought maybe I could do something in this arena. So I came out to organize a mapping program by telescope, at Lick Observatory.
Doel:Before we get to the Lick phase, I'm curious about the details of the work that you did earlier in the 1950s. Your headquarters for a good part of that time was the Grand Junction Station, wasn't it?
Masursky:No, that was Gene Shoemaker. I was at Denver.
Doel:Yes. It's good to have that clarified. Who were you working with most closely during that time?
Masursky:Well, I first worked for several years on the uranium project, and then for several years in central Nevada. The uranium crew—wow. I went to work for Norman Denson. He was the originator of the idea that the uranium was leached out of overlying volcanic rocks, and seeped down into the coal. The coal then picked up the uranium. I did some experiments and showed that that really in fact had happened. We actually duplicated it in the laboratory. Then I showed that in the Red Desert the granite mountains had granites which were full of uranium, rather than the surface volcanic rocks. The granite mountains had shed sediment into a branch of the Green River Basin. The uranium was leached out of the granites, traveled by artesian flow through the coal beds, and that's how it got trapped by the coal. I took uranium, and we leached it out of the granitic rocks and put it through coal. We could build up ore-grade uranium in the laboratory by doing the same thing. We then drilled holes and measured the rate of flow of the water, so we really put together a story of where the uranium had come from. Uranium came both from granitic rocks and from Miocene volcanics, which is the same as Denson's original idea. There are now enormous uranium mines in both the granitic rocks and the Miocene volcanics. Gas Hills, it's called. It's about the third biggest uranium deposit in the country.
Doel:And this was partly the work you'd done with George Nicholas Pipiringos?
Masursky:Yes. We worked in the Red Desert area. But George was, really a paleontologist by training, and he was much more interested in the details of the stratigraphy of the coal-bearing rocks. I was interested in the mechanism. Where did the uranium come from? How had it been transported? How had the coal pulled the uranium out? So we really approached the problem from completely different viewpoints. And then we ran a big drilling program, because that was considered to be a necessary step. What they were going to do was burn the coal for power, and then recover the uranium from the ash. We would now have a great big four-corners type operation in the Red Desert if they hadn't found the Grants Deposit in New Mexico. It was the biggest potential deposit in the US. The AEC had grand plans for it. They were going to build an enormous power plant. They didn't realize how much problem they would have had with emissions and all the other terrible problems that go with large scale coal mining which we're finding out about now, acid lakes and all those things. We would have found out earlier, if we'd gone ahead with those plans.
Doel:Things would have been very different.
Masursky:Oh yes. Well, it was an exciting project, because we did the very first aerial surveys, and the counts up in the Gas Hills area were off-scale. We got down to the uranium area, and I remember going in to Washington to give presentations to the AEC saying, "You know, we're looking in the wrong place. This is where there ain't uranium. All the uranium is in the granite mountains." Those turned out to be the big deposits, and ours was marginal. That was clear. They'd done that flying before I reported to work, and we laid their reports down and looked at them. They said, "Wrong place. There's where it is." I fought like hell to get them to change their objective. The name of the project was Reconnaissance for Uranium in Central Wyoming.
Doel:This is the western Owl Creek Mountains?
Masursky:Oh no. That's different. This is still Red Desert.
Doel:Who did you have contact with when you were speaking with people at the Atomic Energy Commission?
Masursky:Oh Jesus, I'm not sure I can remember their names now. We had frequent presentations to them, because we were spending an awful lot of money.
Doel:Do you recall roughly what that budget was for the project you were involved in?
Masursky:It was hundreds of thousands of dollars, because of the drilling crew. At one point I think I had eight people in our field crew. And that's a lot of money. At present it's a hundred thousand dollars a person. It was less then. But it was equivalent in spending power. It was a big project, because they had big hopes for it. But my managers, the survey managers, were coal people, and they thought that our job was to verify the coal reserves. I thought that we were supposed to be finding uranium, not mapping coal. I think I was right and I think they were wrong. But I couldn't bring it off then. I was too new. I didn't understand how to. If I had known then what I knew five years later, I could have changed it. Jim Gilluly would go out of his way to avoid talking to a mine owner. He'd worked in economic geology. He wasn't interested in it any more. He was interested in big thrusts. Then Ralphie Erikson came out, and he really liked him, and Lou Marazino ran the spectrograph. They were good guys and they got along well with Jim and they drank as much as he did, so we were a happy family. But he sure didn't like the fact that I was looking for metals in the Basin Range. But Ralphie was a good friend, and he was just starting a new project. I said that we had all this interesting stuff and it exactly matched what the project description was. Ralph really liked it, because we used all these different techniques to try to locate varied deposits, which they were, and we found them. So I thought, I didn't do badly by Ralphie. He became Geologist- in-charge at the Denver center. I think the work he did with me didn't hurt. It was very exciting work, because there were new ideas. The whole uranium transportation business, and alterations zones: those were cutting edge ideas. They were, you know, a new kind of thinking.
Doel:Do you recall talking about those ideas with people outside the Survey?
Masursky:Well, I gave a number of GSA talks, and my threefold Basin Range faulting idea is now standard practice. We had sessions at all the meetings, because the uranium game and the Nevada thrust faulting and gold deposits were of considerable interest. The director doesn't come out and visit most field parties, since we have hundreds of them. (Laughter) So yes, it had a lot of visibility.
Doel:Did the GSA remain the premier forum for discussing ideas of this type?
Doel:How influential it and the Penrose fund remain in setting research agendas and promoting new ideas?
Masursky:They were quite quite important then, and that's why I helped start the planetary geology division in the Geological Society. It seemed to me that the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Union and AGU were really not the appropriate places to talk about planetary geology. I thought planetary geology really belonged in the GSA.
Doel:Were there others who shared that opinion?
Masursky:A few. Yes. Lee Silver, who was a Caltech prof, was president of the GSA. He helped us start the planetary division. I got him to be the first president. After he was president of all GSA, he then became president of the Planetary Division. He was very, very helpful. I don't think we could have done it without his influence within the GSA structure.
Doel:What year was he in this post?
Masursky:Ten years ago, I think.
Doel:So we're talking about 1978 then. OK. And it was after the Pick and Hammer presentation where you met Gene Shoemaker that you became involved in the astrogeologic studies. Did you have discussions soon afterwards with Shoemaker on the kinds of research you were interested in doing? What impressions did you have of the work at the time?
Masursky:I talked with Gene two or three times in Denver, and agreed to come to Menlo to start the systematic mapping program of the moon by telescope. When I arrived in Menlo, Gene had just left for Washington for two years.
Doel:So you came to Menlo Park in 1962?
Doel:Had the Lick Observatory project already been set up when you arrived?
Masursky:The general agreement was made, but the implementation had not yet been done. That turned out to be quite interesting, because astronomy is an Old Boy network. You get astronomical time on the telescope because you are one of the guys. And when we asked for time for the Geological Survey, they'd never given an institution time before. We had a whole bunch of mappers, and as the terminator moved across the moon, we would have the guy working in that quad come up. We had a whole staff of people that came up, and we systematically mapped it. I got a bunch of old hands in the Survey who were among the best. That's when I found out that age had nothing to do with acceptance of ideas, that some people get totally rigidified by 21, never accept anything again after that, and other 60 year olds are incredibly open to new ideas. So I got some really good old Survey hands to come up and do mapping. And I think that's when the idea became respectable, because while they thought this was crazy, we had a lot of the best of the older geologists that came and looked at the moon, and they came up with some very striking ideas. They were very clever men.
Doel:Can you give me some background on these people?
Masursky:Jesus, it's different, I haven't thought about this for a lot of years. I'll have to think of the names. One of the guys, Max Crittendon, was a very capable general geologist. He had worked out the strength and resiliency of the crust under Lake Bonneville, the salt lake. The crust sagged when the water was in it, and then it re-sprang when the water wasn't there. He had worked out the mathematics of mantle flow, and I think he was the first one that from honest-to-God independent evidence worked out the flow of mantle material. Another one of our guys, Ed Bailey, was the world authority in mercury. He had worked in the Coast Ranges. He was the one that counted craters in all the successive frames on the Ranger pictures. Each one of the plot of crater counts had a bend-over as you got to smaller and smaller craters, at higher and higher resolution. We did that with a whole series of frames. From the earth-based telescopic observations people thought that physically the small craters on the moon changed, and that's what led to fall-off in the crater count. We found out this was an exact measure of the real resolution of the imaging system. When you trace it across 20 Ranger frames, and each one of them has the bend-over in the plot, and you can draw a line through them all, it says we had a good measure of resolution, not of physical process. He was the first one that made such a diagram. It took most of the rest of our community about ten more years to catch onto that idea. I used to show that slide all the time, because they were still debating this, as we got different imaging systems on different spacecraft. Each time we'd get a rollover on the crater counts, and they thought that was physical. They thought that's the way the moon was, and they'd go into these very elaborate explanations of why the smaller craters were buried and disappeared, and it was purely a measure of resolution. We finally convinced them that that break-point was the actual resolution of the imaging system. You could determine it empirically, and not say the imaging system has this focal length camera cell; therefore, that's what the resolution is. This is nice, but not real resolution. These guys had pictures of the moon in their office, and they were scattered all over the center. What I had started doing when we got a whole flood of guys to join was not to put them in our building. I'd put them out in the other buildings around Menlo Park among the other geologists.
Doel:On the USGS campus there.
Masursky:Yes. So they would talk to those guys and see if we could overcome the idea that the whole moon project was nonsense.
Doel:That's an interesting idea.
Masursky:And it worked, you know. A number of the old guys got involved. We got a lot of awfully sharp new young guys, and we didn't just talk to ourselves. We talked to the community. And we got respectable. It hadn't been, up to that point.
Doel:I'm very interested in how the Lick Observatory moon program came about. Do you remember those details?
Masursky:Yes. Gene Shoemaker talked to Whitford, who was the director, and they agreed in principle to have such a program. Then Gene left for Washington. So I went up and introduced myself to Whitford. I was then immediately sent to an astronomer in charge of the 36-inch reflector. He was the Soviet I worked with, an Estonian-yes, Vasilevskis. He was in charge of the telescope, and I had to learn how to use a nautical almanac to figure out when the terminator was going to be in certain areas, then schedule our guys when the terminator was in the proper place.
Doel:How much observing time were you allocated?
Masursky:Oh, an enormous amount, because the telescope wasn't heavily used. And we wanted to use it. It was mostly used for measuring distances between double stars. You need a dark sky for this, and if the moon is up, then you screw everything. They didn't use the telescope much and we wanted to use it.
Doel:You needed it precisely in the light-of-the moon period.
Masursky:Yes. It worked very well. We got our time when they had the least use for it. He was very good, very cooperative, taught us how to do things. Every once in a while our guys would make some crazy mistake, like leaving a light on. I always got a note from him, and we'd have to go talk to him. .... [telephone]
Doel:We're resuming after another brief interruption.
Masursky:Telescopes are very complicated devices. They were worried that we would do something bad to it. We got in minor troubles several times, like leaving lights on, things of that sort. Astronomic plates particularly for 36-inch, for double star measurements, are taken on glass plates. These are 8 x 10 glass plates, and they're kept in a refrigerator, in the basement near Lick's tomb. His tomb is down at the base. I think it's a 14 cubic foot refrigerator, and somebody left the door ajar, so they had a 14 cubic foot block of ice into which their glass plates were frozen. We weren't guilty of that one. And one of their assistants was changing the camera, which weighs about 300 pounds. It slips off the bolts into a carriage, you pull a little cable up off of the floor, and you hitch it onto the end of the telescope when the 300 pound weight comes off.
Doel:To equalize the weight.
Masursky:The grad student didn't hook the cable on. The camera flops off, and the telescope starts running away, so he grabs it. He doesn't weigh 300 pounds, so it still kept going. When it hit, this jarred him loose, and then he fell down across the camera. He broke a bunch of ribs and a collar bone. But Vasilevskis was the astronomer in charge of the 36-inch. That's the guy that we really dealt with day to day.
Doel:Was he the one who also trained you in using the instrument?
Doel:How many of you actually set up and used the 36-inch?
Masursky:It must have been 16. We had a big program. A lot of nights.
Doel:You stayed on the mountain?
Masursky:No, we drove up from Menlo Park. I think there are 152 turns on that road.
Doel:You must know them all very well.
Masursky:As a matter of fact, if you took one of the big Survey cars, you couldn't get it around the curves. You had to back up. With a normal-sized car, you could make the turns. That was interesting. The guys would drive back down after working all day and working all night. Driving down the next morning—I think they were a real hazard to humanity. But it worked very well. All the bad accidents were by other people, not by us. And Whitford was very good. He actually gave JPL time to look for the Rangers. You know, they thought that when the Rangers hit the moon, there would be an enormous dust cloud that would go up that they would be able to see from the earth. That's absolute horseshit. There was no chance of seeing it whatsoever. But he actually gave them time. Of course, at that time, see, all the astronomers were dealing with stellar astronomy, and they thought solar system stuff wasn't worthwhile. Gerard Kuiper is the one who made solar system studies respectable. But the other astronomers thought this was absolute total waste of time. So the geologists thought it was horseshit and the astronomers thought it was horseshit. Other than that, we had no problem. (Laughter)
Doel:Did you have contact with any of the astronomers at Lick? Formal discussions on what you were doing?
Masursky:Oh yes. Well, I think I went up and gave talks to their seminars, but the most important contact—again I can picture him exactly, a tall skinny guy. George Herbig. I walked through the lobby and they had a display case and they had some pictures of the moon. I dropped my teeth, because they were so much better than any other lunar pictures I'd ever seen. And it turned out that Herbig had a lot of time on the 120-inch, and he wanted to show that the 120-inch could take better pictures of the moon than the 200-inch had taken. So he took a number of pictures, and he put a number of them in the case in the lobby. I went to see him, and said, "Nice pictures. We could really use those pictures. Why don't you publish this, put them in SKY AND TELESCOPE?" Here was a chance to tell the astronomical community, we take better pictures at Lick than they can take at Palomar! (Laughter) Well, he went along with that.
Doel:Did they appear in SKY AND TELESCOPE?2
Masursky:Yes. And they really found the visual observations and his pictures were the basis for our mapping for almost three years. Because he had lots of time on the 120-inch. I asked, "Can we get time?" "No," he said, "but I'll take pictures for you." "Well, what sets the limit?" Because he took just a few pictures. It turns out that he used a brass plate holder to hold the 8 x 10s, and they were in a box. The brass plate holders weighed 12 pounds apiece and you carried four of them in the box, as well as the box. The box is light-tight in addition, and you carry it in a light-tight wrapping. Astronomers do everything just so. So it turned out that the number of times a night that he could run up and down the stairs with a 60 pound box is what set the limit on the number of pictures.
Masursky:I said, "Well, why don't we help? Why don't we buy you some plate holders? I think they cost about $15 apiece, little wooden ones that weigh about half a pound." Suddenly our production of pictures went up. Herbig worked on lithium content of galaxies, and he could not have been farther removed from this. But he and I got along well, because I approached him gently. I said, "Well, is there anything else we can help with? What speeds are you using?" He looked embarrassed, and said, "Well, I use this camera that was built in 1890 and it has a wind-up window blind focal plane shutter, and it has two speeds. When the window blind falls down, it goes fast. When it has to go up, you turn the camera, that's the slow speed." So those were his two speeds. I figured we can do better than that. So I got a Czech immigrant to hand-build a very, very fancy camera.
Doel:Also a plate camera?
Masursky:Yes, but it had electronic controls and was a real state-of-the-art camera. Except the pictures weren't any better. The old window blind worked fine, because the image quality depended on the seeing. They said, "For stars seeing is important. The moon is an extended object; it doesn't make any difference." It made a hell of a lot of difference. Herbig takes pictures all year long, and there'd be maybe ten nights in the year when he got good pictures. It had nothing to do with the god-damned camera; it was the atmospheric quality that night. We had better pictures than Palomar had taken, because we had better nights than they had when they took the pictures with the big telescope.
Doel:Simply because Palomar had made fewer exposures.
Masursky:Yes. They didn't hit one of the superb nights, of which there are only a few. These were published. Then were built the mount for the telescope, and that almost came a cropper. We hired the Stanford Research Institute—I was going to say "next door," but I'm not in my former Menlo office. Stanford Research Institute was next door, and they were going to hire the contractors to do the work. This was a major reconstruction job for the big telescope, and the SRI purchasing officer and the Lick Observatory purchasing officer couldn't agree as to who would cover the insurance of the workmen. The project stopped for two months while they fought about the insurance. And that's why purchasing people scare the ass off me. Once it gets in their hands, it's out of control. Nothing rational gets done any more. (Laughter) But they finally got together, and they rebuilt it. Herbig took pictures for us for about three years. When the Houston people really got heavily into Apollo, and had to choose landing sites, they suddenly realized that high resolution pictures were good. One of their guys called up Herbig and said, "You know, those are really beautiful pictures. What can we do to help?" Herbig said, "Go away and leave me alone."
Doel:That's remarkable. How did you hear about that?
Masursky:He told me—no, the Houston guy told me. I went to a meeting there and he said, "God-damn, can you tell me about this Herbig? I was offering him money." You know, he would have bought him a telescope, because Houston couldn't have noticed that amount of money. I mean, their round-off could support the planetary program, and they didn't keep books that accurately. Different times.
Doel:Who was that? Do you recall?
Masursky:Oh, wow. I don't think I talked to him more than once or twice. He was another one of the enormous number of people who ran contracts and hired companies. I can remember the guy's face, maybe I can.
Doel:We can always get back to that. Where did the funding come from for the work at Lick Observatory? Was that from the USGS budget or already from NASA funds?
Masursky:Of course. But if I had mentioned NASA it would have been, "No! Go away!" (Laughter) We simply said, "We're just down the road from you all." We were good guys, we'd been using the telescope and hadn't screwed it up, so we were becoming respectable.
Doel:It was presented to them as a USGS operation?
Masursky:Yes, our mapping program. We had the guys that came up and faithfully did their little sketch maps on the 36-inch. And one time, we actually took pictures through the second biggest refractor in the world. The biggest one is the Yerkes telescope, and I used that to took pictures of an eclipse. It was 20 below, and the pictures were shitty, but it was a nice experience. That's when I found out Kuiper had run the observatory for several years before he went to Arizona, so I dealt with the successor. I'd called him and said, "Can I come take pictures?" And there was a long pause. See, I didn't understand that they all hated Kuiper with a passion. He'd built a very fancy camera and nobody had used it since. He said, "Well, we'll have to get the camera out." Then he actually agreed to let me come and do it.
Doel:With whom were you speaking?
Masursky:I'll have to dig his name out, I remember Whitford and I remember Herbig. This director at Yerkes for several years. I can dig his name out.
Doel:That we can find easily.3
Masursky:They actually dug out and dusted off Kuiper's camera, let me hang it on the telescope, and assigned me a night assistant. I remember it was trickier than hell, because it was so damned cold that the collars in the bearing shaft had a different expansion. So you could just touch the 40-inch telescope, which is enormous, and it would just run away. You could literally just touch it, because it was so nicely balanced, and there was no friction in the bearings at all. The assistant said he'd never seen it that way, that easy to move around before. But we took some fuzzy pictures because the seeing was bad. The moon looked beautiful. It was a spectacular eclipse. But I don't think they ever get nights that good at Yerkes. "See," the astronomers all said, "anything bigger than a 10-inch telescope is useless, because the atmospheric turbulence will always dominate." That's true, except they didn't understand that episodically there are good enough nights to use the big telescopes. They don't happen often, but you get remarkable pictures. Herbig's pictures were the best thing we had until lunar orbiter flew.
Doel:Yes. That's long been the problem with planetary photographs as well, finding moments of good seeing.
Doel:Did you use the Yerkes Observatory camera at any other time besides the eclipse observation?
Masursky:No. Jack McCauley had a great big focal plane assembly, with a window blind and enormous film, which had been built at Yerkes, when we started using the Kitt Peak solar telescope. We used it for lunar observations, but it wasn't that good. Yet it was the perfect astronaut training place, because we got an image of the moon a meter across, and we could stand around and talk about landing sites. We had some old cameras, and could look at the image in high resolution. We even got Deke Slayton there. God-damn, that was a triumph, because Deke was dismally disinterested in "science horseshit," and we sold him that night on sending the astronauts to other places. We got them to Flagstaff for training, because there are not many rocks in Houston or at the Cape; the only ones they've got are the ones you bring in and set down. So we came out here, and looked at the young lava flows and meteor craters and the Grand Canyon. We were standing around the telescope talking about going to other places, like some of the big Canadian craters. He really didn't think that was such a neat idea. And then we said, "You know, these craters are up in the Canadian lakes, best fishing in the world." Jesus, his eyes got big. "Good idea!"
Doel:This is Deke Slayton?
Masursky:Yes. "We'll have a trip up there." (Laughter)
Masursky:Oh, there are many ways to skin a cat!
Doel:How many of the astronauts were you working with during that time? Were you personally in charge of them?
Masursky:No. I had a lot to do with the landing site choice, so that's really what I talked to them about, as well as geological processes within the landing sites. How we chose the various ones. We didn't really work much with the original seven. We hardly knew them, because they really got almost no science training. But from then on, we had a lot of training time with the rest of the crews, up til the Shuttle Crews. I haven't had much to do with them. Some of the guys have worked with them on earth orbital things, but I haven't. So I worked with them on lunar site selection and geologic processes in the sites themselves.
Doel:What do you recall most about the early astrogeologic projects, when you were setting up shop in Menlo Park?
Masursky:Well, things were changing very fast. We hadn't flown a spacecraft yet, and we were still mapping by telescope. Then the Rangers started, then the Lunar Orbiter, and Surveyor, so we very rapidly went away from this mapping program using the telescopes. We did keep that up for two or three years, though, because we could still get coverage from earth-based observations that we couldn't get until about the fourth Lunar Orbiter, when we finally got nearly moonlike coverage. We faced incredible change continually, because the program was growing; the program was being formulated. We had the pre-Apollo things, and then Apollo came on strong and ate them up. They thought they got eaten up, but actually I don't think they ever would have flown. I don't think they would have had enough money to survive all the hassles of Surveyor, for example, without Apollo wanting it and needing it. So it was just the incredible change, and when we started flying, we flew Lunar Orbiters and Surveyors every three months. It's a little different from now, where you start a project and 12 years later, you might have something. Back then we invented them in six months or a year. So the rate was overwhelming. And our organization built up easily. When I joined I think there were three people, and then we got to be 250, and that's different. The program was going so damned fast: we would have to go to meetings, not like we do now, incessant planning meetings. Back then, you planned something, and next time you saw them they'd built the god-damned hardware, and the following time they'd flown the first one, and you looked at that and said, "What do we do next time?"
Doel:Planning straight into engineering.
Masursky:Yes. We worked very closely with the engineers and with the mission planners, because things were moving at such an incredible rate. The data would come pouring out, and you got to look at it, digest it and say, "What do we do with the next one? What do we do with the next series?" This was very different from the feeling now.
Doel:I'm also curious about your contacts with JPL at this time. Which individuals were you working with most closely in developing programs?
Masursky:Well, they were a vast array, because I worked with the geologic types in the science office. But, then as now, JPL is overwhelmed by project structures, and the first meeting I went to was so-called Ranger block 5. Ranger block 5 were hard landers. That is, we had a balsa wood ball with instruments inside of it. Ranger came in at a very high rate of speed, but these things had been tested at 2000 G's by dropping them from airplanes, and they worked. Unfortunately, when the third or fourth Ranger failed, block 5 disappeared. Each time there was another failure, we'd come down. We started I think with blocks up through 9, and those disappeared until we got down to I think the first three which were the actual Ranger flights we had. As for scientists, I first came in contact with John Adams, who now is at the University of Washington, and Bob Speed, who I think is at Northwestern, then they both left JPL. I worked then with project people on Surveyor, and my strongest memory of it is Gene Shoemaker as an experimenter on the camera. But I was with a group of other people—they had the Principal Investigators who ran each of the experiments on board, and then there were what are now called inter-disciplinary scientists. We were the first ones, and were invented by the project manager. Now they're a solid part of the system. We had some really innocuous name—I think it was called the Lunar Theory and Processes Working Group—and it had a most interesting membership, because it consisted of Harold Urey and Gerard Kuiper and Tommy Gold and Don Gault and oh, the tech type guy from Goddard....
Masursky:Yes. John O'Keefe. We had some real interesting meetings, as you can imagine, putting those people together around a table. Gold' of course was absolutely irrepressible and uncontrollable, and did many amazing things. One of the chief tasks was to keep the other scientists from leaping across the table and throttling Tommy, since he understood how to get people's goats and would work very hard at it, and was as nasty and insulting as he could possibly be. It was good training for working with Caltechers.
Doel:Why do you feel you were selected to become part of the interdisciplinary group?
Masursky:Well, I'd done a lot of work on lunar mapping, and I'd gotten into site selection for Surveyor, and Lunar Orbiter. I was also part of the Orbiter/Surveyor Working Group at NASA Headquarters, and there weren't many experienced geologists in the game then. I'd also done a lot of telescope work. At that time we'd set out to intensively study the moon, when Gene Shoemaker had done his work on Copernicus; then we started mapping essentially the whole moon, trying to draw it into some coherent frame, to set stratographic ideas by looking at different parts of the moon. We were trying to set up a time sequence. And because I was in charge of that mapping program, I became the spokesman for the new emerging ideas of the global history of the moon. But it was an amazing crew to try to live with. We wrote a separate paper, you know, for Science. Each instrument had its instrument report, the project had the project report, and then we had the Lunar Theory and Process Working Group report. We were supposed to look at the real science, and trying to get Tommy to agree to anything was impossible. We always had footnotes. The entire group would agree, and then there'd be a (*) and a footnote and Tommy gave his story, which was always 180 degrees off from anyone else's interpretation.
Doel:How often did you have these meetings?
Masursky:Monthly. Because things were happening very fast. But at that time we were at JPL during the mission, and we'd have to write a report before we left. So we saw a great deal of each other.
Doel:Were any discussions particularly memorable?
Masursky:Well, let's see. I remember we had a meeting in Washington. I think we had given talks at the Cosmos Club, and we went out to dinner. Frank Press was along, and J. Hoover Mackin, who had been for many years a professor at University of Washington and then eventually moved to University of Texas, Austin. He was one of their high-priced hirees, because they had more money than anybody else in the country. He was a superb geomorphologist. I knew him well because he was a good friend of Gilluly's, and we would call him up when we needed field assistants; he would recommend kids who all turned out to be absolutely first class. And I remember Tommy going through his usual diatribe, and then finally Hoover Mackin stands up and says, "I have to leave now because I've ground so much enamel off of my teeth that I can't afford any more of this, so I will leave while I still am able to eat."
Doel:That's a very good way of putting it.
Masursky:It didn't bother Tommy at all. He went right back to being as obnoxious as always.
Doel:How was it to work with Harold Urey? Both he and Tommy Gold were the geophysicists.
Masursky:Urey was a chemist, not a geochemist.
Doel:Didn't his work by the late 1950s involve geophysics?
Masursky:Well, I have a different memory. You see, I had heard Urey's lectures at Yale. I was the grad assistant who showed the slides as a matter of fact. Those were the first public lectures Urey gave on the moon.
Doel:Which resulted in THE PLANETS, published in '52?
Masursky:Yes. If you look at it, those are from the Silliman Lectures. We had a colloquium at the end of the lectures, and there was a representative from each science department present. They commented on Urey's talks, and most of them were very neutral because the history of the moon was not in the forefront of their objectives. It's then that I realized what an incredible debt we owed to Hitler, because the geology prof who was the chairman of the department, Chester Longwell—who had a heavy Missouri accent—was the only American in the group. Every other departmental chairman in Yale science was a Hitler refugee. So I thought, he wasn't all bad, for American science wouldn't be where it is without that incredible infusion of very smart people. I also thought that, without Urey, there probably wouldn't have been a space program. Urey was a cold moon guy, and we were all hot mooners. We thought we saw lava domes and flow fronts in telescopic pictures. And so we had, how shall I say, acrimonious discussions of this. He said, "If we land and bring back a sample from any place, it's accumulated asteroidal debris, then you're fine." We said, "It ain't that way. All these funny things, different places, that's geological evolution." Up until that point he had been the commanding personality in the program, and we had to fight him because we were trying to select landing sites. Everything that he said was wrong, and it fell to my lot to fight with him at every meeting for years. He said, "Pictures, pictures, what the hell's the use of pictures?" Well, pictures. I knew that telling him, "science" would have no effect, so I said, "Well, we take pictures in order to land the Surveyor so we can see the hazards." He understood that, but he thought scientifically the pictures were totally useless, and he thought that the geologists' involvement was a complete mistake. You needed fundamental scientists: physicists, chemists, that's science. Geology is horseshit. There's still a great deal of sentiment in that same arena now. Tommy Gold of course was a good ally. So we had to fight Urey continually, because in effect he said, "You can land anywhere and what you pick up will be the same; it will be chondritic meteorites." I remember when Tony Turkovich got his alpha scatter information, and it was basalt. Urey said, "You know, if we do it again and it turns out this way, I'm in trouble." And we did, it was the same, and he was in trouble. (Laughter)
Doel:He changed his ideas after that.
Masursky:Yes, but only very painfully, and it was very, very difficult, because he had a real concept of how the moon had formed and how it had evolved, and it was necessary to accept all this God-damned new stuff. We got the Orbiter pictures and the Ranger pictures. But Urey did a good thing. On Ranger 9—e controlled where that went—he said, "You know, you've found a couple of bland, totally useless places. Why don't we go to some place interesting?" That was Alphonsus. He really recognized that Alphonsus had what they thought were variable features, and we thought we could see all the young volcanic rocks from the floor. He did us a good deed in saying, "Alphonsus is interesting, so why don't we go there?" In effect that's what happened to us on the Orbiter Program. With the first three, we mapped all the God-damned landing sites that they needed, every 15 minute delay across the whole front of the moon. Then we were told, "Well, Four and Five you do scientifically. What's the most important thing?" We said, "Map the whole God-damned moon," and we did that. This became possible because the later missions had high success rates. Ranger 7 was the first Ranger that worked, and it blew everyone away when Surveyor 1 worked. Nobody could actually believe that had happened. And then all the Orbiters worked. The high resolution camera on Orbiter 1 didn't function, and I'd like to come back to that subsequently. But the rest of them did work, and we had done everything that we had set out to do in support of Apollo, and were told, "Well, tell us what we should do with these last two. What's the most important thing to do?" They were incredibly good people. They were Langley people—that was the old NACA center—and that's where all the managers came from that ran all the other NASA centers. They were all old Langley hands, and they were incredibly good. They're the best people I've worked with in NASA. They were just people with very good training, and just absolutely superb engineers, with incredible perception, and they listened. They're the only people who did this. I recall the young guys that I worked with on Lunar Orbiter from Langley, we'd suggest something to them. When we would have a meeting two weeks later, we'd bring the subject up. They'd done everything we'd suggested, and doubled us. I haven't had that experience many times in NASA. Usually it takes 75 repetitions before you get somebody to actually move off of an old idea and accept something. They just ate it up. It was such a pleasure to work with people who would understand exactly what you said, understand why you said it, and then do more than you had suggested because they really understood what the problem was.
Doel:To what in the Langley experience do you attribute this?
Masursky:Good people. Good people.
Doel:The initial selection of the people involved?
Masursky:Yes. Good people. Well-trained people who had a fundamental understanding and who were not scared. JPL-ers, they would understand you right away, but they weren't about to fight the system. They were scared to death that if they did anything out of line, they'd be gone, or they'd be in Siberia, and it happened all the time. The Langley people just were more confident, and the system accepted suggestions. They were better people.
Doel:So that was also inherent in the Langley organization.
Masursky:Yes. It was not only the selection, but they ran a research organization. They knew how to turn good engineers loose on a problem and listen to them. That's a great pleasure.
Doel:There's one more question I'd like to ask you concerning the inter- disciplinary group meetings. You were speaking a moment ago about Tommy Gold and Harold Urey. Did you feel that the conflicts that you had were primarily methodological, or in your opinion, did they have more to do with the strong personalities of those involved?
Doel:Much more the personalities?
Masursky:Oh yes. There was a very nice article done by Ian Mitroff at the University of Pittsburgh, and that was exactly the conclusion that he came to. Who were the people who influenced the program? And it was these dominating personalities. I'm not sure that they were any better scientists than 50 other people.
Doel:The Subjective Side of Science, I believe.4
Masursky:Yes. Well, how do you make things happen? You're dealing with a big system, and you have to understand how to divert it, how to make it do something that you'd like it to do. And Tommy Gold was a master at it. If he had to go to the President, hell, Tommy would go to the President. Tommy almost always got his way. And Urey, very often. Until much later in his life. But these were people of much conviction.
Doel:That must have caused a great deal of resentment.
Masursky:Well, the meetings were interesting.
I'm afraid we're out of time today. We're going to have to end this here, although there are certainly many more questions we're going to be talking about. I'd like to thank you for this long session.