Oral History Transcript — Dr. Harold Masursky
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Interview with Dr. Harold Masursky
Harold Masursky; September 8, 1988
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:This is the third part of an interview with Dr. Harold Masursky of the US Geological Survey, Flagstaff, Arizona. Today is September 8, 1988. I'd like to begin today with lunar geology from the Ranger to the Apollo programs. One preliminary question: were you involved in any way in the 1962 Iowa City Summer Study concerning the moon?
No. I became involved first I think at Falmouth in Massachusetts.
Doel:The 1965 meeting?
Masursky:Yes. They tried to sketch out a program of lunar exploration, and largely what was talked about at that summer study was in fact the program that turned out to be. The specifics of where the landing took place developed as it went along, as we got more and more information, but the outline of the sequence of pre-Apollo missions and then the Apollo missions pretty much followed the course set down in the Falmouth meeting.
Doel:Do you recall discussions at the Falmouth meeting of the Apollo extended series?
Masursky:Oh yes. But we had a summer study at Santa Cruz, where we spent the entire time on the extended Apollo missions. We did a great deal of work on long range roving laboratories, and multiple landings with very complex arrays of instruments for lunar bases being set up. On the last day of the meeting, somebody came out from NASA Headquarters and said, "None of that is going to happen. This is what's really going to happen." We could have saved a lot of talk if he had come out at the beginning instead of the end of the meeting.
Doel:That must have been incredibly frustrating.
Masursky:Well, we had gotten used to it at that time. Because the lunar program had many starts and stops and hesitations and problems, we knew it would be likely that the things that we talked about wouldn't actually happen.
Doel:How difficult was it in the Falmouth meeting to talk about field geology as a practice for lunar studies? Certainly some of the geophysicists and the geochemists did not accept that point of view.
Masursky:Well, it was easy for us who had done terrestrial field work, because we based all of our geological explorations on field verification of ideas. In a sense, we were continuing the tradition that led up to the foundation of the Geological Survey. It was really put together to explore the Louisiana Territory that the US had acquired and knew essentially nothing about. So we did field work. The earliest men who formed the Survey were real visionaries; they attempted to study everything about the new land, Indians, mountains, geography, soil and forests and grazing and every other aspect of utilization of the new land. So we had a good background in considering how to explore what was unknown territory. We pretty much proceeded in that way, despite, as you say, very vocal opposition from the people who were more hard scientists and who had forgotten their roots of how to do exploratory work. They had gone far beyond that and were mostly interested in isolating particular small problems for investigation in the laboratory. And of course, on the moon we were far from that. We didn't have a good outline of the history of the development of the crust of the moon. So we tried to look at it from that standpoint, and laid out our exploratory plans like Lewis and Clark did in the Louisiana Territory.
Doel:Do you recall any discussions in particular, either at the Falmouth meeting or at the Santa Cruz meeting?
Masursky:Well, the big conflict was the origin of the craters, if they were volcanic craters or impact craters.
Doel:Even as late as '65?
Masursky:Oh yes. Of course, when the astronauts brought back samples, we could see the shock metamorphism, and we had looked at a lot of shock metamorphic rock, because we had looked at lots of impact craters. So we were able to proceed with those investigations. If we had not done those years of preparatory work, we would have been totally flummoxed by the samples that they brought back. But in view of the fact that we had done this work, then it seemed comprehensible to us. The other big conflict was the so-called cold moon versus hot moon. Many people thought that the only process that had operated on the moon was impact. That the moon was assembled from primitive particles, there had been many impacts since, and there was no real vulcanism and tectonism. Well, we could see what looked to us exactly like volcanic centers and volcanic structures. And it turned out that that in fact was what had happened, and the moon turned out to have a long complex geologic history. That was a lot of fun for us, to try to understand this complex history of magnetism and tectonism from the few isolated landings that we had.
Doel:Let me get back to the question of crater formation for a moment, say around 1965. Do you remember which individuals were the leaders advocating the volcanic theory?
Masursky:Well, the number one advocate-because we not only had those people who thought it was only impact, but also those who thought it was only vulcanism and no impact-was Jack Green. He brushed off all information that led to other ideas, as did the cold impact group, who thought that there had been no magnetism on the moon. But I saw Jack years later, and he said that he was now working on I think his 37th lunar proposal. He had never had one funded up to that time. So extreme points of view were not very well accepted, on either side.
Doel:How well regarded was Jack Green's work in the 1960's?
Masursky:Well, it was regarded very well by the Soviets, who resisted to the bitter end the idea that impact was a primary process. There was a book published several years earlier called THE MOON: A RUSSIAN VIEW,5 and that was all vulcanism. So Jack swung a lot of weight with them, but we rejected the Green hypotheses, whether they were Greenian or Soviet.
Doel:That's a very interesting point. Do you have a feeling for why the Soviets generally accepted that view?
Masursky:Well, just the same as they now don't accept plate tectonics. It has made very slight inroads in the Soviet community. They tend to be isolated from the West, and don't interact with us nearly as much as the Europeans or the Asians. So there's really a world community, and then there's the Soviet community, which very often can be quite aberrant. It isn't that they haven't done superb work, for they've come up with a lot of very good and systematic work. But they also sometimes get in entrenched positions. I think that's largely a function of the particular academician: if he thinks things are a certain way, then nobody can attack him.
Doel:The director of a particular institute?
Masursky:The director of an institute has enormous power, and he has tremendous money and authority. He's unassailable, whereas with the people on our side, it doesn't matter how hoary their views, they get attacked just as vigorously as the younger men.
Doel:Do you recall any discussions with particular Russian lunar scientists over impact versus vulcanism?
Masursky:Well, most of my contacts came with them later, after we had returned samples. I think it was then the older Soviets who were still entrenched in their previous positions. The younger men were very easy to talk with, because they were much more accepting of the new ideas.
Doel:In the hot-versus-cold moon controversy, were others besides Urey who actively promoted the idea of cold accretion?
Masursky:Oh yes. John O'Keefe, at Goddard, thought that the tektites had been brought to the earth by impact processes on the moon. John got immersed in the tektite controversy, and he really didn't play much of a role after we got into the geologic interpretation. There were the Soviets. The British I think resisted the impact thesis until oh, I would guess, the return of three or four batches of the lunar samples. Then they became aware of the evidences of shock metamorphism, which we thought were very convincing. The Canadians were very reluctant to accept the impact thesis. As a matter of fact, all the Canadians discovered many impact craters on the Canadian Shield. That work was led by C.S. Beals, who was head of the Dominion Observatory. He had to hire his own geologists, because the geologists of the Canadian Survey tried very hard to show that all the shock metamorphic things were really volcanic things, and were due to high temperatures and pressures in volcanic vents. One of the guys tried very hard to duplicate all of these phenomena in the laboratory, trying to prove that they could be done at very low temperatures and pressures. And he still held, after doing laboratory work, that impact metamorphism didn't exist. But essentially the world-wide community replicated these experiments, and he was just plain wrong. But I must say, he held on for a very long time against accepting the new evidence.
Doel:Were minerals like coesite already identified?
Masursky:Yes. Most had been found by Shoemaker and Chao in the Ries Basin.
Masursky:In Germany. And they found them at Meteor crater. We sought them. The Canadians investigated the Clearwater Lakes, a pair of impact structures over 20 miles across in central Canada. They published thin sections which showed beautiful examples of shock metamorphic minerals. We thought one of their photomicrographs showing the texture of the shock metamorphic minerals was utterly convincing that these were shock metamorphic glasses. But they didn't see it that way. The director of the Canadian Survey was on our side. He thought it was just as strange that you would have young vulcanism in the center of the Canadian Shield as it was that we had had extraterrestrial impacts. I recall that very well in his introduction to their monograph on Clearwater Lakes. He in essence said, "Why don't you guys wise up to the fact that you have indisputable evidence that you've shown in this paper?" We thought that their director was very smart and his geologists were very dumb.
Doel:That's remarkable. Who was the Canadian Survey Director?
Masursky:I'll have to look it up.6
Doel:We can check on that. Do you have a sense of why the Canadian geologists were committed to the volcanic interpretation?
Masursky:Well, impact was such a weird process to appeal to, and there had been a number of investigations of circular features in the US and Europe which were diagonal, either, very strange — I think they were called "crypto- explosion structures." They were "crypto" because we couldn't really find evidence for normal volcanic activity. They were strange, mysterious volcanoes. They were in actuality very beautiful impact structures. We had done a great deal of work in the field and in the laboratory as well, and some mapping from lunar pictures and then from lunar landings. So for us it was a very straightforward path of investigation. But to many other people it seemed like a very strange thing to appeal to, even though Grove Karl Gilbert had proposed that they were impact structures. As a matter of fact, he did laboratory work; he went astray because he fired bullets into wet clay, and found that he got nice round lunar type craters if he fired them near vertically. But he also did some work on the statistics of impact. He thought that there should be many low incident angle impacts, and he thought those should have made oblong craters. But he didn't appreciate that with hypervelocity impact, they struck so fast and generated great shock waves which traveled out spherically; these impacts made a circular crater, no matter what the angle of impact was. We found by using hypervelocity impact on a target, and by looking at craters made by missile impact at White Sands, that the shape of the crater was completely insensitive to the angle of impact. But the pattern of the ejecta blanket was very strongly influenced, and we were able to relate the pattern of impact to the angle of incidence. They came out statistically just the way they should have. And ? did some very nice work in the analysis of what the pattern should be with the varying angles of impact.
Doel:It's interesting that all of this work became possible after high energy level processes involving solids were reached after the Second World War, and not before it.
Masursky:Yes. And we saw with nuclear blasts that most of the features that we saw in hypervelocity impacts would be duplicated by the shock waves generated by nuclear devices. So all of this stuff came together, and the minerals produced in shock metamorphosis were understandable by the transition of the shock waves through these various minerals. The sensitivity of the different minerals to shock metamorphosis is also something that we were well on the way to understanding before we brought back samples from the moon. There we saw exactly these same phenomena repeated in the lunar samples.
Doel:Right. Did you have much direct contact with C.S. Beals?
Masursky:Well, we had a symposium on impact and shock metamorphosis in Flagstaff, and he attended that. We were delighted to talk with him, and we did a great deal of patting him on the back for the very active program that he had instituted in Canada, despite terrible opposition from all of the other graybeards in the Canadian hierarchy.
Doel:How large a program did he set up?
Masursky:Well, they looked at every single airplane photograph of Canada, which is several hundred thousand. He got a whole staff of young guys who looked through these, and then he sent them off to do fieldwork. Then he begged, borrowed and stole money to keep drilling in these impact structures. So it was a very healthy wide-ranging program. He was a fine scientist, as both Urey and Kuiper and the others were. They were early birds in the lunar game. But Beals—he and Shoemaker had a much higher batting average than did the other people in the game. He was the one person outside who really caught on to the role of impact, and did all of the kinds of good things that you needed to do to investigate. He was a fine scientist. We applied his name to a lunar crater. It was a great pleasure to do that, because he was a very strong bulwark in those early wars.
Doel:Do you recall what funding sources Beals was able to tap for that work?
Masursky:He got money from the Canadian National Research Council. They put up much of the money. He got money from oil companies, because they got interested in impact structures when they produced oil from a couple of them.
Masursky:They were buried in the Canadian Shield. And then he got money from various private contributions because the British system puts a great deal of emphasis on amateur work, and in private funding for what we would think of as government resources. It's an old British tradition. It goes way back into British history, when wealthy men would seek out people that they could support in the arts and sciences. And it's still alive and well, I'm happy to say.
Doel:Do you recall any conversations with Beals about the reactions of astronomers to his work?
Masursky:Well, astronomers were a little more willing to accept it than were the geoscience types. He just simply had to employ his own geologists because he could not get anyone from the Canadian Survey. By the time they were assigned to him, they were thoroughly briefed in what they were supposed to learn.
Doel:Where did he recruit his people from?
Masursky:Well, he would go to the universities, and get money for graduate students. I know of five graduate students whose research he funded. So he was a superb science manager as well as a fine scientist.
Doel:Was it particularly universities that he approached to recruit people?
Masursky:Oh, McGill and University of British Columbia and University of Ontario. I remember going to a meeting, when I was a graduate student, before all of this happened. We met in the beautiful old museum, Victorian museum in Montreal, a beautiful building with enormous staircases. Miraculously, the national meeting was in Montreal that year, and all the old guys, the professors from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Berkeley were all there. We got this fantastic picture, with all of these guys who were in their nineties. I think two of them were 96 and 97. We caught all of them, and five years later they were all dead.
Doel:That would be a very interesting picture to see.
Masursky:Yes. It was a real kick, because these were the people who really started geology in North America. I met the first professor of paleontology in North America, and he was still around then. We had a retired professor who was the world-famous authority on fossil plants. It was amazing for a graduate student to meet these people who really founded the science. They were colorful characters, and apparently doing geologic fieldwork was very healthy, because all of them lived to be 85 to 95 years old.
Doel:Good athletic ability is common among geologists.
Masursky:Well, if you have to climb up mountains, it's apparently good for you.
Doel:To change the topic just a bit, you were of course very involved in training the astronauts selected for the Apollo mission in techniques of field geology and investigations.
Masursky:Yes. There were two branches. One was to try to teach them about the moon, and the other was to try to teach them about field geology, because we felt that they would be the people who would be picking up the samples.
Masursky:And we thought that was an immensely important job, so we tried very hard to train them. We had them go out in the field with many, many field geologists. We had them go to many different areas in the US and Canada, and South American and Iceland and Europe. I would say that most of these people had much better training than the normal geologists have in graduate school. They became very fine field observers. I remember on the Iceland trip, we had them do a field excursion around a circular feature in central Iceland. There was a brilliant young Icelandic geologist who had worked the area, and they came to completely different conclusions on the origin of structure. They were right and he was wrong.
Doel:Do you remember which astronauts were involved in that discussion? It's an interesting point.
Masursky:I'll have to fill those in. I can remember a few of them that I got to know particularly well. We took buses all over Iceland, and we did a lot of running. I ran with three or four of them, so I remember them particularly well. David Scott was a superb astronaut. He got involved with the ? fiasco later on, [but] Dave Scott did everything superbly well. I mean, everything he needed to learn, he knew, as many of the astronauts did, but he was a shining example. Let's come back to that. I'll think of it later on.
Doel:That sounds good. Did you feel that the astronauts had enough experience in field geology to make the critical judgments necessary after getting to the moon? Field geology of course involves a great deal of tacit knowledge.
Masursky:Yes. Well, as I said, they went out with lots of very good field geologists in many different kinds of areas; they learned, you know, by walking around on the ground. In addition to many, many lectures on geology and many map exercises, they had this wealth of real experience in the field with geologists. And geology is best learned as an apprentice. You go out and you walk with somebody who shows you how to observe things in the field. It's much more trying than learning laboratory techniques, where you can isolate yourself in an environment which has just exactly your requirements. And in field geology, you have to take it as it comes and they got very good at it. I thought that they were extremely good observers. But they were incredibly eager, smart people. It's always a pleasure to work with eager smart people, and they were that.
Doel:Did you feel the constraints involved in executing the missions themselves kept important field geology from getting done?
Masursky:No. But the moon turned out to be even more complicated than we thought. That is, there were not only impacts but there were shoulder-to-shoulder impacts, so most of the rocks we saw had been in ejecta blankets multiple times. It was not only shock metamorphism and impact structure, it was impact on impact on impact on impact. So it was a real puzzle. It's like making a jigsaw puzzle and then cutting it up four more times, and having four different people chop up this puzzle. It was very tricky putting it back together again.
Doel:The level of gardening was deeper than you expected it to be?
Doel:Do you recall discussions about the use of remote scanning data and the ways in which one can interpret that kind of knowledge, particularly with the early, unmanned missions to the moon?
Masursky:Well, the unmanned missions mostly involved photography. It wasn't until the so-called J? mission halfway through the Apollo program that we started with getting things like gamma ray spectrometers, x-ray fluorescence, and other more complex remote sensing indicators. Most of the early things were gravity fields and photographs, and of course we showed them a hell of a lot of photographs and introduced them to some of the complexities of the impact process and the volcanic process. We think we got them pretty good in identifying these complex relationships. We were very pleased with their training.
Doel:In thinking about remote sensing within geology, did you encounter difficulties with your colleagues in presenting information based on what you were gathering? Were there suspicions of the methods?
Masursky:Oh my, yes. Remote sensing has been around for sometime, and at first people who practiced it tried to do everything by remote sensing. Since we had done a lot of field geology and used photographs in field geology, we knew that nothing was worth the interpretation unless you could field-check your conclusions. There were people who were not familiar with the results of both field work and remote sensing work, so they were very suspicious of people who only did the remote sensing, and we were very suspicious of them too. So the difficulty was convincing people that if you did field work on remote sensing data, then using both methods was a very powerful tool. But that awareness was growing in the geologic community, as more people got involved with using the remote sensing properly, rather than trying to use only it. In other words, any one tool can lead you astray, but cross-checking the various kinds of information we think is the right way to do correct earth geology as well as lunar geology.
Doel:Do you feel the astrogeology branch led the Survey in finding ways of incorporating the various techniques used in remote sensing?
Masursky:No. We were a powerful influence, but also for those looking for oil and minerals, mineral deposits, the remote sensing tool became more and more significant. Thus there were other groups who for different reasons were also incorporating the use of remote sensing in their work. But in all of it, it was the work on the ground and the work in the laboratory combined with the remote sensing work that turned out to be the powerful tool.
Doel:Did you continue doing field geology, involving Western US problems as you were becoming involved in lunar geology?
Masursky:Yes. I managed to get out in the field in Nevada a couple of times. When I left, I led a couple of trips and we took astronauts over there and that was a great pleasure, because we had extremely complicated geology, where the remote sensing was a very powerful tool. We could lead them over the ground and we could show them the actual outcrops. It was a very good place, because in the desert environment, you see a hell of a lot more of the rocks than you do in the Appalachians where everything is covered with chert. So yes, I did some work, but not as much as I would have liked to have done.
Doel:In 1964 you published "Geochemical Anomalies in the Lower Plate of the Roberts Thrust near Cortez, Nevada." Was that some of the work you did then, or had that been done earlier?
Masursky:Well, I managed to get it published then, but we continued doing some work, because we had brought hundreds of samples back. After we had those samples analyzed, then I could incorporate those in the earlier fieldwork. I wrote two or three papers. We started with what we called the Little Nevada Gold Rush. We found several mines, and we started a lot of people using these new techniques. I think there were oh, something like 12 gold mines along the same trend that we found the first few points along. We also wrote some papers on prostrate mineralization, turquoise, and there was one producing turquoise mine when I was working there. Several years later when I went back, there were 19 turquoise mines. So there was a turquoise rush as well.
Doel:To go back to your interesting point on the different, almost national styles of interpretation of lunar geology, impact versus volcanic. Do you recall at any of the international lunar conferences particular arguments or discussions over research methods, or the philosophy of research? Was one argued as being the best?
Masursky:In the early days, when the Soviets were still hard over on the volcanic origins, and we started bringing in the evidence, the technographic (?) evidence of shock metamorphism. They had a lot of very, very good theoretical people who worked on the whole thermodynamics of study of melt, and sequence of crystallization, in both volcanic and intrusive rock. Of course these people were the first ones to turn over, because the physical and chemical evidence was so overwhelming. And then the field types began catching on. And now (Adobrikou), who is the head of the Vernadsky Institute, who I'm sure was one of the avid supporters of a magmatic origin-his wife has now worked on the field geology of two impact structures in northern Europe. I'd say they were really converted. (Laughter)
Doel:That's interesting. But this evidence was all after Apollo? You're talking about the evidence which was returned from the Moon?
Masursky:Before and during Apollo.
Doel:I see. Do you recall any discussions at any particular lunar conferences from the 1960s?
Masursky:Oh my. Let me think. Well, I think I went to the Leningrad COSPAR meeting in 1970. That was the first time I had met any of the younger people in the Soviet program. Up till then, all the people who had come to the US were institute heads and were greybeards: they were very difficult to argue with. But when I showed up, they organized a little informal conference and brought a whole bunch of these younger people together, and a couple of the old boys too. There were also two or three engineers, and they were very familiar to me, because they asked me all the same questions that the NASA engineers asked. They didn't give a damn about the science; they wanted to know what the size of the boulders were on the surface. And you know, how to predict landing hazards. So when I came back, I said, "They're going to try a lunar landing," because they would not have been that interested if they were not going to follow it up, and they did. Of course they abandoned the manned landings, but then they did the lunar Rovers and returned lunar samples by automatic spacecraft. But I knew they intended to go on with lunar landings, just from the very familiar questions that they asked me.
Doel:Did you sense from these meetings after 1970 that the structure of Soviet institutes had in some ways altered?
Masursky:No, the structure has not. Recently, the revolution in Soviet life instituted by Gorbachev affected the Soviet Academy also. He said that you can retain your title and your salary but you couldn't retain administrative authority after 65. So you had a wholesale throwing out of the heads of practically all Soviet institutes, and the Soviet Academy was revived because now there are many more much younger men who are now academicians. The Soviet hierarchy is very European. It's very Germanic. It's not very American. They revere old age, and the people in the government and the institutes are old men. That's true in astronomy and geology and in all other aspects of Soviet life. Gorbachev is revolutionizing that attitude. But that's not a revolt from within. I think they have too firm a hold, because just as there is one Professor in a German university, more comparable to the chairman of our department. That's the way it is in the Soviet Union. There's the Academician and he sets the rules. We think that because lunar and planetary geology is such a new science, that they needed revolution there to succeed, as well as in many other facets of Soviet science.
Masursky:It's fascinating to understand that planetary science is very young. I've lived through most of planetary science. There were a few old timers like Caper who started work very early, but most of the growth has been in my active scientific lifetime. And it's rare to be able to live through a condensed version of the growth and maturation of a science. In the early days, discoveries were made generations apart. There would be students of a great master, and his students, and by about the fourth generation you'd get a really active approach. We had to do things faster in planetary science and planetary geology.
Doel:Are there particular examples which come to mind?
Masursky:Well, my major professor was Adolph Knopf at Yale University. He taught a course called Advanced General Geology. In that course he took each of the areas of geology, and had us go back and trace the history, and show how spurts were made. Then there were long times of stagnation when somebody would get a very powerful grip in a particular area. So he tried to teach us by example how to retain scientific curiosity, and not to establish entrenched positions that would resist all advance. It was a lovely course. He made real cynics of us all. Of course, in many cases, a number would get propagated in the literature, and God damn, it would last for three generations, and it had no basis! Somebody just picked it out of the air. So he tried to make us very wary of consensus as being the overwhelming reality. He said, "Thank God science is not determined by counting noses. You subject everything to new tests." And I think he was an enormously helpful influence in the training of a lot of scientists.
Doel:I remember we talked about multiple working hypotheses earlier as well.
Masursky:Exactly. Since he was a crystallographer, he was interested in physics and chemistry and thermodynamics and microscopic investigations and laboratory confirmations of the sequence of crystallization. He would have been overjoyed with the work that has gone on since, because then he would have been able to achieve high temperatures and pressures in the laboratory to test many of the hypotheses that were really not testable in his time. Their laboratory techniques were not up to testing what the crystallization phases are under very high temperatures and pressures. Now we can do that. They couldn't then, when they were looking for answers when he was a student and a young scientist.
Doel:We're talking about advances which have come since the 1950s and 1960s.
Masursky:Yes. There was an enormous spurt in all science, because of the intensity of scientific investigations to support the various weapons systems in the Second World War, and that enormous inflation, infusion of money and talent made enormous advances in many different sciences.
Doel:Right. We've talked about the impact that the uranium program had on the Geologic Survey itself, to cite one example.
Masursky:Yes. The necessity for finding rare minerals like beryllium had an enormous impact on the number of people involved. The sophistication of the tools they used to find many of these rare substances grew to enormous prominence during the Second World War. It turns out that many nuclear devices use beryllium, and it was almost non-existent. It was a museum curiosity at the beginning of the Second World War, and now it's a great industry.
Doel:And that pushed the development of the military geology branch of the Survey too.
Masursky:Well, some, but military geology has more to do with field geology in support of armies, finding water supplies and learning how to dig bomb shelters, trench systems and things of that sort. But this other growth was due to the very sophisticated weapons that were developed.
Doel:So it affected the geologic division primarily?
Masursky:Yes, and chemistry and physics, and geology and mineralogy and seismic investigations, because when they started doing nuclear testing, then seismology suddenly gained a whole new dimension. It used to be run by the Jesuits because it was so God damned esoteric that nobody except people in seminaries could afford to devote the time and energy to it. Then suddenly it became in the forefront of our national security. So there have been a lot of pseudo-Jesuits since then and an enormous growth in seismic techniques. And then the oil industry has had a fantastic effect, because they found that seismology makes money and that helps a lot.
Doel:We've covered some of these themes in the previous interview, and what I'd like to do is turn to the question of manned science itself. Apollo provided the strongest example in the 1960s. Do you remember any particular discussion of the value of manned spaceflight, either with Harry Hess, or the Space Science Board members, or members of the Presidential Science Advisory Commission?
Masursky:Well, manned flight is incredibly expensive. This was and is an area of intense competition, because the manned program will eat everything in sight. We're very much in favor of the manned program, and we think it can be a very powerful tool, because if people are involved it has enormous public attention: that means you can get Congress to appropriate money for it, if there's broad public support for it. We could never have had an Apollo program without the public support, without man being involved had on it. Let's just say purely as an operational philosophy, if men are involved, then you get lots of money. So that's a very powerful argument. In addition, there is the very fundamental debate about whether manned science will divert and subvert all of the real far-out and advanced science because it is so expensive. In my view, the science part of NASA had its biggest budget during Apollo, so I view the manned program not only as being justifiable because it draws attention and support, but because in fact the science program was most active then and had the most support then. Many of the people now view the manned program as being the enemy, that it soaks up all the money and there's not money left for true scientific work. And it's very easy to have it get out of kilter, and it takes a continual struggle to stay with the fundamental science, to preserve it against what in many cases are showboating tendencies of the manned program. The manned program only gradually learned that there has to be a reason for doing them. You know, the first manned flights had the support of scientists. But the later manned flights can't just fly, you have to have a reason for doing them. We think the reason is that men can carry very sophisticated devices, and we argue men can attend them and repair them and use them more efficiently. If you want to do a particular well-defined task, then the unmanned way is the way to do it. If you want to do more sophisticated things, then the men have a real part to play in it. But that argument hasn't cooled down at all. It is just as violent today as it was 25 years ago.
Doel:Do you think there was more consensus on the value of manned flight in the early 1960s than now?
Masursky:No. But obviously Apollo was on a roll, so the only thing to do was lie down in front of the manned program, and then you got very flat.(Laughter) It's like lying down in front of a road presser. It's very hard to win that fight. But we had a peculiar role because we went with both the unmanned and the manned program, and very few people have done both of those. They tend to be in one camp or the other, and vigorously defend whichever camp they're in, which is what people do. And to the manned people, the unmanned things are sort of will-o'-the-wisp, and to the true scientist, you know, you don't do any science, you're just doing generics. And both sides, we think, have a lot to contribute.
Doel:Were you involved at all in the Mars Voyager project that NASA conceived?
Masursky:No, thank God I was not. I went to a few of their meetings, and then of course they sank like the Titanic, but that's common in NASA projects. The hazards are very high. But no, I got involved with the Mariner, the Mars unmanned flights. Those were very rewarding, very effective. We went from Mariner 4 to Mariner 6 and 7 and Mariner 8 and 9, and then to Viking, in each case getting a little bit more sophisticated. We had a long very good involvement in those early flights. Hopefully we will have men go to Mars before the end of this century or shortly thereafter, and we hope that we can have learned some lessons from Apollo, and do the Mars explorations more efficiently than we did Apollo.
Doel:You were the team leader of the TV experiment on the 1971 Mariner missions to Mars.
Masursky:Yes, the so-called new Mars.
Doel:And I recall from a previous interview that we've done that NASA had combined the proposals from three teams together.
Doel:Were the aims of these three teams similar enough that it was reasonably easy to achieve a common viewpoint?
Masursky:No. The goals were in essence identical, but the personalities were so violently controversial that it was by no means easy to make Mariner 9 happen. There was the Leighton-Murray school, Caltech and physicists, and they had run the imaging teams on Mariner 4, 6 and 7. Introducing me was an attempt to broaden the representation of the science community.
Doel:Was this a decision made by NASA Headquarters?
Doel:Would this have been Homer Newell himself?
Masursky:Yes. Homer Newell was a great man. He was a fine scientist and had a real feeling for science management, and how to mix and match people, which I don't think they've had since he had to retire. There was the Geological Survey group, which I represented, and then there was the exobiologic group that Sagan represented. Of course they were interested in variable features, so Mariner 8 was the mission designed to look at variable features depth. Then Mariner 9 was supposed to do broad mapping of the planet for geoscience. Many people said that I should have gotten an award for being able to be in the same room with Sagan and Murray, and survive. We had some, how shall I say, interesting discussions.
Doel:Do you recall any in particular?
Masursky:Yes. Well, Mariner 8 went in the drink.
Masursky:So then during the transit from earth to Mars, we had to re-design the mission to do both objectives. We actually successfully combined the objectives of both spacecraft. But then when we arrived at Mars, there was a planet-wide dust storm, and the planet was like an orange tennis ball. We couldn't take any pictures at all, other than taking pictures of the top of the dust cloud. It gradually cleared, and then we eventually started mapping. But it led to some interesting discussions, because those are strong personalities, and we had many others who also had solid opinions. But we managed to work out a strategy for doing I think a superb job, by redesigning things as we went along. We did a lot of beautiful variable features and mapping. So it was an enormously successful mission.
Doel:Those were the two poles of argument over emphasis within the team?
Masursky:Yes. Do you look many times at the same area to look for changes? Or do you look at as much area as possible with as high resolution as possible? And both of them are very good to do, and both of them were done very successfully.
Doel:You were also co-investigator for the Apollo field geology team for Apollo 16 and 17, which nearly overlapped the work with the Mariner mission. How did you divide your time?
Masursky:It was very difficult, because they were both full time jobs. And I just ran real fast. But it was not possible to be at JPL and at Houston at the same time. So I'd run back and forth between them. I remember once, I don't think told you this one, I went to a morning meeting in Washington and an afternoon meeting in Denver and an evening meeting in Pasadena. I turned my travel voucher in and they said, "Not possible, you couldn't have done this." But I had the tickets to show that I had used them, and since you're going with the sun, it's possible to do. It's not a lot of fun to do, but it's possible.
Doel:It must have been an extraordinary period.
Masursky:Yes. Well, Apollo 17 had Jack Schmitt along, and nobody has ever succeeded in telling Jack anything. Of course, he had worked with it for several years and knew the stuff thoroughly, but he used to make nasty remarks to me continually about the fact that I didn't spend the amount of time on Apollo 17 that I should have.
Doel:What was your relationship with him?
Masursky:Well, like everyone's. Jack is a very prickly person, and he thinks that a sign of friendship is sticking a square needle in and turning. So he's a difficult person, but very bright and very hard working. Jack did very well. Everything he did, he did very well. When he went to jet pilot school, which he had to do, he was by far the oldest person in his class, like six years older than most of the kids. But he did very well. I think he was number 2 in his squadron. Jack was a very determined person, and could do anything that he had to do and do it very, very well.
Doel:You were also in that same period chief scientist here at the USGS geology branch, beginning in 1971. What particular responsibilities did wearing the chief scientist's hat involve you in?
Masursky:Well, I was branch chief then, so-called chief scientist. That really isn't a formal position in the Survey structure, so that was sort of a nominal title, but my job was to get money. I was very proud of the fact that we wrote more papers and promoted more people when I was the head of that branch than any other unit in the Geological Survey. I thought that those were the two criteria that you should be judged on: you did science and you took care of your people. And let's see, I think I ended up three years later, after Shoemaker, with five times as much money in the budget as he had gotten. I was very proud of that too, because Gene was a very hard act to follow.
Masursky:But that's when NASA was growing, and there was money to do things. Unfortunately that golden age has passed. Jack MacCauley, who followed me as branch chief, said, "Well, you're Napoleon who led the march to Moscow, and I'm Napoleon leading the retreat from Moscow." (Laughter)
Doel:That's a good way to put it.
Masursky:Jack did a fine job in very trying times.
Doel:You mentioned in a previous interview that the rest of the government had gradually learned to control the Survey—the resources it had and the way that it had been managed—but you didn't say exactly how that affected the work at Flagstaff. How did it affect research?
Masursky:Government institutions, like all large institutions, put an enormous emphasis on control. I mean, you can't let people run off and do things because it doesn't look good on charts. And the Survey has always been made up of individual scientists, and there's enormous sympathy for allowing creative expression, much more so than there is in NASA. NASA is much more hierarchy-ridden than is the Survey. The Survey runs things with a sort of loose rein, because it's a relatively small government organization and I think that's the only reason that it works that way. The Survey has grown much since I joined it, and it has also become more formalized and more rigidified since. I think that's a function of the organization size. In a small organization, everyone knows everyone else, and they allow a lot of latitude. In a big organization, you just know them by the formal reports, so things tend to be much more hierarchy controlled. And ASTRO was a very small group. Of course it's large now. It was quite large during Apollo. But still, relatively small, so we could allow the group more freedom for our individual investigators, as long as we met the mission objectives. And since NASA didn't have a clue, we told them what the mission objectives were, so then we could modify them, with some pain, as we learned things. We were able to successfully cope with the NASA system, which is very project-oriented and project manager oriented—the manager tries to know everything that goes on, and every buck that's spent he's responsible for, so he tries very hard to control that. But what is large money to us is small money to them, so we had considerable freedom within those funding limitations to do what we thought they should have. Very often we were able to make enough progress in doing things for them so that they thought, "Well, that sounds OK, they can keep doing that because what they're doing makes sense." So we were very successful in acquiring money and authority to do work that we thought we should do in support of the various lunar and planetary projects. And all of the managers that we dealt with were all aeronautical engineers, you know-what did they know of geology? It was a mystery to them. But we would do things that they needed when they needed them, so then they would let us do other things that we said: "We think this would be good for you to do." And it was all done on trust. I mean, if you did something for them that they needed, then they said, "OK, fine, it turns out that we needed that and you've done good, so do more." And we really ran that way. We said, "This is what we will need," and since they were so inexperienced, they couldn't really judge whether it was true or not. But they trusted us as people, and the way they trusted us was because we could do things that they had to have when they needed them. So with the growth of confidence on both sides, after we began understanding missions more, we finally got a better understanding of what the scientific buttress that they needed to spend 200 or 400 or 800 million dollars on-or more.
Doel:Was there also a change of perspective within the Geological Survey itself, for example, when Bill Pecora succeeded Tom Nolan as director?
Masursky:Well, Shoemaker did a great many things, and we in effect created a Geological Survey here. We needed a topographic division, we needed all the divisions except conservation. We were not involved in a conservation movement on the moon. Pecora came out for the dedication, in this Building 1, and in his dedication talk he said, "If I'd known what was going on here, I would have stopped it." But actually he was a great support and a fantastic politician, and he managed to get support for things that went beyond what we were pushing for. We wanted to set up a remote sensing community to do earth resources studies, and that has come into being. It's a main thrust of NASA now.
Doel:When did that start here?
Masursky:The first satellite was flown in. Really that was not a NASA idea; it was a Geological Survey idea to look at the earth in multibands, and they in effect had to create a new science. They didn't know how to use that information. Dick Fischer was a leading spokesman of that effort. Technically Dick Fischer made this happen, and politically Pecora made it happen. All the other agencies had a pretty good idea that the Survey was eating them up, but they weren't smart enough to figure it out. Thus we got it done because they became enough alarmed to stop it. There's much more money involved now, and so it's an even more political issue. We don't have people who are as clever as Pecora, because he was not only a fine scientist, he went to all the right cocktail parties in Washington. The real effect of a director is not in signing the papers on his desk, it's to have enough friends in Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional staff to have them vote for and make what you want happen. In the testimony of the Survey, I've read a number of accounts where Senators and Congressmen have said to the Survey, "You should ask for more money," and there aren't a whole lot of government agencies where that's been said, I'll tell you. Pecora was just very sensitive to how to marshal the support for the work that the Survey wanted to do, and to satisfy this bureaucracy and satisfy the scientists. Damn, that's hard. That really takes a master of political intrigue to try to do both of those things, and he was very good.
Doel:How well did you know him personally?
Masursky:I didn't know him that well. But he's another Yalie, so I knew the whole hierarchy of people around him. He had had the same professors. And I knew people all through the Survey structure, because there was a very close relationship between Yale and the Survey for over 50 years. Then when I went to work in Nevada and we found the gold deposits, well, obviously he came out to tour the thing, and we showed him around. Erikson started working in a new geochemical group, and they had the first truck-mounted laboratory that did trace elements analysis. We would collect samples by day and then ? Maradino? and his cohorts would analyze them that night. We'd brief the results at breakfast the next morning, and go out the next day and use the results. It was a fantastic way of doing things, and we found some important deposits. Pecora came out and recognized that it was good old fashioned fieldwork, as well as having a truck-mounted spectral laboratory. So we did the best of the old traditional work and using the latest tools to find some important things, and he was very pleased with that, so we got along fine. He knew that I was aware of new things and would use them and use them effectively, and that's really what it was all about. Everything we did was new; I mean, we invented it as we went. He supported Shoemaker and then me and then MacCauley very well. He worked very fast on his metal people, and he could sift out things that were important, and then carry them forward into the political environment, where it's so hard to hold on to your science objectives. I mean, that's like trying to lead troops into a gas attack in the First World War. You know, you don't know anything. Everything is surrounded by fog. But Pecora had a fantastic navigation system, and he could go through that environment and come out the other side with all of the necessary tools.
Doel:What kind of style did he have as a scientist?
Masursky:Oh, he was a good old-fashioned petrologist. He did field mapping in Montana in small volcanic centers that had very very strange character, and he did a superb job. He was an A-number-1 scientist as well as a science manager. He did some great fundamental old style petrographic field geology work. It was A number 1. So I admired him greatly, because those people are very important. There was Homer Newell and there was Bill Pecora, and I can't really name a hell of a lot more people that fit into that category, of being good scientists and being able to handle the administrative reins.
Doel:Did Pecora have much direct contact with any of NASA's Washington Headquarters officials?
Masursky:Yes. We get into involved things, and the Survey had gone through the uranium hunt, and had 50 percent of their budget suddenly disappear, so working for NASA was difficult. They wanted Shoemaker to make ASTRO five times as big.
Doel:To incorporate the people who were left standing after the search for uranium was curtailed?
Masursky:Well, they just wanted results, and they had endless money, but the Survey had just gone through the thing with the Atomic Energy Commission.
Doel:You mean, NASA had wanted Shoemaker's group to become larger?
Masursky:To create a group five times as big. And Shoemaker, number 1, didn't want to do it, and number 2, there's no way in the world the Survey ever would have agreed to do that. It just scared the pants off them to let ASTRO get as big as it did, in view of their recent catastrophe. So then we tried to get Homer Newell and Bill Pecora together, so that they would make an agency to agency agreement, and not sort of fund us year by year, with absolutely no guarantee at all. The Survey had more money than they had people, so for us to get people was extremely difficult. We had them meet each other and in essence draw up what is now called a Memorandum of Understanding, MOU between NASA and the Survey. Of course Pecora had to run that through the Secretary of the Interior to get agreement to assign 250 people.
Doel:Was that a separate agreement from what had already been worked out between Newell and Thomas Nolan?
Masursky:Well, it was a continuation, but it was informal with Nolan. It was still informal with Pecora, but there were supporting documents that made it much more, how shall I say, legality. In addition the Under Secretary of the Interior, who was responsible for the Survey, and the Secretary of the Interior, were both involved, because ASTRO had become a noticeable lump. It really was necessary for the administrator of NASA and the Secretary of the Interior to agree that the Geological Survey would support all of NASA's needs for geoscientists. See, the organic act of the Survey says, the US government will do these things, and when NASA needs geologists, then NASA doesn't go create a small Geological Survey, but brings its job to the Survey and says, "Will you support us in this?" And in Washington, that's a very vital distinction. Pecora did that kind of thing very well and very smoothly, and that had to be an agency-to-agency agreement.
Doel:Was the fact that a separate geology team had been established in Houston, at MSC, a stumbling block in creating that arrangement?
Masursky:Oh, terribly. Terribly. They viewed our presence as being a rejection of the science directorate at Houston. The fact of our existence was a denigration of their function. But actually, it followed along exactly in the style that Homer Newell had devised. That is, there's the project path, and that was Houston, but then there is the investigator from the universities and government laboratories, to flesh out what NASA can do. Shoemaker's appointment as Principal Investigator of the field geology team was exactly in line with what Newell believed was the way NASA should do science. I think it's a good way. It's not the only way. Everything could be done in-house. I think that they have access to a much broader base talent reservoir by doing it the way they're doing. And all of the other agencies operate in a similar fashion. But those are political questions, because when you ask Congress for hundreds of millions of dollars, they get very interested in the nuts and bolts of exactly how it's done. They don't give you the money and say "Do whatever you want." That ain't the way it works. And they can't let it be. It's too darned much. And our recent revelations in military procurement show how carefully they have to watch expenditures of vast sums of public money. When you start passing out hundred million dollar checks, then a lot of people stand to skim a hell of a lot of money off the top. We haven't had that in NASA. I think it's because NASA learned, after much experience with the military-industrial complex, that they have to keep science in charge. They've used a lot of scientists in administrative positions, for which they're not very well suited or well trained. Engineers who have become, shall I say, science-oriented, I think do a better job, because they're genetic selection and training is really to do that kind of thing, so they do it better.
Doel:Did you have much direct contact in the 1960s with the geology team set up at MSC?
Masursky:Oh yes. We had, how shall I say, daily contacts, for many years. And fortunately, I really just got into site selection, and the trenches over which they fought for control of the lunar geology experiments were just being dug. I am happy to say that I spent a minimum amount of time in this, because it was like trench warfare in the First World War. It was not very pretty, and very painful, and with daily fights for mastery of airplanes.
Doel:We're not talking about the question of balancing geophysics and geochemical investigations versus field geology? This is simply setting up the direction of the field geology program?
Masursky:Yes, but everybody was involved, because time was so precious and control of the astronauts was precious. But since we had a very strong hand in training them, and got along with them very well, and got along very well with the mission controller, we succeeded. We had been involved in several space missions, and we had a much better perception than the other experimenters had for how to work with the people who were in the control room. They're scared of everything; they want to have everything in 22 redundant-step methodology, and we learned how to live with that. We talked their language and we got along very well with them. The plan director at Houston didn't know the controllers and didn't know the astronauts nearly as well. So winning those fights was very straightforward. If we had the mission control and the astronauts on our side, they could fight real hard but they couldn't win. And I think Apollo was essentially over before they found out the source of our power, why we were able to do what we thought should have been done. And not only that, we had very good people whom we put on those jobs. They were much better. We had some very very bright guys that we luckily got interested in the project, and they were better. They were better scientists and better people than our opposition. So we did well. We had good guys and we knew where the centers of power were.
Doel:That's an interesting point. What particular scientific issues were being fought?
Masursky:Well, I think somebody worked out that the time on the lunar surface cost a million dollars a minute. We wanted to rehearse everything. And the aeronautical engineers that we were working with didn't understand maps. They had never seen a map before, maybe a hundred maps. But you know, when we talked to those of them who had any military background, we said, "When you're in the highlands, the first thing you do is make the God damned map, decide which beaches you're going to land on. Everything as far as you can predict is worked out in advance. So they were amateurs, and we had a pretty good idea about how we had to run something like this, taking the astronauts out in field situations. You can see the television towers [points out window]. The first one in that contract was a repeater for us to have a field geology team out on a site here, and run it into a little control room, so we would talk to the astronauts using the same kind of communication links that they were going to use on the moon. And we did everything. We were overwhelmed by how difficult it was, how difficult the lunar environment was, with the delay in having to run everything through the control center. So we did this not because we were smart, but because we tried to do it in the field, and we saw what worked and what didn't work. And designing things like what kinds of hammers should the astronauts carry. We had them dressed in astronaut gear, and had them try to use a hammer. We evolved a hammer design not by sitting in the laboratory saying, "I wonder what a hammer should be like?" but with them trying them in the field; the guy in the suit saying, "We can do this but we can't do that." And we put enormous attention into how astronauts get in and out of the Lunar Rover. Fundamental scientific questions! The most difficult fight we had was with the use of maps. You had to use preplanned traversals on the moon: it cost 30 billion dollars to get there, and the astronaut can't come through the door and say, "I wonder what I do next?" The mission controllers very quickly caught on to this. You couldn't just say you'll land in this site and wander around and see what you can pick up. All this was done by multiple, multiple rehearsals, under many different kinds of field situations. We built the crater field, and we had the guys get out of the LEM, walk around in the crater field, and identify samples. We worked out routines of where was the Sun with respect to the sample, and the kind of pictures you've got to take. All of this stuff was done by just incessant practicing, by getting the guys to get in a crater field, to find where they are to decide what directions to walk, and where to pick up samples around the crater. It was a good show. It took a lot of very good, very thoughtful people, very intensively working on those kinds of problems. And the Houston people just couldn't compete. We took the astronauts down to Grand Canyon, up to the volcanic fields, to many different geologic environments, and had them run through a rehearsal. We then had debriefings. We tried to duplicate these situations as much as possible and incessantly practiced with each of the crew on how to do things. So there got to be a great deal of mutual trust. Because hell, these weren't robots we were working with, these were very clever astronauts; they worked with us in setting up the routine. I think the thing that I remember most is the SA & D, Science and Applications Director.
Doel:This is at Houston?
Masursky:Houston. I was interested in the Plan. A new young guy was in SA & D, who had worked in the mission office. We had had a little room off in some other building, but then in the fancier and later missions, we had a console right in the operations center. He walked in, then somebody came in. It turned out to be Jerry Griffith, the number 2 man behind Chris Kraft who ran the operations center. He said, "What are you doing?" We said, "Well, these are guys that are going to have consoles next time." He said, "Well, why don't we have a little meeting?" We had been struggling for a year and a half on how we would interface with the system. And in 15 minutes, he had the right people there, and in 30 minutes, we had a specific idea of what was going to be there, how we were going to interface with them, what decisions we could make, how to interface with his crew. In 45 minutes we'd made more progress than we had made in a year and a half. We had a young guy who knew people, and then talked and it was done. I found that the control was in the guys Chris Kraft found and trained, who could do anything. I mean, they were just incredibly effective human beings. They're like the exec officer on an aircraft carrier. They know exactly how to do everything. Nothing rattles them, and nothing can be bad enough so that they can't save it. So I was a great admirer of those people in the mission office at all the centers, because they all turned out to be just superbly effective human beings.
Doel:That's an interesting observation. What background did the geologists who were at MSC have? What training?
Masursky:They were mostly young guys who had gotten masters' degrees at places like Rice, or University of Oklahoma, University of Texas; they were going to go on in geology. So they had no preparation for this work, except that they were going to be operations guys in the company. A lot of those people get to be very good. Most of the presidents of the major oil companies are geologic, geoscience guys; they've either been geologists or geophysicists. They make decisions which are as big as NASA decisions. They're hundreds of millions of dollars decisions, and their exploration managers and vice presidents are these guys that have a real strong science training, but who have worked with geophysical crews, drilling crews and so on, who understand that when those drills start going down, God damn, there's a lot of money involved. You've got to put a lot of quarters in those machines to make them work. We had in general people with a better science background, people who had worked in a variety of geological environments. The MSC geologists had more experience as field operatives in organizing support crews. This was a very big, very complicated organization, and we had hundreds of chemists and geophysicists and paleontologists that we could call in to give help; we were used to working with teams of skilled people. It fed into the NASA environment very well. At least, I found my Survey training prepared me very well for coping with the multi-faceted complex team operation that needs lots of money. You have to be aware, you know, when you say "Do this," you know that somebody has to pay for it. You have to talk to them and say, "You know, I'd like to do this," and he'll say, "OK." You couldn't tell him. The first thing you did, when you come in and raise bloody hell and it took six weeks to get to the first talk. I found that I had learned the rules of that game, and never had any problem with the NASA hierarchy.
Doel:And other people here in the Astrogeology Branch came out of that same background?
Doel:There's a great many interesting issues, including your lunar science work and the work that you did on both the Mariner, Mars and the Viking, that we're going to have to save for a later interview.7