‘Excited as all hell’: UMass professor who helped launch Apollo 11 recalls the moments before liftoff

  • UMass emeritus professor of geosciences Don Wise holds a field notebook from 1969, when he worked as a scientific adviser for NASA’s Apollo moon landing team.

  • Don Wise, an emeritus professor of geosciences at the University of Masschusetts Amherst who worked as a scientific advisor for NASA’s Apollo moon-landing team, points out the Sea of Tranquility on a moon globe as he talks about his involvement with the team, Monday, July 15, 2019 in the Morrill Science Center at UMass. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Don Wise, now 88, and an emeritus professor of geosciences at the University of Masschusetts Amherst, talks about his involvement in the Apollo program in the 1960s, when he was chief scientist and deputy director of NASA’s Manned Apollo Landing team, in the Morrill Science Center at UMass. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Don Wise, an emeritus professor of geosciences at the University of Masschusetts Amherst, holds a field notebook from 1969, when he worked as a scientific advisor for NASA’s Apollo moon landing team, Monday, July 15, 2019 in his office at the Morrill Science Center at UMass. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Don Wise, an emeritus professor of geosciences at the University of Masschusetts Amherst, holds a field notebook from 1969, when he worked as a scientific advisor for NASA’s Apollo moon landing team, Monday, July 15, 2019 in the Morrill Science Center at UMass. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Daily Hampshire Gazette on Wednesday, July 16, 1969. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/19/2019 3:04:06 PM

AMHERST — On the morning of July 16, 1969, the employees in the Apollo offices at NASA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., were about to see their efforts take off — or fail. The launch of Apollo 11 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida was 20 minutes away.

“We can do nothing about it now,” Donald Wise — then a chief scientist and deputy director of NASA’s Manned Apollo Landing team and now a professor emeritus of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst — wrote in his hardcover field notebook at the time.

“There is a nagging uneasiness — knowledge that failure here could have profound consequences on the national image, mood, future — coupled with knowing too many little things which have gone wrong in past missions,” he continued in neat cursive on a page labeled simply “Apollo 11.”

Despite anxiety about the mission, the mood in the office seemed surprisingly calm. “The atmosphere seems superficially like a room full of people watching a rather routine baseball game,” he observed. “Underneath, we’re excited as all hell.”

  Of course, the operation was a success, and on July 20, 1969, the Apollo lunar module Eagle landed on the moon, with hundreds of millions of people watching as man walked on its cratered surface for the first time.

Wise, now 88, was part of several NASA committees advising the lunar program in the 1960s. He later took a leave of absence from his teaching position at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania to work full time on a team sending people to the moon as deputy director and chief scientist of the Apollo landing team at NASA.

After Apollo 11, Wise left NASA and became a geosciences professor at UMass. Fifty years later, he still lives in Amherst and is formally retired, but he still is involved in several seminars a week and writes scientific papers, including ones about the moon. “Geologists don’t retire,” he said, sitting in his office next to a desk globe of the moon and surrounded by various rocks.

The Manned Apollo Landing team, a small group that served as a link between the scientists and engineers for the lunar program at NASA, worked on everything from determining what tools to give the astronauts to figuring out how they would document their trip, Wise said. The group also worked on providing astronaut training and equipment.

“Can you think of the pioneers headed west in their covered wagons, and the last morning — what are you going to do the last day?” he asked. “What are you trying to remember that you haven’t? This was that in spades.”

“It was certainly the most exciting time in my life,” Wise said. “You never knew what you were going to do every day. It was a ringside seat to the greatest field trip geology has ever had.”

‘Talk about stress!’

When the lunar module landed on July 20, Wise helped determine where it was and what the astronauts should survey.

Though NASA had identified a generally flat area to land by photographing “the dickens” out of the spot in advance, it wasn’t possible to know exactly where the astronauts would end up, Wise said. He helped pinpoint the location post-landing while the astronauts took several hours to rest.

“As any field geologist knows, the first thing you do is, ‘Where the freaking hell are we?’” Wise said. “There was any one of six places that the astronauts described from looking out the window … You have five hours to tell us what we’re going to do. Talk about stress!”

Using the photos and descriptions from the astronauts, the team was able to figure out their whereabouts.

Earlier in his time with NASA, Wise also worked on Apollo 8, a 1968 spacecraft that orbited the moon. When it came to launch day, “We had nothing to do but twiddle our fingers,” he said of his team. Those working on the launch were in “the blockhouse,” a protective concrete structure near the launch site. He and a few others decided to stand outside at takeoff behind a fence about two miles from the spacecraft, which was as high as a 20-story building.

“We’re sitting there, and the fence starts to rock,” he recalled. “Two and a half miles away, the seismic waves were starting to go, and about the time the thing cleared the gantry, the sound waves arrived ... You didn’t hear them — you felt the sound waves go through your chest, and you realized you were one heck of a lot closer than I think you wanted to be. We said,  ‘I hope it doesn’t blow up, we’re too close.’”

On that same mission, one of the astronauts took the photo known as “Earthrise,” depicting Earth, bright blue and white, rising above the moon. It had an impact on Wise.

“Here is our view of the planet for the first time being seen by humans. I think that is the moment of truth,” Wise said. “We are knowledgeable enough about planet Earth that we are no longer passengers. We are the keepers of it, and if we are screwing it up — which we are doing royally right now — it’s our fault.” 

If humanity can send people to the moon, Wise said, we can slow down climate change.

“The only question,” he said, “is whether we will.” 

These days, Wise said, when people talk about the moon landing, they ask: “What really was the achievement of the Apollo program?” Wise turns to geology. Based on the rock samples collected, he said, “It has proven that the moon is a child of the Earth.” Meaning, the moon was formed from Earth, giving scientists some more clues into exactly how it was created. 

But, he added, sending humans to the moon wasn’t all that necessary. “It would be easier to document and do what we were doing without the men. But without the men, there wasn’t the national will to go,” Wise said.

He thinks the same is true about efforts to send people to Mars, especially with robotics technology today.

“The only reason for going is, ‘We went,’” he said, mock-beating his chest. “And I don’t think there’s any reason other than that — national pride and what have you.”

Despite the scientific significance of the “field trip” to the moon, Wise said that wasn’t the government’s true motivation at the time. “The Apollo mission, actually, it was us trying to beat the Russians — that was what was behind it. The cloak was, ‘It was for science.’”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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