19 Oct 2017

This month last year, Ewen A Whitaker died at the age of 94. Adam De Salle, a student at John Roan School, explores how this Greenwich astronomer's inspired work was fundamental to the success of NASA's lunar programme. 

‘Whatever shines should be observed’

Motto of the Royal Astronomical Society

Growing up with Buzz Lightyear, Dr. Who, and Tim Peake, I'm certainly not alone in being fascinated by space exploration. I was nonetheless surprised to discover that foremost amongst the pioneers who produced a series of photographic lunar atlases which made NASA's navigational precision planning possible, was a past pupil of my school, Ewen Adair Whitaker FRAS (1922-2016). Prior to being recruited in 1957 by the father of planetary science Dr. Gerard Kuiper (after whom the Kuiper Belt is named) and moving to the States with his wife Beryl (a local Woolwich girl) and young family, Whitaker's life was based in Greenwich.

A formative education at 0°

Whitaker attributed his interest in science to an encyclopedia he received for Christmas when he was 8 years old and a scholarship to study at The John Roan School, Maze Hill. Exempted from military service as his spectrochemical work on the top secret Pluto project was vital to the war effort in advance of the D-Day landings, he earned a Diploma from Woolwich Polytechnic (now University of Greenwich) which was the only academic qualification he held. While working as an astronomer at the Royal Observatory, he became Director of the Lunar Section of the British Astronomical Association (BAA) and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS).

The Observatory’s founding Royal Warrant of 1675 designated the objective of the new institution as ‘perfecting navigation and astronomy’, a directive that inspired the astronomers’ work for centuries with the creation of the Nautical Almanac in 1766 and the adoption of the meridian defined by the Airy Transit Circle as the prime meridian in 1884. Although Whitaker’s initial work at the Observatory in 1950 was the spectroscopic analysis of starlight, he also commenced a lunar observation programme in 1951 that would later contribute to early space navigation, using the Royal Observatory's Yapp 36-inch reflecting telescope and presenting his charts of the Moon at meetings of the BAA. Addressed in 1955 from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, his handwritten response to Dr. Kuiper's International Astronomical Union (IAU) Conference request for input into the production of an improved photographic lunar atlas resulted in an invitation to join Kuiper’s team at Yerkes Observatory. Whitaker departed for America on the 5 October 1957, the day after the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik 1 (the dawn of the Space Race in which he was to play a crucial role).

NASA calling

In 1960, Dr. Kuiper and his team relocated from Yerkes to the University of Arizona where they founded the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson. Whitaker’s contribution to NASA's success in lunar navigation was his application of the Zwicky technique of differential UV/IR photography to the moon (applied on the 29th of May 1964 using the McDonald Observatory's 82 inch reflector), enabling him to map areas of differing chemical composition of the lunar surface (see Whitaker 1972).

Ewen and Beryl Whitaker, photograph courtesy of Dale Cruikshank

‘The Hunting of the Snark’

In 1969, Whitaker was given the difficult job of choosing the targeted landing site of NASA’s Apollo 12 mission, deliberately set to recover the abandoned lunar lander Surveyor 3. Whitaker described this problem as ‘Hunting the Snark’ in reference to Lewis Carroll’s poem of a challenging search for an elusive creature. With echoes of his early career in Greenwich, the landing site coordinates that he helped inform were subsequently listed as a ‘known anchorage’ (Statio Cognitum) on the Moon's Oceanus Procellarum. The mission was a great success and Surveyor 3’s TV camera was brought back to Earth for analysis. It can still be seen today on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.

As time goes by....

The incontrovertible success of Apollo 12's mission consolidated Whitaker's reputation as one of the world's pre- eminent lunar experts. In retirement he reviewed historical observations of the Moon, his scholarship confirming the exact dates of Galileo Galilei's observations and subsequent moon drawings as presented in Sidereus Nuncius (1609). Whitaker was to spend the rest of his life in the Arizonan desert , writing a book on the history of mapping the moon, while oft-times reminiscing of the ‘green’ of England and his Greenwich home. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Arizona in 2011.

As a person, Whitaker was a humble and kind man with a wonderful sense of humour. Predeceased by his wife of 68 years, he passed away following a short illness on 11 October 2016 surrounded by his loving family. His native town of Greenwich continues to be extremely proud of his achievements and unique contribution to lunar exploration.

Banner photo: D. Cruikshank. Ewen A Whitaker, Yerkes Observatory lunar work room, July, 1960. 


This research has made use of NASA’s Astrophysics Data System (ADS), NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI), plus Whitaker’s former colleagues and lifelong friends Dr. Dale Cruikshank, Chuck Wood, Dr. Don McCarthy, Richard Hill and the invaluable assistance of documentary filmmaker Jason Davis.