Charles Wood, creator of Lunar Photo of the Day

Running the popular website, Lunar Photo Of the Day, (LPOD) and writing a regular column on the moon that appears monthly in Sky & Telescope magazine, are the things Charles A. Wood is probably known for most. But, the interest of a 9 year-old in the sky went from backyard observations on a small telescope, to the University of Arizona, a stint in the Peace Corp and included working at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory cataloging Lunar craters.

LPOD sig

With a PhD in Planetary Geology under his belt, Chuck spent 5 years as a “Space Scientist” as NASA’s Experimental Planetology Branch followed by another 5 years as Chief of the Space Shuttle Earth Observations Office, both of those located at the Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas. Currently he is Executive Director of the Center for Educational Technologies at Wheeling Jesuit University.

That just scratches the surface of an impressive resume and we were happy for the chance to ask Chuck a few questions.

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OotC: Let’s start out with a little background. Where did you grow up, when and how did you first catch the “Moon Bug,” and what are you doing these days?

CAW: I lived in Florida when I first became aware of the sky. I was in about the fourth grade and saw an eclipse of the Moon that made me want to find out more about the universe. This was in the early 1950s and I listened to radio space dramas and actually did see the famous Colliers magazine stories by von Braun and Wiley Ley about rocketing into space. I was already a voracious reader of science fiction and spread my interest over to science fact. My family lived in California during the late 1950s and I followed the launches – and failures – of America’s early rockets. One Christmas I asked for a telescope and received a 7 power handheld one. I was astonished with my first view of the Pleiades and saved my money until the magic $29.95 was reached to buy a real instrument – a 3” Edmunds reflector. This prompted the next step of grinding a 5” plate glass mirror and building a wooden-tubed scope for a high school science fair project. Need I say that I was hooked?

OotC: How many telescopes do you currently have, and what types and apertures are they?

CAW: During moves in the last two years from Arizona to Nicaragua to West Virginia, I shed my three previous telescopes. Just recently I bought on eBay a 6” Intes Maksutov and have purchased, for the first time in my life, good eyepieces. But I live in an apartment now and my first light observation was from my living room, looking out the front door at the Moon!

OotC: There are a lot of exciting things going on in the inner solar system: Genesis returning snatches of the solar wind, Stardust bringing home more solar wind samples as well as catching comet particles, Messenger to Mercury, the European Venus Express – and that is just a small portion of the list. What are the areas of solar system, besides the Moon, that most hold your interest as a planetary geology PhD? Mars? Near-Earth Objects? Cassini/Huygens and Saturn? Galileo and Jupiter? New Horizons and Pluto?

CAW: We tend to be interested in things we are involved in and that’s true for me. But I am a dilettante in that I have published papers about the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Moon, Mars, satellites of the Jovian planets, asteroids, meteorites and comets – sometimes I feel the solar system is too small for me. I was especially excited in 1981, when Lou Ashwall and I advocated that the SNC meteorites – which we named — come from Mars. We did point out a possible pre-discovery in that Snickers candy bars are produced by the Mars Candy Company… Currently, I am a member of the Cassini team that uses radar observations to understand the geologic history of Titan. That moon is so big and geologically diverse that it is more interesting than some of the traditional planets! My most continuing addiction is to the Moon, and I am lucky to have been a bit player in its scientific exploration, but the ability to explore it with a backyard telescope makes it much more real than anyplace else in the universe.

OotC: Discounting the lunar polar-regions, list the top five locations on the moon you feel need in depth study either by lunar rovers or possibly manned missions.

CAW: “Need” is a tricky word. For the purpose of establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon – which I ardently support – (and neglecting the poles,) perhaps the most important locations are where there are large exposures of pyroclastic deposits such as near Sinus Aestuum. Recently Dave McKay [NASA Johnson Space Center] proposed that such volcanic ash layers would be ideal sites for a lunar base because of the ease of extracting oxygen and the ease of caterpillaring ash to protect a habitat from radiation. From the scientific point of view there are many important questions remaining to be answered, and locations where evidence might be gathered “need” to be studied.

For example, was there a lunar cataclysm about 3.9 billion years ago when most of the visible basins and large craters were formed? To answer this requires determining the ages of formation of some of the older and younger impact basins. Good candidates would be the Nectaris basin and the South Pole-Aitken basin on the farside. Another important question is was there significant volcanism before the episode of mare basalts?

Possible places to look would be the light-hued smooth plains between craters in the southern highlands and the crater-filling material inside Ptolemaeus. Each scientist also has their own nagging questions that visits to specific locations would resolve. One of mine is what are the origins of the inner rings of concentric craters such as Hesiodus A?

Another mystery is the nature of the uplifted Aristarchus Plateau. And finally, is the Gargantuan basin real?

OotC: Are they all on your Lunar 100 list? What prompted you to develop that list and what were the criteria for being placed on it?

CAW: I actually listed 8 locations above, and all except the farside South Pole-Aitken basin are on the Lunar 100 list. The idea for the Lunar 100 came because amateur astronomers seemed to be staggeringly ignorant of the Moon. The Moon was widely blamed for making the tiny smudges of deep sky objects even harder to observe (but what is there to really see?), and few amateurs seemed to look at the Moon with any understanding. Existing books on the Moon didn’t help. Typically they boringly describe how many small craterlets might be visible on the floor of a bigger crater and whether a crater had a central peak. But all of the real understandings of lunar science that had developed since 1950 were missing. I wrote The Modern Moon: A Personal View to explain what we can learn by observing the Moon. And the Lunar 100 followed because the Moon is so full of detail (compare to the near nothingness of visually observing Mars) that observers would not know what to look at and why.

I realized that the Messier List was an excellent guide to learning the starry sky because it introduced observers to different types of objects and provided a limited number of interesting targets. The Lunar 100 was meant to do the same – highlight not just showpieces but also explain what they taught about the origin and evolution of the Moon.

OotC: I have been a faithful follower of your “Lunar Photo of the Day” website and I’m glad to see you have gotten it back up and running. Can you tell us the story of how you decided to undertake that project?

CAW: There is a very active listserv for lunar observers (lunar-observing@yahoogroups.com) that features images and observations from the best imagers and serious observers. In the late fall of 2003 a really excellent image prompted wide-spread praise, and Greek amateur Anthony Ayiomamitis commented that there are enough really good lunar images that there ought to be a lunar equivalent of Astronomy Picture of the Day. That seemed like an audacious suggestion but as I thought about it I felt that Anthony was right. In any case it would be a challenge to try. That was appealing and so with Anthony’s technical support I started Lunar Photo of the Day (www.lpod.org) on Jan 1, 2004 and, although there have been interruptions, nearly 700 LPODs have been published. The Moon is fascinating enough – and new images and discoveries keep coming – for LPOD to continue for a long time!

OotC: Your insightful comments on the various features illustrated by the LPOD were, to me, at least as valuable as each day’s pretty eye-candy photo. I’d hate to think all of that was lost forever. Did you have the archive from the old site backed-up somewhere or were you able to salvage them from the old site?

CAW: All LPODs except one are available at the current website. I am honored that people have devoted effort to creating indexes to LPOD, making an LPOD widget, and translating LPOD into Spanish and French. I have been surprised that I continue to learn so much from writing interpretations of lunar photos. And there have been three presentations to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference based on the images submitted to LPOD, with the amateur imagers as coauthors!

OotC: Speaking of eye-popping photos: how does today’s relatively cheap availability of high quality optics and new techniques such as digitally stacking multiple exposures to increase quality, compare to those images you dealt with during your “lunar mapping” days at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in the early ’60s?

CAW: I was lucky to use the very best professional images available to help compile lunar crater catalogs in the 1960s. Those photos were taken with the Yerkes 40”, Mt Wilson’s 100” the Lick 120” and LPL’s 60”. Today’s amateurs with 8” to 18” telescopes in their backyards routinely take images that are higher resolution than the images of the 60s. What amateurs don’t have is consistent image scale, wide-field views, and Moon-wide coverage that can be combined into an atlas for widespread use. But it would be possible to coordinate the work of a few skilled amateurs to create the world’s best atlas of the Moon!

OotC: You mentioned that your career was kick-started by working at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory during its infancy. With your arrival, it swelled to 7 employees and at the time was housed in a 750 sq. ft. Quonset hut. Now LPL boasts around 450 employees and occupies multiple buildings across the University of Arizona campus.

What was it like to be there at the small beginnings of LPL, and chart its growth into an organization that has ties to most of the major space exploration efforts going?

CAW: LPL has been at the center of planetary science since G.P. Kuiper founded it 45 years ago. In the 60s it was an exciting place to be because Kuiper was the world’s leading planetary scientist (I like provocative statements!) and everyone involved in lunar and planetary studies came to LPL to give talks and work on missions. I met Urey, Shoemaker, Masursky, Sagan, Dollfus, Wilhelms – and worked with fellow students such as Dale Cruikshank, Alan Binder and Bill Hartmann, all of whom became leading planetary scientists. My later work at Brown University and Johnson Space Center cemented excellent connections with those centers of expertise, and associations with colleagues at JPL, the Lunar & Planetary Institute, the University of Hawaii and the US Geological Society allowed me to have a great ringside seat for 40 years of space exploration.

OotC: It seems that almost every country has plans for lunar missions in the next couple decades, from India and Japan to China, Russia and the ESA countries. At least a couple of those mentioned are talking in serious tones about manned missions in the middle of the first half of this century, including NASA and the VSE.

How viable do you see these efforts as being, and how much do you feel can be discounted as mere posturing?

CAW: Every one of those countries is developing the capability – technically and financially – to send orbiters and astronauts to the Moon and they want to politically. All want the prestige and technical development that will occur. The one entity I worry about is NASA – our country can easily afford lunar exploration but the political will as manifest by an appropriate budget is uncertain now and in the future. The next decades will see the real beginning of space colonization by various nations – we are at the beginning of another golden age of exploration. I hope the US will be a leader.

OotC: Private industry and the ‘alt. space’ movement have been much in the news recently, with the flight of SpaceShipOne, and NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services solicitation. Do you think we might see serious private efforts towards lunar exploration in the form of an unmanned orbiter? Private manned exploration?

CAW: The Federal and state government sponsored the National Road and the Erie Canal in the early 1800s, but it was private developments that made communities grow and families spread west. Commercial space operations are required to make the humanity’s presence on the Moon more than a tiny research base. But private programs require a chance to profit. If we as a people want to move in to space we need to have our government promote commercial exploration by paying a fair price for scientific data, for building lunar habitats and for resupplying a lunar base. Is this any different than the government’s continuing subsidies of oil and agriculture industries and paying businesses to develop new export markets?

OotC: Contrasting today with when you were going through school, how does the state of lunar and planetary education stack up? What areas are better? What areas might be lacking?

CAW: In the late 1950s and through the 60s space exploration was the beckoning future of mankind. Public excitement was pervasive and the government even established a large program (National Defense Student Loans) to actively encourage students to study science and math – I went to school with one of those loans. Every college and university had an observatory and many students majored in science. Today, many science, math and engineering departments across the US would be closed if it weren’t for foreign students and professors who come to learn and teach. K-12 schools are a major part of the problem. Few teachers train to teach science so even students who want to learn often take science courses from inadequately prepared teachers. Another problem is that the amazing discoveries and understandings from planetary exploration have not been incorporated into textbooks. I have thought of writing a Geology 101 text with examples of volcanism, tectonics, erosion, polar ice, deserts, etc coming from everywhere in the solar system, not just one blue planet.

A very positive development is that NASA, NSF and other agencies recognize that our education system is failing to create the scientifically and technology enabled learners necessary to power our country’s future development and prosperity. There are many ongoing efforts to improve science teaching and excitement for science. For example, I am now working with NASA to develop a video game to inspire and teach young people about the Moon and science in general. But what is really needed is a cultural recognition of the worth of science, and we know how to do it. The CSI TV programs have presented crime scene science in a very positive and glamorous way, and numerous colleges now are responding to demand by offering programs in forensic science. We need popular culture examples of how cool and exciting space science is – how about a new series called PSI – Planetary Science Investigators?

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I’d like to thank Chuck for sharing his insights as well as allowing me to pick his brain on several topics. Be sure to check out his regular lunar column in Sky & Telescope magazine and visit the Lunar Photo of the Day site as well at http://www.lpod.org/

For more information on Chuck visit his website at http://www.lpod.org/cwm/

11 thoughts on “Charles Wood, creator of Lunar Photo of the Day

  1. Wow! What a great interview! Thanks to OotC and Chuck for such an intelligent and fascinating article. Chuck is so knowledgeable and OotC asked just the right questions to elicit a provocative interview!

  2. Very interesting background! I’ve been to the LPOD and can not find contact information for Chuck. Anyone know how to reach him?

  3. Here’s an additional article about Dr. Wood: http://www.cet.edu/news/news101.html. His e-mail is tychocrater@yahoo.com

  4. I’m amazed that Chuck only recently got some good eyepieces! :^) It gives me hope for myself …

    Great interview.

  5. Charles, I think you must be applauded for single handedly reviving amateur interest in the Moon. Clearly the Moon is the best example of a medium sized rocky planet most of us will ever see, and “Modern Moon” awaked me to the possibilites of studying it; and no fancy gear need.

    Your emphasis on the importance of large scale structures, rether than who can see the tiniest craters, has revived moon studies.

    Congratulations. And thanks.

  6. I was reading about Titan and Cassini and thought I’d look you up, to see where you were and what you were doing. Natasha & I still live in Tokyo. Last summer John and Joanne visited. Drop us a line when you have time.
    Sincerely Matthew

    axvig@excite.com

  7. Hello !
    Welcome to the worlds most extreme Lunar meteorites in history, with much beautiful FUSION CRUST !!!!

    Best Wishes /// Göran Lindfors

    http://community.webshots.com/user/LunarMeteorites

  8. Charles,
    Look at the moon a lot here in Houston. Saw something in one of your S&T pictures, crater Lambert- something that looked sphereical stuck to one of the walls. How does forcefully ejected ejecta stick to a crater wall? What was that lump of stuff?
    Enjoy your column.
    Tom, Buzzi

  9. Charles,
    Your S&T articles seem to show craters with something very interesting in them. One I recall is Pythias. and in the latest issue, there is a treelimb or something hanging over the crater edge at the end of one of those mysterious rilles or rhymae. Crater involved was L..something.

  10. Pingback: Tris Payne » The Financier

  11. Chuck, I was very impressed with your interview, you have certainly
    impressed me with your vasted knowledge of the moon and its study
    I remember you makeing your first telescope and the grinding of the mirror for it. How exciting it was then to watch you and now to see the great images that you have on your website.
    Your highschool friend,
    Bob Williams

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