The Apollo 12 landed successfully on the 400,000 kilometers on the lunar surface 50 years ago, a few hundred meters off its target thanks to Englishman Ewen Whitaker. Whitaker had predicted with high precision the landing site of Surveyor 3, which had landed two years prior. Incredibly, he had no help from computers or GPS devices, but only his knowledge of the moon and great patience to thank.
Whitaker was the only one to respond to a call for collaborators by Gerald Kuiper, a pioneering space scientist at the time. He joined Kuiper at the Yerkes Observatory, later followed him to the University of Arizona. Whitaker founded Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.
As pictures of the moon became better, Whitaker took in every detail, honing his moon geography knowledge. He became so good at it that when the Surveyor 1 landed on the moon years later, he remarked that the craft had landed a few kilometers away from the site previously declared, a discovery supported by the team.
Following the trouble faced with landing Apollo 11, landing the Apollo 12 precisely became a high priority. A second Surveyor mission was therefore launched to establish a possible landing site and send back pictures. Additionally, landing close to Surveyor 3 would be advantageous in that pieces of the surveyor could be brought back to earth and studied for changes due to the vacuum, radiation, bombardment by meteorites, and extreme temperature.
Since Whitaker had successfully located the Surveyor 1, he received a request to join the team and help in locating the Surveyor 3 accurately. The Surveyor had landed in a crater, making the task more challenging due to its obstructed view. Nevertheless, Whitaker studied the images and gave out the landing location of the craft.
The Apollo was propelled on November 14, 1969, and made it successfully to the moon on November 19 despite being struck by lightning during the launch. Intrepid, the mission’s lander, safely touched down near the crater, approximately 200 meters from Surveyor 3. Whitaker’s landing site was thus verified, with Conrad and Bean bringing back pieces of the spacecraft, including its camera, back to earth for analysis.
After the mission, the astronauts sent Whitaker a personal note, appreciating his contributions to the mission. The note became Whitaker’s most prized possession, hanging framed at his house. He later met Bean at a gallery in the late 1990s while Bean was displaying artwork.