In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. The success of Sputnik sparked the United States to re-evaluate its own space exploration efforts which resulted in the creation of NASA in 1958.
But as a new agency, NASA didn’t have the personnel or expertise to map the surface of its desired destination, the moon, said Raymond Helmering, Ph.D., former lunar mapping technical project manager for the U.S. Air Force Aeronautical Chart and Information Center.
NASA also wasn’t supposed to duplicate capabilities other federal agencies already held, he said.
In 1959, NASA funded a joint effort by ACIC in St. Louis and the U.S. Army Map Service in Washington, D.C., two NGA predecessor agencies, to collect data to map the surface of the moon. Fortunately for NASA, ACIC and AMS had already anticipated the need for lunar maps to support moon exploration and were already working on the task.
Maps of the moon had existed for centuries before ACIC and AMS started working on their own lunar maps. In 1609, English mapmaker Thomas Harriot drew the first known maps of the moon with his telescope.
As centuries passed improved technology and photography enabled more detailed images of the moon to be captured.
But even the most detailed photographs cannot convey the moon’s surface features as accurately or usefully as a cartographer can with a map.
“A map generally has a high level of accuracy associated with it,” Helmering said. “You can determine geographic coordinates from a map and if you use those, you can compute a position.”
The ability to compute positions was vital for NASA to land a spacecraft on the moon said John Unruh, Ph.D., former cartographer and scientist with ACIC.
“Accurate coordinates of the sites needed to be determined in a coordinate system consistent with accurate vehicle orbit information,” Unruh said.
A cartographer can follow specifications to create maps that show only the features that users would find useful, Helmering said.
A cartographer can identify and compensate for distortion in a photo. Many different photographs of the same feature, such as a crater, can be compared to determine its true qualities including height, diameter and depth.