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Wayne Parsons' Contribution to the Apollo 11 Mission

Remembering the mission on its 50th Anniversary

Super Lawyers online-exclusive

I was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and my dad was a physicist. I followed in his footsteps, getting degrees in physics, engineering and math as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. And then I went on to graduate school at Michigan in physics. They were building an astronomical observatory on the island of Maui, and I got a job in Ann Arbor helping with building and designing equipment that was going to go on the telescopes, and getting ready to transfer everything out there.

A year and half into my program, they asked me to go out to the observatory because they were behind schedule; they needed bodies there, and I understood the equipment, and knew the people there. So, in the summer of 1967, I went to Hawaii to work at the observatory. I had never been farther away from Ann Arbor than Chicago, and I was 24 years old. I had never been on an airplane.

In 1969, when Apollo 11 happened, I was at the observatory, going back and forth still. I ran a big laser system that was designed for ranging off the moon. It involved a reflector—a bunch of optical glass cubes with properties so that if you shine a laser beam into them, it comes right back on itself, perfectly.

The astronauts—you can only imagine how deep a debate they had about what kind of experiments they needed to do. This was one of many experiments proposed, and it was to measure continental drift. You fire a laser to the moon, and the beam comes back, and you get an absolutely precise measurement of the distance between the telescope and the reflector array. If you put another telescope on another continent, and then you put another scope on another, you’ve got these lasers all firing at the reflector—and you’re going to get the distance between Africa, Europe, Asia, Hawaii.

So we were in touch with mission control, and they were communicating with the astronauts. They were saying, “OK they’re firing.” They wanted the astronauts to look if they could see it. We told them, “They can’t see it.” But it worked, and we proved it was feasible. And it was a lot of fun for me—at this point I’m 26. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. 

Friends and lawyers ask me if I get to use physics and math as a lawyer. Yes, I do get to use it, but it’s one step removed, because I can’t testify in court—the expert’s gotta know the math. But it is easier to understand it all: I can communicate a lot better with these cases that involve chemistry, mechanics, devices, machinery. I understand the science, so I can talk to the experts. I think that gives me a little bit of an advantage.

Being a lawyer, it’s not nearly as elegant a profession. I miss the beauty of science and math, and real answers. Most of the people that I worked with are gone. But there are a couple that are still at the observatory, and I have occasional contact with them. It was a research facility then, but I don’t know what they’re doing now. It’s classified.

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