Thursday July 18, 2019
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Before Moon Landing, Apollo Astronauts Learned Geology in Arizona

Today, astronaut candidates still train in and around Flagstaff, which is among many cities celebrating the 50th anniversary

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Undated photo provided by the U.S. Geological Survey Astrogeology Science Center shows Apollo 15 astronauts Jim Irwin (L), and Dave Scott driving a prototype of a lunar rover in a volcanic cinder field east of Flagstaff, Ariz. VOA

Before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin knew they would be the first to walk on the moon, they took crash courses in geology at the Grand Canyon and a nearby impact crater that is the most well-preserved on Earth.

Northern Arizona has had deep ties to the Apollo missions: Every moon-walking astronaut trained here, and a crater on the moon was even named in honor of the city of Flagstaff.

“It’s a really interesting and unique part of our history, and it’s really cool to think that this relatively small town in northern Arizona played such a big role in the Apollo missions,” said Benjamin Carver, a public lands historian at Northern Arizona University.

Today, astronaut candidates still train in and around Flagstaff, which is among many cities celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing on July 20, 1969.

Moon, Apollo, Astronauts
Before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin knew they would be the first to walk on the moon. Pixabay

They walk in the same volcanic cinder fields where the U.S. Geological Survey intentionally blasted hundreds of craters from the ground to replicate the lunar surface, testing rovers and geology tools.

Scientists used early photos of the moon taken from orbit and re-created the Sea of Tranquility with “remarkable accuracy” before Apollo 11 landed there in 1969, the Geological Survey said.

Astronauts studied moon mapping at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff where Pluto was discovered and peered at their eventual destination through telescopes at various northern Arizona sites.

The region’s role in moon missions is credited to former Geological Survey scientist Gene Shoemaker, who moved the agency’s astrogeology branch to Flagstaff in 1963. It wasn’t long before Shoemaker guided Armstrong and Aldrin on hikes at Meteor Crater as he pushed to ensure NASA would include geology in lunar exploration.

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A story passed down by geologists at the crater says Aldrin ripped his spacesuit on jagged limestone rocks that are part of the aptly named “tear-pants formation,” forcing a redesign, head tour guide Jeff Beal said.

Armstrong and Aldrin also hiked the Grand Canyon. A historical photo shows Armstrong carrying a rock hammer, a hand lens and a backpack for rock samples.

Harrison “Jack” Schmitt was the only Apollo astronaut who didn’t train at the national park. The geologist left Flagstaff to become an astronaut, and while his comrades were learning geology, he was learning to be a pilot.

In another historical photo, Apollo astronauts Jim Irwin and David Scott ride around in Grover, a prototype of the lunar rover made in Flagstaff from spare parts and now on display at the Astrogeology Science Center.

Moon, Apollo, Astronauts
Northern Arizona has had deep ties to the Apollo missions: Every moon-walking astronaut trained here. Pixabay

The eventual lunar rover used in three Apollo missions famously got a broken fender on a 1972 mission to the moon. Astronauts cobbled together a quick fix that included a map produced by geologists in Flagstaff.

In yet another historical photo, Pete Conrad and Alan Bean stand in the volcanic cinder field bordered by ponderosa pine trees holding a tool carrier. Bean would later say: “I now love geology, thanks to these early experiences in Flagstaff,” local historian Kevin Schindler co-wrote in a book on space training in northern Arizona.

Lauren Edgar, a research geologist at the Astrogeology Science Center, is working with the 2017 class of astronaut candidates who will be in Flagstaff later this year for field training.

“It will be pretty inspiring for them. It’s inspiring for us being involved in this, but knowing you’re walking in the boot steps of these previous astronauts here in Flagstaff and, hopefully, some day on another body,” she said.

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Flagstaff is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing with tours, exhibits, talks and moon-themed food and art.

Charlie Duke, the youngest astronaut on the moon, is returning to Flagstaff in September as the keynote speaker at an annual science festival. He and Jason Young, who were on Apollo 17, named a moon crater “Flag Crater.”

Retired Flagstaff geologist Gerald Schaber plans to celebrate the lunar legacy wearing the same turquoise bolo tie that distinguished Shoemaker’s Arizona crew from others who worked on moon missions. Schaber was at Mission Control in Houston in 1969, monitoring black-and-white images while bent over a map trying to gauge the distance between Armstrong and Aldrin using cutouts of the men.

“I was just trying to do the best I could with the primitive tracking ability we had in those days,” he said from his home in Flagstaff where he has a signed photograph of a hill on the moon that Apollo 15 astronauts referred to “Schaber Hill.”

Of the three crater fields created in northern Arizona for astronaut training in the late 1960s, only one has a sign acknowledging its importance in the moon missions. Visitors can walk through gaps in a barbed-wire fence and feel their feet sink into the volcanic cinders, although not as deep as the astronauts’ feet on the moon.

The craters don’t come into view without being close up, some as darkened, shallow depressions and others as giant welts in the ground partially lost to the weather.

Arizona has approved a nomination to list several of the training sites on the National Register of Historic Places to better preserve them, but federal approval is still needed. (VOA)

Next Story

NASA Aims to Send Robots on Moon to Explore Cosmic Mysteries through Radio Telescope

The goal is to give astronauts control of the rover "in a quicker fashion and more like doing some sort of video game," said Ben Mellinkoff

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University of Colorado Boulder director of NASA/NLSI Lunar University Network for Astrophysics Research Burns stands for a portrait at the Fiske Planetarium. VOA

As the United States races to put humans back on the moon for the first time in nearly 50 years, a NASA-funded lab in Colorado aims to send robots there to deploy telescopes that will look far into our galaxy, remotely operated by orbiting astronauts.

The radio telescopes, to be planted on the far side of the moon, are among a plethora of projects underway by the U.S. space agency, private companies and other nations that will transform the moonscape in the coming decade.

“This is not your grandfather’s Apollo program that we’re looking at,” said Jack Burns, director of the Network for Exploration and Space Science at the University of Colorado, which is working on the telescope project.

“This is really a very different kind of program and very importantly it’s going to involve machines and humans working together,” Burns said in an interview at his lab on the Boulder campus.

Sometime in the coming decade, Burns’ team will send a rover aboard a lunar lander spacecraft to the far side of the moon. The rover will rumble across the craggy and rough surface —featuring a mountain taller than any on earth — to set up a network of radio telescopes with little help from humans.

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It is made from computer parts and powered by two modified portable cell phone chargers. Flickr

Astronauts will be able to control the rover’s single robotic arm from an orbital lunar outpost called Gateway, which an international consortium of space agencies is building. The platform will provide access to and from the moon’s surface and serve as a refueling station for deep space missions.

The goal is to give astronauts control of the rover “in a quicker fashion and more like doing some sort of video game,” said Ben Mellinkoff, a graduate student at the university. His project is telerobotics, or using artificial intelligence to give users better control over robotic movements from afar. “It has a lot of potential, especially applied toward space exploration,” he says.

The rover, being built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, will plant the shoebox-sized telescopes on the moon’s regolith – the dust, soil and broken rock that covers its surface. Unfettered by the noisy radio interference and light that hinders Earth-bound space observations, the telescopes will peer into the cosmic void, looking back in time to the early formation of our solar system, Burns says.

Robot prototype

Working out of a small lab on the Boulder campus, Mellinkoff and two fellow graduate students have built a prototype of the robot named Armstrong (named for the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong). It is made from computer parts and powered by two modified portable cell phone chargers.

On a recent visit, Mellinkoff controlled the robotic arm using an X-box gaming controller, driving it toward an assortment of shoe-sized objects created with 3-D printing and resembling the radio telescopes to be planted on the moon.

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The radio telescopes, to be planted on the far side of the moon. VOA

“It’s really going to be a platform for us to start different science studies that we couldn’t do from the surface of Earth” said Keith Tauscher, a physics graduate student.

Tauscher is working on a lunar orbiter designed to take advantage of the radio silence of the far side of the moon to discover when the first stars and black-holes formed during the formation of the universe. The lab has dubbed this mission “the Dark Ages Polarimeter Pathfinder, or “DAPPER.”

The work in Boulder and elsewhere underscores NASA’s plan to build a lasting presence on the moon, unlike the fleeting Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s.

Vice President Mike Pence in March announced an accelerated timeline to put humans on the moon in 2024 “by any means necessary,” cutting the agency’s previous 2028 goal in half and putting researchers and companies into overdrive in the new space race.

The Americans are not alone in their latest moon quest, unlike a half-century ago. In January, the China National Space Administration landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, with a long-term aim of building a base on the moon. India was scheduled to send a rover to the moon this month.

radio telescopes, moon, robots
NASA’s plan to build a lasting presence on the moon, unlike the fleeting Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s. Pixabay

Another key difference between the Apollo program and the Artemis program, as NASA chief Jim Bridenstine named the new lunar initiative in May, is bringing in help from commercial partners such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

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Those companies are working to slash the cost of rocket launches with a longer-term ambition of doing their own projects on the moon and eventually Mars. “It’s a new way of operating in which the private sector is intimately entangled with NASA,” Burns said.

He predicts that in roughly 20 years, the moon will be dotted with inflatable hotels for deep-pocketed tourists and mining sites where robotic drills dig under the moon’s south pole for frozen water that can be synthesized into rocket fuel for missions back to Earth or further out to Mars. (VOA)