One Small Town's Big Role In The Apollo Missions More than 40 years ago, NASA sent the Apollo 11 astronauts to the small town of Flagstaff, Ariz., to prepare for their mission. The desert terrain and a meteor crater just east of town were much like what they would encounter on the moon.
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One Small Town's Big Role In The Apollo Missions

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One Small Town's Big Role In The Apollo Missions

One Small Town's Big Role In The Apollo Missions

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Forty years ago today, when three astronauts blasted off for the moon, they had already spent years preparing. Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins had trained in flight simulators, in a lunar-landing research vehicle, even a zero-gravity simulator called the Vomit Comet. NASA also sent the men on a lower-tech training mission to Arizona.

Daniel Kraker of Arizona Public Radio explains why.

DANIEL KRAKER: Fifty miles east of Flagstaff in the middle of a vast, flat, scrubby plain, there's an enormous rocky bowl in the ground more than two and a half miles around and over 500 feet deep. It's Meteor Crater, created when an asteroid smashed into the earth 50,000 years ago. It's just like the craters on the moon. That's why, in 1963, the three Apollo astronauts came here to start their geologic training.

(Soundbite of film)

Unidentified Man: In a typical field situation conducted by a two-man team, one man acted as an astronaut exploring the lunar surface.

KRAKER: The U.S. Geological Survey documented the training with a series of films like this one.

(Soundbite of film)

Unidentified Man: This astronaut performs such tasks as sampling, describing and using instruments in order to obtain geologic information.

KRAKER: He picks his way across the rocky crater and collects samples with special lunar tools. Then he relays data to another astronaut in a tin model of the lunar landing module perched on the rim of the crater. That's one crater, but what about a sea of craters like they'd encounter on the moon? They made one in 1965.

(Soundbite of film)

Unidentified Man: Near Flagstaff, Arizona are fields of volcanic cinders, the result of eruptions about the year 1065. The cinders provide an excellent material to re-create the lunar surface.

KRAKER: Scientists dug more over 400 holes and calculated exactly how much dynamite and nitrate fertilizer to stuff in them to create different sized craters.

(Soundbite of film)

Unidentified Man: Four, three, two, one, fire.

(Soundbite of explosion)

KRAKER: The result was a nearly perfect replica of a section of the moon's Sea of Tranquility, where Apollo 11 landed.

(Soundbite of film)

Unidentified Man: On this crater field, astronauts will be able to train in a more realistic setting, a setting like the lunar surface, a little of Mare Tranquillitatis here in Flagstaff, Arizona.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of motor engines)

KRAKER: Today, the crater field is a playground for motorbikes and ATVs. They kick up clouds of cinders as they cruise in and out of the craters. Forty years ago, NASA asked scientists in Flagstaff to build an early predecessor of these off-road vehicles, a replica of the lunar rover for astronauts to train on.

Mr. JEFF JOHNSON (Director, USGS Astrogeology Science Center): Not in bad shape for something that was, you know, built by folks here.

KRAKER: Jeff Johnson is standing in front of the Rover, affectionately named Grover. It looks like a 1960s dune buggy. Johnson directs the USGS Astrogeology Science Center, founded in Flagstaff in the early '60s.

Mr. JOHNSON: They were really trying to simulate what it would be like to do a traverse on the surface of the moon, and I think it had to help. We've seen this with all the missions that you participate in: The more you can practice before the actual mission happens, the more prepared you are for when things might go wrong.

KRAKER: And things did go wrong. On Apollo 17, one of the rover's fenders broke. The fenders were designed to keep lunar dust, fine-like talcum powder, from blowing around the astronauts. So when one broke, the astronauts took one of the geologic maps of the moon's surface, prepared in Flagstaff, and stuck it to the broken fender with duct tape, of course.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, that's been a joke for a long time. The science and the maps was one thing, but the ability to fold it and make it into a fender was another.

KRAKER: The science that did come out of the Apollo missions was due in large part to Flagstaff's pioneering astrogeologists. They gave the astronauts crash courses in this brand new science.

Mr. GERRY SHABER (Retired Astrogeologist): We had to develop all new techniques of how do you do geology on the moon and that was what NASA was funding us partly for, because nobody knew that you could do it in a space suit.

KRAKER: That's retired astrogeologist Gerry Shaber. His mentor was the late Eugene Shoemaker, considered the father of astrogeology. Without Shoemaker, the Apollo 11 astronauts may never have taken their historic steps on the moon. Shaber remembers.

Mr. SHABER: We had a heck of a time actually convincing NASA to let them even pick up a rock on the first mission. Some people in NASA headquarters wanted them to land and then take off very shortly after that without even getting out of the LEM for the first mission.

KRAKER: Shoemaker dreamed about studying the moon's surface years before the Apollo missions were even conceived. He never made it there, at least in life, but almost exactly 30 years after Apollo 11, some of Gene Shoemaker's ashes were scattered on the moon when the Lunar Prospector satellite fell to the surface. He's still the only person who's a permanent part of the moon's geology.

For NPR News, I'm Daniel Kraker in Flagstaff.

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