Best of '09: Flagstaff's role in the lunar landing

Flagstaff, AZ –

Click here to watch videos of astronauts training in Flagstaff.

50 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 thousand years ago. It's just like craters on the moon. That's why, in 1963, NASA sent the Apollo astronauts here to start their geologic training.

"In a typical field situation conducted by a two man team, one man acted as an astronaut exploring the lunar surface "

The U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff documented the training with a series of films, like this one.

"This astronaut performs such tasks as sampling, describing, and using instruments to obtain geologic information "

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? The USGS made one, in 1965

"Near Flagstaff, Arizona, are fields of volcanic cinders, the result of eruptions about the year 1065. The cinders provided excellent material to recreate the lunar surface."

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

"3-2-1, fire!"

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

"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 Tranquilitatis, here in Flagstaff, Arizona." SFX2: slowly fade out music, x-fade with ATV sound, isolate the sound of the ATV for a second and then duck under my track

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.

"It's not in bad shape for something that was built by folks here."

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.

"They were really trying to simulate what it was like to do a traverse on the surface of the moon, and I think it had to help, because we've seen this with all the missions, the more you can practice before the actual mission happens, the more prepared you are for when things go wrong."

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.

"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."

The science that did come out of the Apollo missions was due in large part to Flagstaff astrogeolgists. They created the geologic maps of the lunar surface that were used to help select the landing sites. And they conducted over 200 geologic training exercises for the astronauts. Gerry Schaber came to work at the USGS in Flagstaff in 1965.

"We had to develop all new techniques of how do you do geology on the moon, that's what NASA was funding us for, because nobody knew that you could do it in a space suit."

The late Eugene Shoemaker, considered the father of astrogeology, helped persuade NASA to allow the astronauts to walk on the moon, AND collect about forty pounds of lunar rocks.

"We had a heck of a time actually convincing NASA to let them even pick up a rock on that first mission, some people in NASA wanted them to land and then take off very shortly after that."

Only one actual geologist walked on the moon Harrison Schmidt on Apollo 17. But the founder of astrogeology never made it there at least in life. 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.