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Apollo 11 In Arizona: How The Copper State Helped Blaze A Trail To The Moon

Celebrations of Apollo 11’s historic moon landing 50 years ago conjure images of Houston and Cape Canaveral, but rarely Arizona. This two-part series looks at the pivotal role the state played in preparing astronauts for moon missions – and in driving lunar science forward.

Airing July 18-19, 2019
Reporting and photos by Nicholas Gerbis

Celebrations of Apollo 11’s historic moon landing 50 years ago conjure images of Houston and Cape Canaveral, but rarely Arizona. This two-part series looks at the pivotal role the state played in preparing astronauts for moon missions – and in driving lunar science forward.

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The Tests And The Terrain

Listen to Part 1


Celebrations of Apollo 11's historic moon landing 50 years ago conjure images of Houston and Cape Canaveral, but rarely Arizona. Yet the state played a pivotal role in preparing astronauts for moon missions — and in driving lunar science forward.

"There's all sorts of old garages around town where the rovers were built or instruments were designed, or they tested geology techniques, and so on. And a lot of that's forgotten," said Lowell Observatory historian Kevin Schindler.

Schindler said the crags and craters of northern Arizona played an indispensable role in preparing astronauts explore the moon.

"They don't know much about geology but, when they go to the moon, we want them to pick up rocks and do scientific surveys and such. So let's bring them to a place where there's a lot of comparable geology."

Among the most useful geologic features were the volcanic field of the 900-year-old Sunset Crater cinder cone, the impact geology of the 50,000-year-old Meteor Crater and the geologic layers of the ancient Grand Canyon.

"Taking the astronauts to the canyon, it helps inspire these sometimes-cynical test pilots to want to learn geology," said Schindler.

To replicate the lunar experience more accurately, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Flagstaff even blasted 426 craters into Cinder Hills, an ancient volcanic area near Sunset Crater.

Engineers meticulously laid out the craters to match a portion of the moon's Mare Tranquillitatis, or "Sea of Tranquility." Blasting occurred in three stages to simulate the different ages of the craters' lunar counterparts. Much of the 10-acre facsimile of the Apollo 11 landing zone still survives.

Every astronaut who bounced across the lunar surface first clambered around Arizona's craters, testing space suits, practicing movement and rehearsing communications protocols.

TOP: Apollo 17 astronauts Jack Schmitt (left) and Gene Cernan (right) drive the USGS-built Grover by the Bonita Lava Flow near Sunset Crater. NASA LEFT: Neil Armstrong on mule. RIGHT: Demonstration of Bell Aerospace's Lunar Flying Vehicle for NASA and USGS at Hopi Buttes, Aug. 2-3,1966. U.S. Geological Survey

"This was part of their routine, basically. They'd come here for a day, and then they'd go to Cinder Hills for a couple of days, and then — I know they went to the Grand Canyon first and all that. So they all had the same circuit that they would train," said Jeff Beal, head tour guide at Meteor Crater.

Jerry Schaber fondly recalled the astronauts he trained during his time with the USGS, in Arizona as well as in Hawaii and at the Nevada Test Site.

The service built prototype rovers for the astronauts to test drive on the crater field.

"They said things like, 'We felt right at home on the moon because of you guys,' because the rover they trained in drove exactly like the one on the moon, except theirs bounced up and down a lot more because of the gravity," said Schaber.

Schaber also worked with astronauts from later crews, including geologist Harrison "Jack" Schmitt of Apollo 17 — the only scientist ever to set foot on the moon — and Apollo 15 commander David Scott.

"Dave Scott really liked geology, so that was a blessing, really," he said.

Scott would later thank his four trainers by naming lunar features after them, including the Swann Range for Apollo 15 geology team leader Gordon Swann; Head Valley for planetary geologist James W. Head of Brown University; Silver Spur for Leon "Lee" Silver, a Caltech geologist; and Schaber Hill.

Apollo 15 astronauts Jim Irwin (left) and Dave Scott (right) drive the USGS-built Grover near a large crater in Cinder Lake Crater Field. NASA

The Struggle For Science

Geology — or any other scientific work — was not initially on the astronauts' to-do lists.

"It became a shock to many of us — to myself in particular — as I realized that it wasn't exploration. It wasn't science. It was just competition, national prestige. But for science, for exploration, we would never have spent the amount of money," said Donald Davis, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute.

Davis served on the team that ensured that Apollo return trips reached the Earth at the right moment to land where they wanted to, at the right angle to neither burn up nor skip off the atmosphere, and in time to not run out of fuel.

"We were developing the basic computer code that was to be used to calculate all of the trajectories through return the Apollo spacecraft to Earth," said Davis.

The need for scientific pursuits initially eluded NASA and President John F. Kennedy, who viewed the moon more as the finish line of a race between Cold War superpowers than as a target for scientific missions.

Eugene Shoemaker – geologist, would-be lunar explorer and later co-discoverer of the famed Shoemaker-Levy 9 and Hale-Bopp comets – pushed hard to add science to the Apollo missions. NASA

"Originally it was really a space race, and they just wanted to get to the moon. But then they realized they need to do a little science once they get there. So that's when Shoemaker got involved with NASA," said Beal.

Eugene Shoemaker — geologist, would-be lunar explorer and later co-discoverer of the famed Shoemaker-Levy 9 and Hale-Bopp comets — pushed hard to add science to the missions.

"What does picking up rocks have to do with beating the Russians? But the scientific community, including Gene Shoemaker, really pushed NASA and said, you know, if we're going to go to another world, we should take advantage and explore as much as possible," said Schindler.

Shoemaker had a pedigree particularly suited to the job. Beyond his fascination with the moon, he had recently completed doctoral research on the 560-foot-deep, three-quarter-mile-wide Meteor Crater. His findings overturned the conventional wisdom that was volcanic in origin.

Shoemaker based his conclusion in part on the resemblance between Meteor Crater and explosion craters made by atomic blasts at the Nevada Test Site. Along with geologist Edward C. T. Chao of the USGS, he also found coesite, a shocked quartz that forms under very high pressures, at the crater.

"It was Eugene Shoemaker who really convinced the scientific world that yes, Meteor Crater is a meteor crater. It's an impact crater and not a volcano," said Tim Swindle, director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) at the University of Arizona.

That mattered because scientific consensus at the time rejected the idea of meteor impacts on Earth.

Gene Shoemaker lectured astronauts on rim crest of Meteor Crater during field trip, May 16-19, 1967. U.S. Geological Survey

Scientists have since confirmed nearly 130 impact craters on Earth's surface, along with 60 craters buried beneath sediments. Still other have since undergone erosion or destruction by plate tectonics.

"Meteor Crater was important for demonstrating that impacts really do happen and giving a feel for what they look like," said Swindle.

Scientists of the day also favored volcanic origins for craters on the moon.

"There were arguments over whether the big circular features that you see as the features of the Man in the Moon — the eyes and so on — whether these were impact craters or big volcanoes that had gone off. It turns out they're a sort of a mix," said Swindle.

The Mapmakers

Listen to Part 2


As northern Arizona prepared astronauts and scientists to land a human on the moon, institutions in Tucson and across Arizona labored to produce the most comprehensive lunar atlases of their day.

"Kuiper had gotten funding from NASA to build a 61-inch telescope up on Mount Lemon for the express purpose of doing photography," said Steve Larson of LPL, who worked on such an atlas as a UA undergraduate.

Astronomer Gerard Kuiper is best known as the namesake of Pluto's neighborhood of icy remnants. But in the late 1950s, when observing distant objects was the presumed use for telescopes, he pushed hard for lunar observation.

"The best available maps in the late 1950s were hand-drawn, and the names of the features weren't even agreed on," said Swindle.

Kuiper wanted to move beyond the maps of the previous century, which often missed key details and rendered the arcs of craters as simple mountain ranges. So he convinced UA to let him set up the LPL.

Steve Larson of UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory walks through a photographic lunar atlas he worked on as a UA undergraduate. Nicholas Gerbis/KJZZ

"It had a grandiose name and about six people at the start. The institution survives and has about 200 people working here today," said Swindle.

Ground-based telescopes allowed Kuiper's team to take photos at low sun angles, when lunar terrain stood out in stark relief. But he struggled to garner wider interest, until President Kennedy's May 25, 1961, called for "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

"The organization started in fall of 1960. It was this niche project. And then, in the spring of 1961, going to the moon became a national priority. So having a map was an obvious thing to do," said Swindle.

Kuiper published his Photographic Lunar Atlas at the University of Chicago in 1960. UA improved upon that first effort with the 1963 Rectified Lunar Atlas and the 1967 Consolidated Lunar Atlas.

The Bulls-eye In The Moon's Ear

Bill Hartmann, now senior scientist emeritus at the Planetary Science Institute, worked on the Rectified Lunar Atlas (pictured) as a graduate student under Gerard Kuiper at UA. Nicholas Gerbis/KJZZ

In 1961, years before he and Davis proposed the Giant Impact Hypothesis — the dominant theory of how the moon formed — Bill Hartmann was a graduate student working on Kuiper's Rectified Lunar Atlas.

That atlas involved projecting lunar photos onto a half-globe about a yard wide.

"And my job was to then work with an old fashioned four-by-five-inch film camera and walk around to the side of the globe and photograph formations on the moon from overhead," said Hartmann, who is now senior scientist emeritus at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson.

That angle simulated what lunar astronauts would see while orbiting or landing.

It also led Hartmann to an insight about lunar geology.

"I was walking around to the side and, lo and behold, what I could see was a series of multiple rings of mountains that were clearly part of a big, kind of a bulls-eye-shaped structure," he said.

Normally, the moon only shows one face to the Earth, so Hartmann was looking at an area ground-based observers usually see only edge-on, like an ear. But changes in velocity as the moon orbits the Earth over 27 days can cause the moon to appear to rock, or " librate," which reveals more of its "edge" features, including Hartmann's "bulls-eye."

The pattern, which Hartmann compared to the rings and radial fractures made by a bullet piercing glass, piqued the interest of geologists. Soon they began to find them in most of the moon's large circular basins.

"The mappers of the moon up in Flagstaff, the geologic mappers, immediately recognized, hey, yes, this is a structural geology pattern on the moon," said Hartmann.

That led Hartmann to what Swindle considers one of the most important insights in lunar history.

"That's probably what a lot of these things on the near side looked like before other things wiped out bits and pieces of these rings of mountains around these hundreds-of-miles-wide craters," said Swindle.

The Massive (And Ongoing) Undertaking

The Tucson team was not the sole moon-mapping group. As Schindler explained, Lowell had a program from 1961-69, and the Air Force had its Aeronautical Chart and Information Center.

"They essentially rented telescopes at Lowell, and then scientists worked with airbrush artists to create detailed maps of the moon," he said.

Beyond Flagstaff training and Tucson mapping, Arizonans like Schaber and Davis supported Mission Control during the Apollo flights. Arizona State University's Carleton Moore, founding director of the university's Center for Meteorite Studies, analyzed moon rocks and other lunar samples.

ASU Retirees Association Video History Project

Between their contributions, Lowell's telescopes and the northern Arizona's remarkable geology, Arizona gave Apollo astronauts an unequaled visual and tangible context in which to understand their distant and desolate destination — all while advancing lunar science.

It was an exciting time, but it was just the beginning.

"People today are no less clever and lunar science is by no means over. There is great stuff coming up in the next 50 years. Just don't know what it is," said Swindle.

NASA's current crew of astronauts will arrive in Flagstaff for training this fall. Once again, a USGS scientist will train them. Meanwhile, ASU and UA are studying the moon via the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and lunar research continues in northern Arizona as well.

So whatever those five decades hold, it's a good bet Arizona will be a part of that, too.  

Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.