What do Apollo 11 and Grand Canyon have in Common?
Written by Kaelin Zielinski | Featured Photo by Steve Koppel
July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did a small thing of stepping off a ladder onto a dusty, lonely land, but when they stepped off of Apollo 11 onto the lunar surface, they changed the world. A long time before Armstrong and Aldrin became household names, they came to Grand Canyon to prepare for their mission.
Why Northern Arizona?
What does the lunar surface, Flagstaff, Arizona and Grand Canyon have in common? Unusual geology and geography. Now a days, we don’t think twice about what the surface of the moon looks like, we KNOW it has craters and large boulders with a fine layer of dust covering everything. But when President Kennedy said, “within the next decade we will send a man to the moon,” the list of the unknowns out-weighed the list of knowns.
From 1961 to 1969 a telescope from Lowell Observatory located in Flagstaff, Arizona took photos of the lunar surface. These early images helped astronomers determine that the moon was pock-marked with craters. Were these craters from asteroid impacts? Or from volcanic activity? No one was certain at the time. There are limited places on earth where you can find an asteroid impact and a stone throw away find a volcanic crater. A meer 50,000 years ago, an asteroid 150 feet across streaked through the sky and crashed into the ground 37 miles east of Flagstaff. This impact left a mile wide and 560 feet deep hole with a rim that rises 148 feet above the surface of the desert. This was a small geologic event in comparison to what happened ONLY 900 years ago. Sometime between 1040 and 1100 A.D., Sunset Crater erupted forming a 1,120 feet high crater.
This unusual geography we have here in Northern Arizona helped train the astronauts on how to transfer the images that Lowell Observatory took into a physical feature. Being able to look at an image and then be able to actually touch the feature they learned about helped the astronauts learn to read maps and understand what they were seeing. Northern Arizona geography also helped the Apollo 11 team test equipment for the mission. We have all seen the lunar rover bouncing around on the surface of the moon. The rover was developed and tested right here in Northern Arizona.
Grand Canyon’s Involvement
Now, how does the Grand Canyon tie into the lunar mission? When President Kennedy first presented the idea of going to the moon, it was a rallying cry to bring pride to a nation who needed it. The lunar missions were also extremely dangerous. We didn’t know if our astronauts would survive the mission. Would the spaceship explode? Would they catch a lunar fever? We just had no idea. This meant that the first astronauts to join the mission were military test pilots, not scientists. Since one of the main focuses of the mission was to collect lunar rock samples, the test pilots/astronauts needed to become familiar with rocks. And where better to become familiar with rocks, but the geologic treasure trove of Grand Canyon. In March of 1964, a crew of trainees, including Neil Armstrong, hiked down the South Kaibab Trail, spent a night at Phantom Ranch and rode out on mules on the Bright Angel Trail. Ivo Lucchitta, a geologist who worked with NASA and the Apollo 11 mission to train the astronauts said, “The astronauts thought, you know, this is kind of interesting after all,” he said. “Quite a few of them said, after, that (the Grand Canyon) is what changed their mind.”
What brings thousands of visitors to Grand Canyon, also brought just a few of the 400,000 people who worked on the lunar mission. Flagstaff, Arizona and Grand Canyon are unique places in the world, that often appears more similar to the lunar surface than to anything else on this small planet.
Check out more great articles on the history of Northern Arizona and Grand Canyon with the Apollo 11 mission! To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the training, AZ Central did a great article, as did My Grand Canyon Park. For more details about Lowell Observatory’s history, you can read about it in their archives. View the Cline Library Special Collections and Archives information here. You can view more details from Lowell Observatory here, as well.