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Science and Innovations

One Small Town, One Giant Leap: Flagstaff’s Historic Role in the Apollo Moon Landings

U.S. Geological Survey

This Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. In many ways that “one giant leap” onto the Moon started off in one small town in Arizona. Every astronaut who walked on the moon first came to Flagstaff to train, in its lunar-like landscape of volcanoes and craters. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports on Flagstaff’s yearlong celebration of its role in the historic moon landing.

In the 1960s NASA needed a place to train astronauts.

Credit U.S. Geological Survey
Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker

An archival video from the U.S. Geological Survey declared: “Where can men go to test and practice the exploration techniques being developed for Apollo landings?”

The answer: Flagstaff. The video emphasized region’s moonlike fields of volcanic cinders. The town also had a brand-new astrogeology program, founded by geologist Gene Shoemaker. He convinced NASA that astronauts should learn a bit of geology before they went to the moon.

His widow, 90-year-old astronomer Carolyn Shoemaker, says that was a radical idea, “because NASA was made up of engineers, with the idea that we would go to the Moon and we would come back, successfully, and that was it. No thought about what we would do on the Moon, what we should look for, none of that—no science.”

In Flagstaff astronauts learned how to drive prototype rovers over spiky lava fields and pick up rocks without tearing their bulky spacesuits. They hiked the Grand Canyon to study its layers.   

Shoemaker says, “It was a realization that no one knew quite what to expect, or what it would look like.”

Blasting out a crater field in Flagstaff

Then in 1967 NASA came up with a plan to make Northern Arizona even more like the moon. Scientists blasted out dozens of craters in a cinder field northeast of Flagstaff, a perfect copy of a lunar landing site.

Bill Tinnin had the job of planting the sticks of dynamite. He was a mechanic for the U.S. Geological Survey. He’s now in his eighties and uses an electronic device to speak.  

Credit USGS Astrogeology Science Center
Bill Tinnin working on Grover

“It was the best job I ever had,” Tinnin declares.

Tinnin worked on a prototype moon buggy called Grover, almost identical to the one that went to the moon. He says the astronauts were fearless. “And they were the coolest people I think I ever met. I never saw one get excited or swear or anything, they just did their job.”

All the training paid off. When geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt walked on the moon in 1972, the last Apollo mission, he found the landscape familiar. He radioed back to NASA: “Oh, a glass-bottomed crater with a little bench! Looks like one of the Flagstaff explosion craters except for the glass in it—right out at 12 o’clock.”

Today, Flagstaff’s crater field is fenced off and protected. Visitors have to enter on foot. Kevin Schindler, historian for Lowell Observatory, leads a tour through the site. “It’s kind of cool just to think: gosh, those guys that walked on the moon, they were right here,” he says.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
A group takes a tour of Flagstaff's crater field

Schindler tells the group Apollo is one of our species’ greatest accomplishments. “When Neil Armstrong took those steps, it’s been estimated half a billion people watched on TV. For that moment, we weren’t fighting each other, we weren’t Russians or Americans, we were human beings watching our species do something spectacular.”

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Kevin Schindler describes one of the craters created for Apollo training.

It was Schindler’s idea to have a yearlong festival in honor of the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. It’s blossomed from lectures and tours to concerts, art exhibits, even dance performances.

“I think it’s just fabulous that there’s so many groups celebrating it,” he says. “This is great. Because Flagstaff really gets into stuff. And gets into science!

Even local restaurants are joining the party. Katrin Biemann is the baker at Tourist Home Café. “The observatory contacted me, they wanted me to make something special,” she says. “And the only thing I thought of was moon pie!” The marshmallow-stuffed chocolate dessert has a special finishing touch: Biemann sprinkles silver dust over the top. “I think it looks pretty cool: a little space dust!”

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Katrin Biemann shows off a finished Lunar Legacy Moon Pie.

This month is packed with Apollo-themed events. Visitors can stroll through downtown Flagstaff and sample Lunar Lattes, Earthrise cocktails, and Giant Leap sushi rolls. It’s a little reminder that they’re walking in the footsteps of astronauts.

Tune into KNAU for the rest of the week to hear remembrances from local residents who worked on the Apollo missions.

Apollo events this week in Flagstaff:

Monday through Thursday: Lunar Legacy Display at Coconino Community College

Credit Lowell Observatory
The Earthrise cocktail at the Annex.

Friday, July 19 5pm-7pm: Lunar Legacy Celebration at Astrogeology Science Center

Friday, July 19 6pm-9pm Lunar Legacy Block Party at the Sawmill shopping center

Saturday, July 20 10am-10pm: 50th anniversary celebration at Lowell Observatory—including a panel discussion at 7pm and a video of the moon landing at 7:45pm

Saturday, July 20 1:30pm: Movie screening of Apollo 11 at the Orpheum Theater

Details and more events here:

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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