Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Fifty years ago, astronauts honored Flagstaff with names on the moon

Astronaut John W. Young photographed Charles M. Duke, Jr. collecting rock samples at the Descartes landing site, during the April 1972 Apollo 16 lunar mission.
John W. Young, Apollo 16 crew
Astronaut John W. Young photographed Charles M. Duke, Jr. collecting rock samples at the Descartes landing site, during the April 1972 Apollo 16 lunar mission.

When Apollo 16 astronauts landed on the moon fifty years ago today, one of their first stops was a crater they named Flag. That’s a secret tribute to Flagstaff, Arizona, where the astronauts did their geology training. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with local space historian Rich Kozak about Flagstaff’s unique connection to Apollo 16. Kozak has amassed a collection of archival tape about the revolutionary moon mission.

I love the clip you had, the major of Flagstaff, actually back in 1965 I think it was, talked about how important this was for the town, let’s listen to that.

(AUDIO CLIP) When man lands on the moon, that planet which has been the object of much speculation and romanticism, Flagstaff, the Earth City, and the moon capital or lunar capital, will have a part to play in it.

That was Flagstaff major Roland Wheeler, 1965, talking about Flagstaff and the moon. While they were down there on the moon they named a bunch of the features they saw after features in Flagstaff, why would they do that?

That story goes back about 10 years before the mission. When Eugene Shoemaker started the Branch of Astrogeology here in Flagstaff in 1963, he convinced NASA that the astronauts should learn some geology and do some science while they’re on the moon. That began a series of geologic training for the Apollo astronauts. Some of the earliest were Sunset Crater, the national monument, which is a cinder cone, and out at of course Meteor Crater. Those two features represented the two modes of formation, of what was thought to be the cause of the craters on the moon.

What were some of the features they named after places around here?

Sunset was one. They did training exercises at a cinder code called Merriam Crater. SP Crater, it’s famous, it’s a very distinctive lava flow if you see it from the air. They made trips to Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon; there’s a feature on the moon called Phantom. Let’s see, there’s—Flag!

Why did they name it Flag Crater and not Flagstaff Crater?

It’s because the nomenclature for the solar system is overseen by an entity called the International Astronomical Union. And they frown upon people naming features around the solar system, say, for a girlfriend or a pet. So they have certain rules. They had to kind of hide, in a way, the feature’s true origins—the true origins of the features they were naming.

How significant was it that the astronauts had this geologic training; how important was it they first came to Flagstaff before they went to the moon?  

It was very important, because they were spending, the Apollo Program in 1970s-60s dollars was, I think, 25 billion dollars. You didn’t want to just go up there and kick over rocks and pick up pretty pebbles…. We think of the training they did in, say, the lunar module simulations and things down at the Cape and at Houston, but really they spent one or two days a week, doing geology training.

What do you wish people knew today about his mission and its connection to Flagstaff?

I would say the important thing is, is that it shows what could have been done in geological sciences, in the planetary sciences, had the Apollo missions and not been cancelled. They were just getting rolling doing real true geological exploration, and being able to travel long distances, that they couldn’t go on the earlier missions…. A recent NASA administrator said we’re definitely going back and we’re going to stay this time, so I would think that would be wonderful.

Rich Kozak, thank you so much for speaking with me.  

Thank you.

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.
Related Content