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Historian retraces steps of astronauts at Grand Canyon

Kevin Schindler, astronomer-in-residence at Grand Canyon National Park
Melissa Sevigny
Kevin Schindler, astronomer-in-residence at Grand Canyon National Park

The epic geology of the Grand Canyon was the perfect training ground for Apollo astronauts half a century ago. Now, a researcher is trying to retrace their steps. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Kevin Schindler, historian of Lowell Observatory and the Grand Canyon’s current astronomer in residence.

A lot of people may not know this history, that Apollo astronauts came to the Grand Canyon to train, and for some inspiration. Tell me a bit about that history.

When NASA decided they would send people to the Moon—I should say, when President Kennedy and the leadership of the country decided this is what we’re going to do—there was a lot of preparation, to develop the rockets and such. But also, scientists like Gene Shoemaker in northern Arizona said if we go to the moon, we should explore it and do science. What a wasted opportunity if we didn’t. And if we’re going to do science we have to train the astronauts, because they’re not scientists. They’re pilots, engineers. And so we should train them. NASA went for this. But the geologists realized: some of them are a little cynical about this. Because this was political, the reason we were going. What does picking up rocks have to do with beating the Russians? And so the geologists thought, okay, we have to not only train them, but we have to inspire them to want to learn. What more inspirational place than the Grand Canyon?

Okay, so one of the things you’re doing with your residency is actually recording the specific sites where astronauts went and did their geology.

Exactly. We know the basic story, but where exactly some of the stops were and such is kind of general. We have all these pictures, and it would be great to recreate exactly where they were, then-and-now pictures, sort of thing.

You have to hike around the canyon, and hold up these 50, 60-year-old photos and see if you can get it match?

Exactly. It’s going to look like some nerd walking on the trail, which probably isn’t too far off course, but it’s going to be fun…. If nothing else we have it recorded for posterity for future historians, but to be able to have something for hikers who have an interest and want to take a picture in the same place where Neil Armstrong is sitting. It’s kind of cool.

I’d go for that, definitely. How are you hoping to get this information out to the public?

Some of it is the talks I’m giving. Another thing is this brochure, as we’re calling it, whether it’s a printed brochure or some sort of phone app. I’m working with the Park Service on that to see what’s going to be the most accessible.

I can imagine a self-guided tour through the canyon; all the stops where the astronauts went.

Right. At some point, it’s kind of funny, just like when you have a baby, it seems like, the first baby has all the pictures. The second one, not so many. The third one, there’s hardly any. The first trip the astronauts took down has by far the most number of pictures. By the last one, there are very few. We have all these great pictures early on but not of the later ones, like Charlie Duke down here. I haven’t found any pictures of him. Because he was on the third trip.

That’s really interesting… What’s been your favorite part of the residency so far?

I can’t say there’s a favorite part… Being at the canyon is indescribable… And then just being able to carry on some research and retrace steps of legends that set the stage for what’s happening today, cause we’re going back to the Moon soon, it looks like. Retracing the steps of the pioneers; it’s an honor to do that.

Kevin Schindler, 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.