Meet The Geologist Who Trains Future Astronauts

Sep 20, 2019

The Flagstaff Festival of Science begins today and it’s all about astronauts. The theme is To the Moon and Beyond in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landings. It takes a lot of people to launch an astronaut into space, and one of those people is Flagstaff geologist Lauren Edgar of the U.S. Geological Survey. It’s her job to train future astronauts in geologic field work, using Northern Arizona’s volcanoes and lava fields as a kind of stand-in for the Moon and Mars. Mars even has its own supersized Grand Canyon called Valles Marineris. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Lauren Edgar about her work with the most recent class of astronaut candidates.

Lauren Edgar
Credit U.S. Geological Survey

Melissa Sevigny: Why do astronauts need to know a little bit about geology?

Lauren Edgar: The training has three main objectives. The first is that we recognize when they’re on board the International Space Station, when they’re in orbit, they have a unique vantage point to look back on the Earth. When they know the right kind of processes or landforms to look for, it’s really helpful to get their scientific expertise from that vantage point. So it’s training them to make observations of the Earth. It’s training them if they have boots on the ground somewhere, on the Moon or Mars, how to do field geology, how to construct a geologic map, how to do the right kind of sampling. Then we’re also training them to be advocates for geology when they move on to other projects.

I hadn’t thought about that before, that even if they’re just at the International Space Station and not actually walking on another planet, they can still learn a lot about Earth’s geology by looking down.

Absolutely. Just a few weeks ago there was another volcanic eruption off the coast of Russia, and one of the astronauts onboard that had gone through geology training was able to be the first person to capture this volcanic eruption going on and sent the picture back to Earth and especially on to some of the geology trainers. So it emphasizes they’re really taking to heart what we’re teaching them.

So walk me through a day of training. You take these astronauts out to the field and what do you do with them?

Before getting there they’ll have an idea of what the landscape might look like, where some of these important geologic relationships occur. But when they get out to field they’re trying to ground truth this geologic map and reconstruct the overall history that occurred there. It’s a lot of guiding questions, making sure they’re sampling, analyzing the minerology within these rocks, figuring out how different lava flows relate to each other in age. At the end they’ll turn in a geologic map and their timeline of the geologic history for that area.

Do you give them a grade to tell them how well they’ve done? 

There’s no grading, per se. Based on last year’s mapping I’d say they are pretty proficient by the end of the week.

So the current class of astronaut candidates, how many of them have had this background or training before?

So there’s 13 astronaut candidates in this 2017 class. Most of them are test pilots, engineers, but there’s one that has a geology background and another that has a background in geobiology or astrobiology. Those two, Jessica Watkins and Zena Cardman, have a little bit of a leg-up on the other astronauts, but they’re still learning things as we go. As any geologist will tell you, the more rocks you see, the better prepared you are in the future.

Do you feel it’s your job not only to educate them about geology but inspire them as well?

Yeah, I think so. I think being here in Flagstaff and knowing that they’re training in the same locations, following in the bootsteps of the Apollo astronauts, it’s inspiring for us, and I think it’ll be pretty inspiring for them, especially with this push to go back to the Moon by 2024…. and then looking onwards to Mars.

Do you think that’s on the horizon in the next couple of decades?

Sending humans to Mars? I think so, yeah. That’s certainly the direction the program is heading, using the Moon as a stepping stone and then sights are set on Mars after that.

Lauren Edgar, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Thank you.

The Flagstaff Festival of Science kicks off today with a keynote address by Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke, who walked on the moon in 1972.  Tickets are sold out for the event but it will be live streamed online at 7pm at www.YouTube.com/c/flagstafffestivalofscience