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Scott Thybony Commentaries

Scott Thybony's Latest Canyon Commentary: "Moon Walk"


When astronauts began preparing for the first moon walk in 1969, NASA created a special place for them to train in Flagstaff. The "Sea of Tranquility", near Sunset Crater, was similar to the lunar landscape - with meteorite impact craters, lava flows and canyons. In his latest Canyon Commentary, Scotty Thybony takes us on a moonlight trip to northern Arizona's Sea of Tranquility.

Night approaches as we navigate the random branchings of a 4-wheel drive track north of Flagstaff. We are on our way across the cinder fields to watch the full moon rise over our earthbound version of the Sea of Tranquility.

Fifty years ago, as America began preparing to land astronauts on the moon, NASA searched for a place to train them. The space agency assigned the task to the Astrogeology Division of the U.S. Geological Survey, based in Flagstaff, to take advantage of the region's dark skies and lunar landscapes. These included the world's best preserved meteorite impact crater, lava flows and immense canyons. They also began to construct the perfect terrain to simulate a moon walk.

Crews first plotted the precise locations of lunar impact craters onto a cinder flat below Sunset Crater. They, they detonated explosives of different strengths at various depths to recreate the exact size of the moon craters. The result was impressive. Aerial photos of the Cinder Lake site appeared identical to photos of the moon. Beginning with the Apollo 12 mission, all astronaut crews trained onsite. And the first men to walk on the moon - Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin - used the area during the earlier Gemini program.

As the trees thin, the four of us reach a fenced-off sector marked by an inconspicuous sign. "Astronaut Training Ground," it reads. "This is the only remaining astronaut training area. Please help us protect this important part of American history."

We find an opening in the fence and cross the cratered surface, waiting for the full moon to rise. Over the years, a scatter of rabbitbrush and a few ponderosa have colonized the site, but the carefully mapped craters remain, some still deep and steep-walled. Here, astronauts learned to navigate across a replica of the moon's surface on foot and by lunar vehicle. And here, they tested a tool carrier designed on the back of a napkin during an after-work brainstorming session at the Hotel Monte Vista bar.

From a high point we take in the wider view. Sunlight has drained away to the west, leaving a spread of clouds burning red against the night-blue sky. Sunsets prefigure other worlds, alien skies, and the one occurring above the San Francisco Peaks could be the rings of Saturn collapsing upon themselves in prismatic swirls. My wife and I stand with our friends at the center of a crater field connecting us directly to the mission of putting the first humans on the moon, one of the great achievements of the 20th century. To my surprise, the site has mostly been forgotten. Attempts have been made to place it on the National Register of Historic Places, but so far it remains unlisted.

With a growing cloud cover, we're uncertain if we'll be able to view the moon at all. And then a subtle change occurs. A smear of light appears behind the clouds and soon a faint disk becomes visible. Suddenly, the upper curve breaks through a hole in the cover, and the moon emerges half-veiled, otherworldly. Pale light fills the crater field, and our long shadows stretch across the gray surface the way I remember those grainy images of astronauts exploring a barren moonscape.

Taking out the binoculars, I focus on the lunar region where the first human footprints were left on the surface of the moon. That line of tracks began here on the volcanic plains of Arizona, our own Sea of Tranquility.

Credit KNAU/Scott Thybony
Flagstaff-based writer Scott Thybony

  Scott Thybony is a Flagstaff-based writer.