When Apollo Came to Idaho
Some of NASA’s best-known astronauts visited Idaho in 1969 to train for their moon missions. But for many years, the supporting role Idaho played in the Apollo lunar program was unappreciated, misunderstood, even ignored.
That changed in 1999, and NASA’s continuing space research with Craters of the Moon is as important a story as the few hours the astronauts spent there in 1969.
“When I first arrived at Craters of the Moon, I’d heard stories about the astronauts having trained there,” said Jim Morris, who was superintendent in 1999. “It really wasn’t talked about, because the image that they had was, ‘Oh yeah. They came out here and they drove their moon buggies around. That’s the myth anyway, and we don’t want to talk about it.’ ”
What Morris learned, however, changed the way he and we think about the relationship between NASA and Craters of the Moon.
“We were getting ready to celebrate our 75th anniversary for Craters the Moon,” Morris told Idaho Public Television for its “When Apollo Came to Idaho” documentary. “And I did a little digging and learned that what the astronauts were really doing in traveling to sites such as Craters the Moon was being taught how to be field geologists.”
Astronauts in those days were frequently pictured training in space suits and driving moon buggies – but that wasn’t in Idaho. On their visit here, they wore street clothes and carried equipment no more futuristic than rock hammers. They spent a day at Craters of the Moon before visiting pumice pits near Ammon, and the Wapi Lava Field, Crystal Ice Cave and Pillar Butte in Power County the next day. It was a perfectly legit session of science tutoring, one of many that astronauts got from geologists at sites around the world.
“They were there on a serious mission,” said Steve Ahrens, who covered the 1969 visit for the Idaho Statesman, “because there were obvious similarities to what they expected to find up there.”
A moon program from scratch
It’s hard to appreciate today just how much NASA had to learn and invent in the 1960s race to the moon. It was more than just elemental questions about how to survive, navigate and rendezvous in space. Scientists weren’t sure that human brains would function for extended periods of weightlessness. It took thousands of people to launch a rocket from Earth; even if NASA could figure out how to land a craft on the moon, how would a tiny crew of astronauts launch themselves back to Earth?
And what of the moon? Among the mysteries was the surface itself. Some scientists feared eons of impacts had pulverized the lunar surface to a powder deep enough to swallow a lander. Others theorized that moon dust tracked into the lander might explode when introduced to oxygen. As it turned out, moon grit wasn’t flammable, but it was a major nuisance. (To appreciate all that it took for NASA to build the moon program from scratch, read Charles Fishman’s “One Giant Leap.”)
The first astronaut corps were made up of former test pilots. But NASA realized those fliers needed to be field geologists as well, before going on the grandest geology field trip of all time.
“The idea was to get us well trained … so that we could be the eyes of the geologists when we were on the moon,” Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell told Idaho Public Television in 1999. “The geologists who were training us wanted us to have sampling of volcanic material from around the world, different types of volcanoes, different types of layering and different types of activity.”
“We really didn’t know what kind of rocks were on the lunar surface at that time,” said Joe Engle, who was bumped from the moon missions but traveled to space twice on the shuttle. “In retrospect, Craters of the Moon was one of the really valuable places to come.”
So for 50 years now, NASA has used Craters of the Moon National Monument as a science lab, studying its geology and biology for clues about our planet, and for help in learning how to explore other worlds.
“You know I had one scientist tell me that they probably shouldn’t have called it Craters of the Moon, because what they’re finding is it’s a much better analog for Mars,” said Ted Stout, chief of interpretation at Craters today. “The volcanoes here are very similar to a lot of the Martian volcanoes that we see. So maybe they should call it Volcanoes of Mars instead.”
Scott Hughes, an emeritus professor of geology at Idaho State University, has worked on multiple NASA teams at Craters and elsewhere to prepare astronauts and scientists for missions to Mars. One challenge the Craters team is studying: How to communicate with astronauts with a lag of five to 15 minutes – the time it takes signals to travel between Earth and Mars.
“It was a way to kind of recreate what the actual conditions would be if astronauts on Mars had to communicate critical information,” said Hughes. “The time delay is big. … The astronauts with boots on the ground have only a limited amount of time they can be out there, and you have to develop a plan, and you have to be able to say what happens if that plan doesn’t work.
“The reason for doing this is to try to figure out what are the kinds of things we need to work on if we’re gonna go to Mars.”
NASA’s space stars come to Idaho
In August 1969, one month after the first lunar landing, there were no celebrities in the world bigger than Apollo’s moon-faring astronauts.
The four-astronaut team was feted in Idaho, and covered closely by reporters. It was led by Alan Shepard, famous as the first American in space in 1961. Also on that squad was Gene Cernan, who three months before had piloted the lunar lander to within eight miles of the moon surface, testing the craft and scouting for Neil Armstrong’s July 20 landing site. And Cernan would become even more famous in 1972 as the last human being – at least, so far – to walk on the moon during Apollo 17. (Of the four who visited Idaho only Engle, 86, is alive today.)
“The moonwalk itself was one of those transformational experiences that everybody remembers where they were,” said Ahrens. “It was just a remarkable opportunity for an Idaho reporter to cover astronauts in Idaho and to have that elbow-rubbing opportunity with them for several hours.”
Ahrens, state editor for the Idaho Statesman in 1969, got the assignment to cover the visit, tagging along with his notepad and two cameras. Shepard grumbled at the distractions and went off with Mitchell and a NASA geologist. But Engle and Cernan enjoyed interacting with the local entourage, at one point even dabbing sunscreen on Ahrens’ wife’s nose under the hot August sun.
Getting the astronauts to return to Idaho in 1999 was a coup for Morris and for Craters of the Moon.
Shepard had died in 1998, and the rest all were retired from NASA. But at Morris’ invitation, the three surviving astronauts agreed to help Craters celebrate its 75th anniversary, visiting Idaho communities and schools and answering student questions on an Idaho Public Television call-in show.
Morris spent time with all three, ferrying them about the state from event to event. Seeing the astronauts interact with kids at a Legos-powered Mars rover competition in Idaho Falls left Morris with an indelible memory.
“One of these school groups had a problem and they had to stop and they had to get together as a group of four or five six students and figure out this problem. Well Gene Cernan was standing right there looking over their shoulder and he said, ‘Let me tell you students, this is very similar to a problem we had when we were on the moon when the moon buggy fender came off.’ ”
Memorable footage from Apollo 17 shows Cernan improvising a fender repair with laminated maps and duct tape while on the moon.
Cernan told those Idaho schoolkids: “You’re solving your problem the very same way.”
“Those kids … they were just entranced,” recalls Morris. “And of course the parents were loving it.”
A legacy of exploration
Craters of the Moon owes its very existence as a national park unit to scientific exploration. Idaho taxidermist, adventurer and promoter Robert Limbert documented the little-known interior of the lava fields with trips in the 1920s. His 1924 article in National Geographic helped persuade President Calvin Coolidge to designate the national monument that year.
The nature of the science has changed over Craters’ nearly 100 years as a national monument. But the quest for knowledge and the passion for exploration remains.
“This is still an important venue for NASA and for space science research,” said Stout. “It‘s something that we’re celebrating even now, 50 years later, and I’m sure we’ll be celebrating it hundreds of years from now.”
Bill Manny is a writer and producer for Idaho Public Television’s Idaho Experience documentary series. Reach him at email@example.com.
How to learn more
Watch “When Apollo Came to Idaho,” the Idaho Experience short documentary: https://video.idahoptv.org/video/short-when-apollo-came-idaho-whruff/
Find out about the July 20, 2019, Moonfest at Craters of the Moon National Monument: https://www.nps.gov/crmo/learn/news/moonfest-celebration-set-for-july-20.htm
Attend a screening of the American Experience documentary “Chasing the Moon” July 11 at The Herrett Center for Arts & Science in Twin Falls: http://idahoptv.org/support_new/membership/chasingTheMoon.cfm