In just two weeks Charlie Duke, the 10th — and youngest — person to walk on the moon, is coming to northern Arizona to help kick off the 30th annual Flagstaff Festival of Science. This will be a homecoming of sorts, as Duke visited with his fellow Apollo astronauts several times in the 1960s and 70s while training for their excursions to the moon.
The initial goal of landing on the moon was the politically motivated quest to beat the Soviet Union there. But scientists including Flagstaff astrogeologist Gene Shoemaker had their own motivations; they saw a grand opportunity to scientifically explore Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor. NASA listened and developed the missions — especially the later ones — into scientific expeditions during which the astronauts would collect rocks and deploy experiments.
Duke and his fellow astronauts were pilots, not geologists, so they would need to be trained in geological and related principles. With its fertile array of geological landscapes, Flagstaff proved an ideal place for much of this training and the astronauts — every one of them who would travel to the Moon — trained here.
For Duke’s part, he was selected for the astronaut corps in April 1966 and two months later found himself in northern Arizona to begin geology training. In a recent interview he reflected, “I found it was one of the most interesting places that we visited to study geology. I remember the San Francisco Peaks, the beauty of the area.”
He and his colleagues had a lot to learn and essentially took a crash course in geology. Duke said, “When we got there, most of us couldn’t tell the difference between a clod of dirt and a rock.”
Those initial clods of dirt and rock were in the Grand Canyon, where geologists took advantage of one of nature’s grandest outdoor classrooms to teach the astronauts about layering, structure, and other fundamental concepts of geology. This involved hiking to the bottom of the canyon via the South Kaibab Trail and up the next day along the Bright Angel Trail. Duke’s adventures in the canyon went beyond the thrill of geological exploration. Nestled into a sleeping bag on the ground, he was startled awake when two skunks ran over him. He said, “I can’t say I was praying back in those days, but I was sure hoping they wouldn’t spray anybody.”
On another trip, Duke and his future Apollo 16 crewmate John Young were wearing their simulated Moon backpacks as they approached the rim of Meteor Crater, near the visitor center. Duke remembered, “We got up to the rim and the wind almost blew me into the crater. That was an adventure. I learned, ‘Don’t get too close to a crater on the Moon because you might fall in.’”
Duke’s Apollo 16 mission was the second of three to employ a rover to travel across the lunar surface, allowing the astronauts to explore miles of terrain. The astronauts trained for these excursions with Grover (the “Geological Rover”), built by USGS personnel in Flagstaff and now on display at the USGS’s Astrogeology Science Center.
Duke, serving as navigator, and Young, the driver, practiced with Grover at the man-made crater fields near Flagstaff’s Cinder Lake Landfill, as well as other locales. While this trainer weighed some 800-900 pounds, the real one used on the Moon — under the conditions of 1/6th of Earth’s gravity — tipped the scales at only about 80 pounds. Duke laughed, “If you didn’t like your parking place you could just pick it up and move it, which we did a couple of times.”
All this geology training in northern Arizona, as well as some other locales around the world, paid off. Duke recalls that when he and Young were on the Moon describing the rocks, the first reaction of the science team sitting in the back room at Mission Control on Houston was, “These dummies, we’ve wasted years on these guys.”
But the scientists soon realized the astronauts knew what they were talking about and did an excellent job as stand-in geologists. Duke said, “Just the general overall training, how to perceive a traverse and how to identify different structures of rocks that we learned on all of our geology training was really very good for us.”
Duke and Young were so grateful for their training in northern Arizona, in fact, that they nicknamed one of the cavities they explored “Flag Crater”, after Flagstaff. In 1973, this name was officially adopted by the International Astronomical Union, the recognized authority for naming celestial features.
On September 20, Duke will share some of these stories, as well as his experiences on the moon and his vision for future space travel, in the W.L. Gore & Associates Keynote Presentation that kicks off the 30th Annual Flagstaff Festival of Science. The program, “To the Moon and Beyond,” begins at 7 p.m. in NAU’s Ardrey Auditorium. Admission is free but tickets are required and may be obtained from the NAU Ticket office at https://nau.edu/cto/speakers-conferences/
The presentation also will be streamed live at YouTube.com/c/flagstafffestivalofscience
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