50 years later, Arizona still plays big role in exploring universe

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Before their July 26, 1971, launch, Apollo 15 astronauts David Scott and James Irwin ride “Grover,” a lunar roving vehicle simulator during geology training at the Cinder Lake crater field in northern Arizona. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Before their July 26, 1971, launch, Apollo 15 astronauts David Scott and James Irwin ride “Grover,” a lunar roving vehicle simulator during geology training at the Cinder Lake crater field in northern Arizona. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

The press release that went out on July 6, 1969, began: “The United States will launch a three-man spacecraft toward the Moon on July 16 with the goal of landing two astronaut explorers on the lunar surface four days later.”

That astronomical task, which was stated in the plainest of terms, would be completed only 14 days later, eight years after President John F. Kennedy set the goal to send astronauts to the moon and bring them back safely before the end of the decade.

As many as 600 million people watched worldwide, in some cases clamoring for a glimpse in a department store display window, as Neil Armstrong descended the ladder of the Eagle and became the first human being to touch the powdery surface of the moon. Buzz Aldrin, close behind, was the second.

But before Armstrong and Aldrin touched down on a dusty, rocky volcanic surface 240,000 miles from home, they traversed a more familiar dusty, rocky volcanic surface for practice: Arizona.

Arizona scientists and educational institutions have since assisted with several NASA missions, and as science continues to peel back the layers of the cosmos, Arizona’s involvement in these projects only seems to deepen.

“We’re (ASU) pretty much covered throughout the solar system,” said David Williams, deputy lead for the imager and co-investigator with the science team of NASA’s Psyche mission and associate research professor with ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

The Psyche mission is a journey to an asteroid that orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter. Williams also was involved with the New Horizons mission to geologically map Pluto and the Cassini mission to map Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.

For Jim Bell, deputy principal investigator and camera investigation lead with Psyche and professor with ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, the might of modern space technology makes the first Apollo mission almost unbelievable.

“They went to the moon with the computational power of a key FOB for your car,” Bell said. “Everything has changed. So it’s actually incredible that they did that in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s without people getting killed.”

In the 50 years since Apollo 11, humanity has extended its reach over 13 billion miles from Earth, almost 57,000 times farther than the Apollo 11 crew traveled. Scientists discovered the first exoplanet in 1995, and have confirmed the existence of more than 2,000 more since then.

Bell said the mapping work done by robotic missions like the 1966-67 lunar orbiters is what made the Apollo journeys possible. Those early robotic explorers also set the groundwork for such projects as Psyche, which seeks to map and collect data about the asteroid’s unique geology and formation.

The earth at Cinder Lake Crater Field in Flagstaff once was pocked with craters formed by dynamite blasts, meant to simulate the moon’s terrain. There, Apollo astronauts from multiple missions practiced lunar exploration from the comfort of their home planet. Many of the craters have since been worn down or filled in through natural weathering and use of the field as a recreation site.

Astronauts also practiced in Sunset Crater, Meteor Crater and Hopi Buttes Volcanic Field. One group took a two-day hike to the base of the Grand Canyon to practice studying an area’s geology.

The astronauts and NASA scientists who visited Arizona were assisted by Gene Shoemaker, a Flagstaff geologist who is considered the “founder of astrogeology.” He founded the Field Center in Flagstaff along with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Branch of Astrogeology.

A number of major Arizona institutions boast current and past staff members who had a hand in the Apollo missions.

Similarly, General Dynamics Mission Systems, a Scottsdale-based company, also built the radio transponders used in pre-Apollo missions and were responsible for broadcasting Armstrong’s iconic first steps on the moon.

The rock and dust samples collected by Apollo 11 were studied extensively by Carleton Moore, who founded Arizona State University’s Center for Meteorite Studies in 1961, and served as its first director. Ronald Greeley, a regents’ professor of planetary geology at ASU, helped map lunar landing sites and train astronauts.

University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory was founded in 1960 by Gerard Kuiper, the “father of modern planetary science.” Kuiper conducted research with fellow UofA professor Ewen Whitaker involving the moon’s geography and was involved in robotic lunar explorations that paved the way for the Apollo 11 moonwalk.