Q&A: How Arizona Helped Mankind Get to the Moon

Astronauts Jim Irwin and Dave Scott operate a lunar rover model at the Cinder Lake crater field east of Flagstaff. | Courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

It’s been nearly a half-century since Neil Armstrong made his “giant leap for mankind” on the surface of the moon. And Kevin Schindler hopes his new book can remind people of the role Arizona played in getting Armstrong and 11 other Apollo astronauts onto the surface of Earth’s closest neighbor.

Schindler and William Sheehan’s new book, Images of America: Northern Arizona Space Training, is a collection of photos of the Apollo astronauts training in the 1960s at several sites in Arizona — including Sunset Crater, Meteor Crater and the Grand Canyon. Schindler is a longtime employee of Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory, another site that was crucial in planning the moon missions. We asked him a few questions about the book, which is available for pre-order now and will be released June 19.

What’s your background, and how long have you been at Lowell Observatory?
My background is in paleontology, and I worked at a natural history museum in Florida for six years before I came to Lowell. I’ve been at Lowell for 22 years now. William Sheehan, my co-author, is a psychiatrist by trade who now lives in Flagstaff; in astronomy circles, he’s a well-known historian of astronomy and has written probably 12 or 15 books about Mars and the moon. We became friends years ago, and we’ve talked about doing a larger-scale, comprehensive book about moon stuff in Flagstaff, but we thought we’d at least start here.

What inspired you to do this book? How does your work at Lowell tie into the history of the moon landings and Arizona’s part in them?
I got interested in this subject years ago. Here at Lowell, for a decade, we had a moon mapping program. It was part of the Air Force — the Aeronautical Chart and Information Center — and they contracted with Lowell to use the Clark telescope to make maps of the moon and determine Apollo landing sites.

I was just fascinated, as I got involved in the science community in Flagstaff, with the heritage of what happened with the U.S. Geological Survey and the astronauts coming out here. There were a lot of garages around town that they rented to build rovers, cinder fields where they tested the rovers, tested the hammers and tongs, that sort of stuff. I found it fascinating that so much of that happened, but not much of it is known — that generation is kind of fading a little bit. I just wanted to document it in some way — not a hardcore, high-tech thing, but something the general public would be interested in. We’d like to do more in-depth coverage of it, but we did this as a start, because there are a lot of great pictures, and you can still go to these places and see where this happened.

What was it about these Northern Arizona sites that made them a good fit for training the Apollo astronauts?
The geology and topography is analogous to what they’d find on the moon. Meteor Crater — the best-preserved impact crater on Earth — is exactly what they’d expect to find on the moon. At Sunset Crater, they created a grid in the cinder fields, then buried dynamite at different depths to create different-sized craters and re-create, for example, the Apollo 11 landing site. You can still see those craters today.

They also took the astronauts to the Grand Canyon, and the rocks there aren’t the same as on the moon, but one of the reasons was to learn the basics of how rocks are laid down. The other was that these guys were fighter-pilot jocks and not necessarily interested in geology. The thinking was that if they visited an inspiring place like the Grand Canyon, it might generate more of an interest. And it worked.

What were some other interesting things you learned about the Arizona training?
Just the number of different places in Flagstaff that were used. The bank building downtown was an office; there were different garages around town; there are photos of [Apollo 13 astronaut] Jim Lovell sitting in a rover on the east side of Flagstaff. Most of Flagstaff doesn’t really know just how many different facilities were used and how many people were involved. These astronauts were the rock stars of their time; it’s just great to see these pictures and see what these guys did out here.

What was the research process like, and how long did the book take to complete?
In some ways, I’ve been working on it all through my time at Lowell — I’ll come across cool images, and I’ve done programs on the topic. Doing the book felt like a natural progression. We worked on it really heavily over several months, tracking down a lot of pictures I already had, then going through collections — at the USGS, especially, but also the stuff we have here at Lowell. Several years ago, I was down in Houston and visited Johnson Space Center, and in their archive, I tracked down pictures of astronauts in Flagstaff that I couldn’t find anywhere else, so that was a real gold mine. It’s a photo-rich book, so capturing and collecting all those pictures was the biggest part of it.

Where can people get the book when it comes out June 19?
A lot of places in Northern Arizona will carry it, such as Barnes & Noble and the Lowell gift shop. But it’s also on Amazon, which is a good place to get it if you’re not in the area.

— Noah Austin, Associate Editor

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