LAS VEGAS (KLAS) – If you were alive in July 1969, chances are you remember where you were at the exact moment when two American astronauts landed on the moon.
The 50th anniversary of that landmark achievement will be marked later this week, and it comes at a time of renewed enthusiasm for the space program. But long before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their descent onto the lunar surface, they trained for the mission in the most moon-like terrain on earth — the Nevada desert.
Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” made for an unforgettable moment.
That moment will be re-aired countless times in the buildup to the 50th anniversary of the U.S. space program’s most iconic achievement. The astronauts of Apollo 11 — and all other Apollo missions — learned to navigate the challenges of the lunar landscape by training at multiple locations closer to home including the place formerly known as the Nevada Test Site.
“I always call the test site the most moon-like place on earth, said Ben McGee, geophysicist.
The scientist has spent years documenting the connections between NASA milestones and the lunar-like terrain of the Nevada desert. It started even before Apollo. A 1960 photo of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, including Alan Shepard and John Glenn, taken at the end of a survival training missing in Northern Nevada.
Four years before the Apollo 11 moon landing, 14 astronauts, including eight who would one day walk on the moon, spent a few days learning the geology of spitting image craters at the Nevada Test Site.
“Some of the craters out at the test site were practically identical to the craters that were going to be found on the moon,” McGee said. “And so they helicopter the astronauts out there. They brought mock up rovers, and they actually did giant traverses studying the science, getting used to moving around the big fractured blocks.”
Craters on the moon were created during ferocious impacts of meteors or asteroids smashing into the surface. The only force comparable to the heat of those collisions is a nuclear blast, the kind that left gigantic pock marks all over the former test site. The similarities were so remarkable, McGee says, that on two occasions, Apollo 16 and 17, astronauts commented while walking on the surface of the moon.
“And he goes, ‘Oh wow look at that. It’s just like Little Dan.’ Well Little Dan is the name of a crater on Blackboard Mesa, on the Nevada Test Site,” McGee said. So, these are two specific locations in Nevada on the test site mentioned from the surface of another world. I don’t know there are many places on Earth where you could say that.”
NASA archives have dozens of photos of American astronauts training in Nevada, sometimes in colorful garb, often looking grizzled and beaten up after days in the desert heat. The Bedouin-looking man on the left is Neil Armstrong.
The test site provided extra security for the training, but some locations that were used are on public land, including a spot near Tonopah, named, appropriately enough, Lunar Crater. It’s where astronauts practiced driving rovers in volcanic terrain.
In neighboring Arizona, NASA used explosives and a grid to recreate an exact replica of the terrain at one lunar landing spot. Once finished, it was used to teach astronauts like Edgar Mitchell how to spot and retrieve the best moon rocks to bring back to Earth.
McGee says Nevadans should be proud of the role the state played in getting astronauts to the moon and back, but he hopes NASA will return — to both places.
“I think mission planners would be foolish if they did not take advantage of the very specific resources that we have in the state of Nevada,” McGee said. “For training astronauts to walk on the moon, it really was effective.”
Eleven of the 12 astronauts who walked on the moon trained in Nevada at one time or another.
There was even a small company in Boulder City that saved the Apollo 11 mission from disaster. Watch the video below and find out more.