The year was 1966. LBJ was president. The Beatles topped the charts with “Revolver.” And the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was on — including in the Central Oregon town of Bend.
So much so, says local resident Rick Miller, that “they called Bend ‘moon country.’”
Beginning in 1964, NASA sent astronauts in the Apollo program — including Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, soon to be the first men on the moon — to train and test equipment in the high desert of Central Oregon. NASA’s theory was that the region’s volcanic terrain might be similar to the landscape astronauts would find on the surface of the moon. In 1965, when Bend hosted the State of Oregon Geological Lunar Field Conference, Oregon Gov. Mark Hatfield wrote to attendees, “we have a deep and abiding respect for science and scientists as you work with the wonders of the earth and space.”
In 1966, astronaut James Irwin was among the latest crop of lunar trainees to show up in Bend. At the time, Floyd Watson was the county building inspector.
Rick Miller remembers his grandfather as a gregarious man, a builder with a healthy sense of scientific curiosity. No wonder, then, that his interest was piqued by the visitors from NASA. The Bend Golf Club hosted a welcome party for Irwin and his colleagues.
“They had all the city officials all paired up with different astronauts, and my grandfather got James Irwin,” Miller told OPB’s “Weekend Edition.” “They hit it off.”
Three years later, Neil Armstrong famously took “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The 1969 Apollo 11 lunar landing took place 50 years ago on July 20. Like many Americans, Watson watched along on TV with his grandkids, said Miller, who was 7 at the time.
“ I did not know why he was so excited about watching the moon landing,” Miller said. “I said ‘Oh that’s neat, Grandpa,’ but he was very excited.”
When Jim Irwin was tapped to go to the moon himself on the 1971 Apollo 15 mission, his friend Floyd Watson took note. “I guess he’s been waiting in the wings, kind of seeing if he was going to get picked,” Miller said of his grandfather.
Watson went to Devil’s Lake, about 30 miles west of Bend, and retrieved a chunk of lava rock. Back home, he chipped off a little piece and stuck it in an envelope with a letter addressed to Irwin.
“Pretty much what the letter says is, ‘I am sending you a small sliver of Central Oregon lava that I hope you will be able to deliver the moon for me. I have five grandchildren who will be eternally grateful to you,’” Miller said.
In the summer of 1971, Irwin served as the Apollo 15 Lunar Module Pilot, becoming the eighth person to walk on the moon.
Back on Earth, Watson waited. “He hadn’t heard from him, and it’d been quite a while … they went up, they came back down,” Miller said.
On Sept. 30, 1971, a month and a half or so after Irwin’s crew returned, a letter arrived from him. “[It] said, ‘I did carry your sliver of lava to the moon, and left it there,’” Miller said.
Along with the letter, Irwin had included a photo of the moon’s surface. An arrow pointed to a little black speck on the ground. A handwritten note said:
“TO FLOYD WATSON
OREGON LAVA ON
MY BEST WISHES
The image was one of a series of photos taken by Irwin on the mission. One of the other photos was a famous shot of the mission’s commander, David Scott, standing beside the lunar module and the American flag.
“In front of them are different footprints and the lunar rover tire tracks, and somewhere down there in there in those footprints, is where that rock is,” Miller said. “The rock from Central Oregon.”
Today, Miller serves as the faithful guardian of the letter and photo from Irwin, as well as the original chunk of lava that rock on the moon came from.
Were Floyd Watson’s five grandchildren eternally grateful, as he had speculated? Miller said yes. He says it was a special way for him and his brother and sisters to remember their grandfather and the good times they had together.
“It was just one of those kind of chance coincidences,” he said. “Two stars passing, and they just kind of meet. And Grandpa had the foresight to go, ‘Maybe he’ll take this piece of rock to the moon,’ and he did. Jim Irwin was quite a guy … and we sure appreciate it.”
To listen to the entire conversation with Miller, use the audio player at the top of this story.
Jim Irwin’s letter and photo to Floyd Watson, the original lava rock Watson chipped a piece from, and other treasures are currently on display at the High Desert Museum in Bend, as part of their exhibit “Moon Country: Oregon and the Space Race.”