The world recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Before the astronauts ever made it to the lunar surface, they trained in Oregon’s own Moon Country.
In the early 1960s, NASA worked to put a man on the moon, but they didn’t know what to expect once they got there. In many ways, the moon remained a mystery. What caused the pocked terrain? Scientists debated whether the irregular surface was the result of volcanic activity or celestial impacts. They decided to prepare astronauts for either condition – and recognize the difference. Astronauts took part in classroom and fieldwork studies on geology. NASA announced the men were being instructed in the equivalent of a master’s degree in the subject.
The main thing was to expose them to as many different geological experiences as we possibly could. Get them out in the field. Don't let them sit in the classroom.
Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, NASA astronaut & geologist”
From 1964 to 1971, dozens of astronauts trekked to Central and Southern Oregon’s lava fields, which some scientists believed might mimic the moon’s surface. They visited the tuff ring volcanic landmark at Fort Rock state park, the active volcano at Newberry caldera, and the mile-wide volcanic explosion crater at Hole in the Ground in Lake County.
On the black lava flows at McKenzie Pass, astronaut Walter Cunningham fell on the sharp rocks, ripping his glove and puncturing the protective suit.
In 1969, the United States reached the moon, becoming the first and only country to place a person on the lunar surface. Over the next three years, there would be a total of six moon landings. So far, 12 men have physically experienced walking on the moon — most of them trained in Oregon.
Today, there is a renewed push to return to the moon. Research currently underway in Oregon may once again play an essential role in that effort.
Learn about astronaut training in Central Oregon in this preview of "Oregon's Moon Country":
Books "Shoemaker by Levy: The Man Who Made an Impact" Levy, David. 2002 "High Desert Roses: Significant Stories from Central Oregon" Tupper, Melany. 2013
“Moon: An Illustrated History: From Ancient Myths to the Colonies of Tomorrow” Warmflash, David. 2019
Interviews Harrison "Jack" Schmitt Apollo 17 Astronaut & Geologist
John Byrne President 1984-1995, Oregon State University
Mary Devlin Former Visitor Information Center Attendant, Deschutes National Forest
Josef Dufek Center for Volcanology, University of Oregon
Jack Higginbotham Director, Oregon NASA Space Grant Consortium
Finn J.D. John Instructor, Oregon State University
Ingrid Ockert NASA History Fellow
Paul Reynolds Bend Mayor, 1964-65
Shan de Silva Professor of Geology and Geophysics, Oregon State University
David Warmflash, MD Astrobiologist & Science Writer