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.

Beginning in 1964, Apollo astronauts took part in geological field trips to sites all over the world — including Oregon and Northern California.

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.

Walter Cunningham training in Central Oregon, 1964.

Walter Cunningham training in Central Oregon, 1964.

Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center

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”:

RESOURCES

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