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One Giant Leap

Fifty years ago, Americans landed on the moon. Few know the important role the Grand Canyon area played in helping them achieve this seemingly impossible goal.

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon with their cumbersome white moon boots on July 20, 1969, they became the first people to visit the moon.

It must have been extremely humbling to tread on a place so powerful it gives us light in the night, moves our oceans’ tides every day and is the foundation for the length of our months. When Armstrong stepped down the ladder to walk on the surface of the moon, he uttered words that would be repeated over and over in history books.

“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” he said slowly across the radio waves to Earth.

The mission from launch to landing lasted precisely eight days, three hours, 18 minutes and 35 seconds. But the Americans’ race to the moon started eight years earlier when President John F. Kennedy announced on May 25, 1961, that the U.S. would put men on the moon by the end of the 1960s. It was a bold goal, especially considering the fact that even our unmanned photographic moon missions had failed, not to mention the fact no one had a detailed map of the moon.

So how do you plan a mission to a place no human has visited? You get creative.

The Clark Telescope Dome under the night skies at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz.
The Clark Telescope Dome under the night skies at the Lowell ObservatoryCourtesy Lowell Observatory via Flickr

To make maps, NASA turned to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., home of the Clark Telescope built in 1896. Working feverishly for 10 years, teams of scientists and airbrush artists used telescopes at the Flagstaff observatory, including the 24-inch Clark refractor, to view the moon and hand-draw exquisitely detailed maps of its surface. One of the artists was Patricia Bridges, an illustrator who still lives in Flagstaff today. As early Apollo missions succeeded in getting images of the near side of the moon (the far side was in a dark shadow), they also used those images to map the topography of the moon.

“Imagine going to a foreign country without a map,” says Kevin Schindler, Lowell Observatory’s historian. “These maps helped astronauts figure out where they were going to land.”

Knowing the topography was key because no one wanted the shuttle to land at the bottom of a crater. One of the cartographers who worked on these maps was Ray Jordan, who moved to Flagstaff from St. Louis in 1966 for the job. For the next three years, he used images transmitted from unmanned Apollo missions to map the surface of the moon.

“I wanted to do something really exciting and the President had just talked about going to the moon,” recalls Jordan who is 81, still lives in Flagstaff and is an avid outdoorsman. “And Flagstaff. God almighty, I love it here.”

Meteor Crater near Winslow, Ariz.
Meteor Crater near Winslow, Ariz.Photo by Thomas Venturi Photography courtesy of Meteor Crater

There was other work to be done in the Flagstaff area. The astronauts had to learn how to drive lunar roving vehicles in a crater-speckled landscape. They also needed to learn how to pick up rocks in confining space suits. And there were few better places than Meteor Crater to do this. Located 37 miles east of Flagstaff, the crater gave every Apollo astronaut a preview of what they might see on the moon. As deep as a 60-story building, it formed about 50,000 years ago when a fiery asteroid crashed into the Earth, going 26,000 miles per hour.

Dressed in space suits, the astronauts walked down a mule trail to the crater’s bottom, learning how to identify impact craters and rocks. Dwayne Virgint, general manager of Meteor Crater, likes to tell the story of the astronauts’ early wardrobe malfunction, which occurred when the men tore their space suits on some of the crater’s rocks. It was an eyeopener for everyone and led to the critical redesign of the suits to protect the astronauts from a similar occurrence while in space.

Today, you can visit Meteor Crater and see the trail the astronauts took as well as their training ground at the bottom. It’s still an active research site, giving scientists clues to questions they have as they receive images transmitted from other planets like Mars.

“What’s most interesting is taking a look at something that happened 50,000 years ago and learning that scientists can dig around here today and get perspective on what they found on another planet,” Virgint says.

At Lowell, you can look through the 32-foot-long Clark Telescope, the same one that Bridges and others looked through to draw the moon’s surface. If it’s a clear night, you will spot Saturn’s rings through it.

While you are peering through the telescope or looking down at the vast Meteor Crater, you may wonder how in the world Americans, with such limited tools, were able to catapult themselves to the moon.

For those who worked hard to make it happen, it’s always an inspiring memory. When the men landed on the moon, Ray Jordan was at home in Flagstaff.

“I was sitting listening to the radio” he recalls. “And my palms were sweating. But Neil Armstrong, that guy really had the right stuff.”

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Tori Peglar is editor-in-chief of National Park Journal and was really inspired by the different folks she spoke to about the lunar legacy in the Flagstaff area.