For residents or tourists who have gazed upon Central Oregon’s cinder cones and lava fields and seen a moonscape, they were not alone.
NASA recognized the similarity, too, and the astronauts who would eventually take “one giant leap for mankind” in the first moonwalk 40 years ago hiked Central Oregon’s jagged lava fields and buttes several years earlier in the mid-1960s.
Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were among the many astronauts and researchers who came to Bend between 1964 and 1966 to observe basalt and other volcanic rock that might resemble the lunar landscape and practice negotiating the terrain in their space gear. Those visits made national news. Armstrong and Aldrin were the first men to set foot on the moon July 20, 1969, while Collins orbited the moon in the Columbia command module.
In 1969, Ellen Bishop, programs director for the Oregon Paleo Lands Institute in Fossil, was a geology student at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, where she was also teaching a lunar geology class.
“I remember that was a big topic of discussion,” Bishop said. “I hope we don’t forget the importance of looking at all those other worlds. Right now, we’re doing a lot of remote sensing, which is great. But it’s still not the same as putting your mitts on it.”
Al Waibel, a geologist and consultant for Davenport Power on the Newberry geothermal project, said the astronauts’ visits to Central Oregon in the 1960s were exciting and brought recognition to the state.
“Everyone was quite excited when all this was going on, with Oregon suddenly being on the leading edge of outer space exploration,” said Waibel, who was studying geology at Portland State University at the time. “The excitement of actually going to the moon and the science involved, it had incredible following, and incredible excitement and optimism. ... The sky was no longer the limit.”
A little like the moon
Forty years after humans first set foot on the moon, researchers know much more about lunar geology, and they still recognize some similarities between rocks in Central Oregon and on the moon’s surface.
“The moon is really not made out of green cheese, it’s made out of basalt,” Bishop said. “It’s basalt that’s a little different than what we have here, but not too different.”
Central Oregon has a “rubbly” type of basalt rock known as aa that resembles what researchers in the 1960s saw in photographs of the lunar surface. However, since NASA scientists did not know exactly what to expect once men landed on the moon, the agency tried to acquaint the astronauts with as many types of basalt flows as possible, Bishop said.
“At the McKenzie Pass and Lava Lands, we have a rubbly kind of lava flow,” Bishop said. “They have very uneven, sharp features. It would have been very important for the astronauts to practice walking around on those.”
Astronauts needed to learn how to walk on the jagged, unpredictable surface of this type of basalt rock so they would be less likely to fall and tear their space suits on the moon, Bishop added. “We have some of the most accessible, nice fresh basalt flows — that are easy to get to — anywhere in America.”
Astronauts visited the peak of Lava Butte and pumice fields to the south, a lava flow at McKenzie Pass, Paulina Peak, “the Hole in the Ground” and other locations, Bulletin reporter Phil F. Brogan later wrote in his book “East of the Cascades.”
In August 1964, astronaut R. Walter Cunningham donned a white space suit and hiked through a jagged lava flow near the McKenzie Pass for about six minutes as television crews filmed him, before he tripped on a rock and fell. After Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, Brogan wrote that the astronauts did find similarities between the real lunar surface and Central Oregon’s “moon country.”
“Brief reports from Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin indicated they made such encounters,” Brogan wrote. “One, in a report to the earth, noted that at least part of the lunar surface very much resembled Oregon’s High Desert.”
For residents and visitors to Central Oregon, it is a moment in time they can still remember when they hike the lava fields and other sites the astronauts once visited, Brogan wrote in The Bulletin on July 22, 1969.
“Visitors tramping over the volcanic region will not only be following the trail of the astronauts but they will be hiking through a land that was known to the men who trained to land on the moon. ... They were Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins.”