Who: Laura Ferguson is curator of Western History at the High Desert Museum, where “Moon Country: Oregon and the Space Race” opens Saturday. This year, many are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, which first put astronauts on the moon. The museum’s exhibit, which displays into November, chronicles Central Oregon’s role in prepping astronauts for walking on the surface of the moon. While that work may not be well known today, half a century ago it helped the area earn the nickname “moon country” — for reasons other than the powdery “moon dust” covering trails, pets and other surfaces.
Q: What were some of the biggest obstacles in tracking down this history, given it was over 50 years ago that astronauts trained here?
A: Not a lot has been written about the training that took place in Central Oregon. In fact, I found Bend Bulletin articles and Oregonian stories from the time to be especially helpful in illuminating this history.
Q: Did you find anybody local that remembered their training?
A: No, but who I did find, who I was really excited to work with, was Rick Miller. His grandfather is Floyd Watson. And he was the Bend resident who developed a relationship with James Irwin during one of the trainings in 1966. When James Irwin was selected for the Apollo 15 mission, (Watson) reached out to him and said, “Will you take a sliver of Central Oregon to the moon?” and “It would make my grandchildren really happy.” James Irwin in fact did that and later followed up with a photograph and a letter confirming that he had done that. So I was really happy to be able to work with Rick Miller and really thankful that he allowed those objects to be on loan to us and on display in the exhibit.
Q: Why did they train on this lava rock? If anything, the dusty trails seem more like the moon surface from photos. What was it about the rocks that they were drawn to?
A: That’s a great question. At the time geologists really thought that the Central Oregon landscape would resemble that of the moon. And Central Oregon was one of several training locations selected — spots like Arizona, New Mexico, Hawaii and Alaska, as well as some international spots like Iceland. And in fact it proved to be a really good choice, because the basalt that we have in Central Oregon is similar to that of the moon. The other thing is that they wanted to be able to test some of the gear and spacesuit prototypes on a lot of different types of terrain. The fact that some of that lava is challenging to walk on is exactly what they were looking for.
Q: Any other facts you uncovered that you think are interesting?
A: I think part of what’s interesting about this story is the way that it fits into Bend’s history. By the 1950s, the timber industry is not what it once had been. Some business owners and investors were starting to think of Central Oregon as a tourist destination instead. So one of the other objects that I’m excited to show is a brochure that encourages people to come to Central Oregon and see the spot where astronauts trained. I think it’s really interesting then how this training then fits into this transition that was taking place in Bend, and a new emphasis on tourism and recreation.
Q: There’s a plan to return to the moon in five years, the Artemis mission. Do you guys talk at all about that plan?
A: We don’t. But … I hope that visitors will think about how scientific discoveries are made, and to think about all the opportunities for discovery and for exploration that are in our own backyard. I think we think about space travel as so far away, and it’s really interesting to think about all of the work that was done right here in Central Oregon.
— David Jasper, The Bulletin