During the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union more than 50 years ago, NASA sent astronauts to train and test equipment on Central Oregon’s volcanic terrain, similar to what they would find on the moon.

A new exhibit opening July 6 at the High Desert Museum will explore Central Oregon’s involvement in preparing astronauts for the first lunar landing on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle on the moon.

Armstrong and Aldrin were among the astronauts who trained in Central Oregon.

Laura Ferguson, curator of Western history at the museum, said the exhibit, “Moon Country: Oregon and the Space Race,” will feature rare photographs of the astronauts training in locations near McKenzie Pass and Paulina Lake. Other training locations included Newberry Crater, Lava Butte and Fort Rock.

“These are photos that most people will not have seen before,” she said.

Visitors to the exhibit will also learn about how astronaut James Irwin placed a small piece of lava rock from Central Oregon on the moon during his Apollo 15 mission in 1971.

Irwin trained in Central Oregon in 1966 and became acquainted with Floyd Watson, a Bend resident and city building inspector. Watson asked Irwin if he would take a piece of Central Oregon lava rock to the moon, and Irwin agreed.

The exhibit includes letters that Watson wrote to Irwin and a letter and photo from Irwin proving he successfully placed the Central Oregon rock on the moon.

The rock came from Devils Lake along the Cascade Lakes Highway, about 30 miles west of Bend. The original rock is also a part of the exhibit, while the small piece that was chipped away remains on the moon.

“It’s a really fun story of that direct connection,” Ferguson said. “I think it highlights how significant it was to Central Oregonians to have astronauts here training.”

NASA selected Central Oregon for several trainings in 1964 and 1966 because the temperatures in the region were much cooler than other places with lava fields and because the variety of lava rock found in the High Desert was beneficial for the training, according to accounts in The Bulletin.

An article in the Aug. 25, 1964, edition of The Bulletin describes astronaut R. Walter Cunningham having a difficult training session on McKenzie Pass, where he slipped and fell on a sharp lava rock. He was uninjured, but his glove was gashed when he tumbled on the lava.

“A white-garmented spaceman in a pressurized suit slowly climbed the steep slope of a jagged lava flow here today, and found the going mighty tough — on a terrain possibly more severe than any that will be found on the moon,” the article read.

In addition to learning about Central Oregon’s important role in the space race, Ferguson said, she hopes visitors leave the exhibit with an appreciation for space exploration.

“I hope that people will consider how scientific discoveries are made and how much we have learned and how many questions remain unanswered,” Ferguson said. “I hope they will think about those opportunities for inquiry and experience that are right here in our own backyard.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7820, kspurr@bendbulletin.com