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The first astrogeologists

From testing space suits to determining how to traverse the Moon and collect lunar samples, American geologists were critical to the Apollo missions.

RELATED TOPICS: APOLLO
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Geologist Gene Shoemaker dreamed of going to the Moon well before the space race popularized the idea in the early 1960s. He coined the term astrogeology while studying the Moon from afar, in preparation for someday visiting. By the time his dream started feeling like reality, a surprise medical diagnosis disqualified him from astronaut service in 1963. Shoemaker would still go on to become one of the most influential scientists in the space program, and to create the USGS Branch of Astrogeology. Here, Shoemaker demonstrates an early space suit prototype in April 1964 at the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. He poses, of course, as if he were sampling rocks. 
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF USGS
Sending a man to walk on the Moon was an amazing feat of engineering. But there was another group of researchers behind the Apollo missions — and they weren’t at NASA. Geologists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) used lunar photographs and telescopes to make the first detailed maps of the lunar surface. They tested equipment and space suits in the rocky terrain of the Colorado Plateau, and they practiced collecting rocks and measurements while fully suited. Without geologists, the Apollo missions might have been little more than rocket ship stunts. And thanks to them, we can now be sure the Moon’s not made of stinky cheese.

NASA wasn’t always on board with astronauts taking the time to complete science experiments during the Apollo missions. “Fairly early in this business was when NASA told Gene [Shoemaker] that all [the astronauts] could do was plant the flag [during the first Moon landing],” USGS scientist Joe O’Connor said in a 2001 interview. “It was our job to convince NASA otherwise.”

Around this same time, the USGS team figured out a way to communicate, in real time, with the astronauts on the Moon. But when they pitched their idea for a Command Data Reception and Analysis facility to NASA, their aeronautical colleagues didn’t take kindly to the idea that a bunch of geologists would be “commanding” anything. In the end, the scientists were able to explain that their goal was to be available to assist the astronauts during their lunar expeditions, and NASA agreed. The Flagstaff communications room was renamed the Apollo Data Facility. 

During the Apollo 11 Moon landing, Shoemaker and others from Flagstaff were in the Science Support Room at Mission Control in Houston. In the weeks after the first moonwalk, their studies of rock samples collected by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin resulted in what would be the first of many breakthroughs in astrogeology — the geology of planetary bodies beyond Earth.

As the Branch of Astrogeology gained momentum in 1963, its staff moved the headquarters from Menlo Park, California, to Flagstaff, Arizona. The town had an established observatory and was near what many scientists considered Moon-like geological features, such as areas shaped by cratering and volcanism. This allowed the geologists working on Apollo — the Manned Lunar Exploration team — to use the nearby craters and rocky landscapes to test methods and equipment in the years leading up to the spaceflights. The first space suit field test took place in June 1964, using an early Gemini suit borrowed from NASA.

 “The Gemini suit was a terrible thing. You couldn’t stand up straight in it because it was built for sitting only,” said USGS geologist Gordon Swann in a 2002 interview. “The only three guys the space suit would fit at all were Gene Shoemaker [who wore it only a short time], Jerry Harbor, and Gene Phillippi. So, they were our astronauts. However, they could only go for 15 or 20 minutes, and they were so exhausted, they couldn’t even move after that.”

Above, support staff prepare to send an unidentified suited test subject (thought to be Shoemaker, Phillippi, or Harbour) onto the Moon-like terrain at the Bonito Lava Flow in Sunset Crater National Monument.

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