Flagstaff takes space very seriously, from astronaut training for the first moon landing to being designated as the first “Dark Skies” city. One of the top things to do in Flagstaff is to explore the places where astronauts trained for moon landings. Who knew that this Arizona mountain hamlet was where the Apollo 11 astronauts—Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins—completed critical training for that giant first step on the Moon? What’s super cool is you can visit the places where the astronauts’ train, too. Peer through the same Lowell Observatory telescopes and explore Meteor Crater and the volcanic terrain of Sunset Crater—no spacesuit required!
The otherworldly geography found in the Flagstaff area resembles the craters of the moon’s surface and, beginning in 1963, astronauts including Armstrong, Frank Borman, Pete Conrad, Jim Lovell, John Young, James McDivitt, Elliot See, Edward Shite, and Thomas Stafford trained here.
Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the Moon on July 20, 1969, remains one of humankind’s grandest achievements. Over the next three years, 11 other people explored the Moon’s surface. This feat was possible only with years of preparation. Many milestones achieved in astronaut science training, instrument development, and lunar mapping occurred in the Flagstaff area.
2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing and the city of Flagstaff honored the landmark achievement with a year-long celebration which included tours at Meteor Crater and telescope viewings and exhibits at Lowell Observatory as well as lectures and space-themed movies. The anniversary celebration also included an exhibition of lunar rover prototype Grover the Geological Rover at the local Astrogeology Science Center. Due to COVID-19, Lowell Observatory and the Astrogeology Science Center are closed. Please call or visit their website for information on reopening.
Immerse Yourself in Flagstaff’s Lunar Legacy
You don’t have to be an aerospace engineer, astronomer, or sci-fi fan to be excited about experiencing a little of the preparation and training that went into putting a man on the Moon. Below is an itinerary of the places in Flagstaff which play a vital part in astronaut training.
First, stop at the Flagstaff Visitor Center for maps and other area information, check out the official Lunar Legacy souvenirs, and snap a selfie with a life-size astronaut.
Geologists and Apollo astronauts studied the Moon through Lowell’s telescopes. Lowell was established in 1894, placing it among the oldest observatories in the United States, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965. At the time of this writing, the observatory is closed due to COVID-19. Please visit their website for updates on reopening, hours, and information on guided tours with telescope viewing, exhibits, and special Lunar Legacy programs.
1400 W. Mars Hill Rd. | 928-774-3358 | Website: lowell.edu
Cinder Lake Crater Field
NASA selected a 500-foot square site northeast of Flagstaff, near the famous San Francisco peaks and just south of the Sunset Crater volcano, for its geological similarities to The Sea of Tranquillity, where the Apollo 11 Lunar Module was scheduled to land. Engineers dug into the basaltic rock and used explosives to create craters. The number of explosives used and the depth to which they were buried were carefully calculated to create craters of precise dimension. The distribution and size of the craters were also carefully calculated. They were produced at a 1:1 scale to duplicate a small area of the proposed landing site. This area became known as the Cinder Lake Crater Field.
Take a guided tour of this simulated lunar landscape of craters created with explosives by the USGS in 1967. The field was used extensively for astronaut field training and Lunar Rover Vehicle simulator testing.
Call ahead or go to the Flagstaff Ranger Station for approved access and tour information.
5705 Hwy 89 | 928-526-0866 | Open weekdays 8 am – 4 pm |4WD vehicles required. Website: cocinonationalforest.us
The U.S. Geological Survey Astrogeology Science Center
Early Moon mapping and lunar science were done at this location. You can see Grover the Rover, one of the remaining Lunar Rover Vehicle (LRV) simulators, on display in the lobby.
2255 N. Gemini Dr. | 928-556-7000 | Website: USGS Astrogeology Science Center
Meteor Crater and Sunset Crater National Monument are not to be missed!
Critical training below Flagstaff’s San Francisco peaks was conducted in the years leading up to the Apollo 11 mission. Astronauts perfected their lunar rover driving skills at Meteor Crater and practiced lunar landings on the jagged, black volcanic fields of Sunset Crater and Cinder Lake.
This is one of the best-preserved meteor impact craters on Earth. When you experience Meteor Crater you’ll see how this unique geological feature was the ideal site to prepare for landing on the surface of the Moon.
42 miles east of Flagstaff, I-40 at Exit 233 (50 minutes)| 928-289-5898 | Website: meteorcrater.com
Sunset Crater National Monument
The terrain of this 900-year-old volcanic landscape resembles that of the Moon and was used for frequent astronaut field training and equipment testing. Imagine you are walking on the surface of the moon when you hike the paths of this other-worldly landscape.
A’a Trail is an easy .2 mile loop that traverses the Lava Flow Trail. A’a is from the Hawaiian word “stony rough lava”. Sturdy footwear is recommended due to sharp edges along the basalt and loose cinder trail. To the left is the Lava’s Edge Trail. Across the road is the Lenox Crater Trail.
There are four trails at Sunset Crater:
Lenox Crater Trail – 1.4 miles – Easy/Intermediate
Lava Flow Trail – 0.8 miles – Easy/Intermediate
O’Leary Lookout Trail – 3.6 miles – Intermediate
Forest Road 545A – 4.3 miles – Easy/Intermediate
1 mile North of Flagstaff, Hwy 89 at Loop Rd. Exit 30 (30 minutes) | 928-526-0502 |Website: nps.gov/sucr
Finally, Flagstaff is the gateway to the Earth’s greatest geological showcase and another invaluable astronaut training opportunity.
Grand Canyon National Park
The Canyon served as a spectacular site for the astronauts’ field training in geology. One of the first training exercises was a long arduous hike to the bottom of the canyon accompanied by USGS geologists. The two-day outing gave the astronauts a chance to learn how to identify different strata, detect faulting, see the impact of erosion, and learn geological map reading. The Grand Canyon is open with restrictions to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19.
South Rim is Open – North Rim Open – Desert View is Closed (Friday 7/10/2020)
NOTE: Highway 64 between Cameron, AZ and the East Entrance to the park at Desert View is CLOSED. You must use the South Entrance near the town of Tusayan, AZ to enter and exit the park. North Rim Lodge is open. North Rim Campground is Closed. The National Park Service website publishes daily updates on closures and restrictions.
81 miles north of Flagstaff via Highways 180 and 64 | 928-638-7888 | Website: National Park Service
For more ideas, itineraries, and fantastic things to eat, drink, and do in Flagstaff visit their official tourism site Discover Flagstaff.
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