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Using Arizona to Explore the Moon

The Black Point Lava Flow in a new AZGS electronic postcard is a timely reminder of the Apollo program, 50 years after the first landing on the Moon, and of NASA’s recently articulated goal to land astronauts at the lunar south pole within the next five years.  

During Apollo, northern Arizona was one of the prime training grounds for astronauts and the staff that supported their missions.  Several sites were used in the Flagstaff area for those activities, including Black Point Lava Flow; SP Crater, its lava flow, and nearby Colton Crater (then known as Crater 160); cinder fields around the base of Sunset Crater; and Merriam Crater.   Each of those sites has lunar-like features that allows personnel to test lunar surface science operations.  The Black Point and Sunset Crater locations were also modified with high-explosives to produce crater fields to better mimic the lunar surface.   Those areas were also augmented with training at nearby Meteor Crater.

Those lunar analogue terrains remain important.  In 2008 through 2012, simulations of lunar missions were conducted using the Black Point Lava Flow as the landing site and the origin of 3-, 14-, and 28-day-long excursions by crew in a small pressurized rover called the Lunar Electric Rover.   In the 14-day-long mission simulation (Figure 1), a single rover with a crew of two was deployed to test the

Lunar rover at Black Point lava flow.
Figure 1.  A crew member has exited the vehicle to explore an outcrop of basalt during a mission simulation at the Black Point Lava Flow in 2009.  The crew member is supported by a test director and EVA safety personnel.  NASA Photograph.

capacity of the rover to support astronauts for a mission of that duration.  In the 28-day-long mission scenario, which was designed to investigate mission requirements for exploring the lunar south polar region, a crew of four were deployed in dual rovers (Figure 2).  Each rover was occupied by a Commander (drawn from the astronaut corps) and a geologist, the latter of which is a reflection of the very positive exploration capability that geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt brought to the Apollo 17 mission.  That mission carried the crew from a landing site on the Black Point Lava Flow to the west, including Colton Crater and SP Crater.

More rovers
Figure 2.  Dual rovers, with a crew of two each, exploring the San Francisco Volcanic Field near Flagstaff, Arizona, during a simulation of a 28-day-long lunar mission in 2010.   NASA Photograph.

As in a real mission, science staff designed a series of traverses and EVA stations for crew.  The crews were provided a pre-mission briefing of those traverses.  Each day began with a pre-briefing of station tasks and ended with a debriefing of them.   Examples of the traverses and briefings are available on-line, such as a mission pre-briefing for one of the crews.

David A. Kring
A Science Leader (SciLead) during the mission simulations
Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston, TX

Dr. Kring authored AGS Digest-21 (2002), Desert Heat - Volcanic Fire, The Geologic History of the Tucson Mountains and Southern Arizona, 103 p.