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USGS played crucial role in moon landing, Apollo program

Posted: July 21, 2009 4:14 p.m.
Updated: July 21, 2009 5:23 p.m.
U.S. Geological Survey scientists and cartographers played an important but relatively unknown role during the Apollo 11 moon landing 40 years ago this week.

USGS astrogeologists trained the Apollo astronauts in the science and strategy of field geology. The training was intended to provide the astronauts, mostly pilots, with enough knowledge to decipher the geologic story displayed at the landing sites and guide the collection of lunar samples.

The location of the "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," the famous phrase uttered by Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong, was selected based in part on the geologic and cartographic expertise of the USGS Astrogeology Research Branch, now the USGS Astrogeology Science Center.

The goal was to select a landing site with easy access to a wide range of landforms, rock, and soil types that would make observation and data collection both efficient and safe.

"USGS scientists not only selected the site on the moon for the Apollo 11 Commander's ‘one giant leap for mankind' in July 1969, but also provided critical datasets used in "Moon in Google Earth" released today for earthbound explorers," observed Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. "The events may be 40 years apart, but today USGS is on the cutting edge of science on more fronts than ever."

With limited time on the lunar surface and a limit to the weight of the specimens they could bring back, Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin used their USGS training to make decisions on what samples to bring back home.

The astronauts made important observations and collected close to 50 pounds of lunar rocks and regolith for scientific research. These samples have provided insight into the history of the solar system and the evolution of Earth.

Geologist Eugene Shoemaker established the USGS Astrogeology Research Branch in Flagstaff, Ariz. in 1963 expressly to support NASA's lunar missions. The natural volcanic and cratered landscape surrounding Flagstaff proved invaluable to engineers designing and testing lunar rovers and other equipment, and was important in training the astronauts in what to expect.

In addition, the clear dark night skies and existing Lowell and U. S. Naval Observatories facilitated telescopic examination and geologic mapping of the lunar surface.

To replicate the lunar terrain, USGS astrogeologists even used explosives to create additional artificial impact craters in a volcanic cinder field near Flagstaff. Familiarity with the geology of volcanic landscapes, and expertise in the process and results of impact craters, framed the tasks the astronauts needed to do while on the lunar surface.

The USGS Astrogeology Science Center continues to be an important cartographic and geologic resource for the support of NASA's current lunar and planetary missions. Flat plains, crater walls, valleys and ridges continue to "come to life" in the products and services provided by the USGS scientists:

* View Apollo-era maps, 3D photography and panoramas
* View historic, pre-Apollo lunar orbiter images
* View more images, maps and other lunar data

The mission of the USGS Astrogeology Science Center is to serve the nation, the international planetary science community, and the general public's pursuit of new knowledge of our solar system.

The Center's vision is to be a national resource for the integration of planetary geosciences, cartography, and remote sensing. As explorers and surveyors, with a unique heritage of proven expertise and international leadership, USGS astrogeologists enable the ongoing successful investigation of the solar system for humankind.


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