50th anniversary of Apollo 17: when astronauts came to the Big Bend

Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong rehearse photo documentation and collection of samples near Ft. Quitman, Texas, February 24, 1969. Aldrin has a weight bag attached to his right hip. Photo courtesy of NASA.

BIG BEND — Just past midnight on December 7, 1972, 50 years ago this week, the Saturn V rocket carrying three astronauts on NASA’s Apollo 17 lunar landing mission, launched into space in Cape Canaveral, Florida, illuminating the night sky. 

Months before the Apollo 17 astronauts embarked on the cosmic journey — an endeavor that would mark the last time man would set foot on the moon — they underwent geological training in the Big Bend region. From 1964 to 1972, Apollo astronauts made nine total trips to the Big Bend. Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, visited the region three times, and his colleague Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, the first professional geologist on the moon, four times.

Apollo 17 was record-breaking — astronauts spent a total of three days on the moon, longer than previous missions, and brought back the largest volume of lunar samples, a total of 741 rock and soil specimens. The famous, heavily-reproduced photograph of the Earth known as “The Blue Marble” was taken by the team on their way to the moon using a Hasselblad camera. 

Scientist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt stands by the American flag during a moonwalk on the Apollo 17 mission. Home, that small dot in the blackness of space above the flag, is a quarter-million miles away. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Pat Dasch, who worked in the space program at NASA headquarters in Washington D.C. and served as the executive director of the National Space Society before retiring in Alpine, first began researching the Apollo astronauts’ geological training in the Big Bend region six or seven years ago. Having worked with several Apollo astronauts and NASA geologists throughout her career, the story of their presence in Far West Texas sparked Dasch’s interest. 

“Because of my career, I had access to some sources — or I knew who to start asking or where to start looking — and I just pieced it together bit by bit,” said Dasch. “It was just a classic research project.”

Utilizing her connections and the library archives at Sul Ross State University, including some old editions of the Alpine Avalanche, Dasch studied which astronauts came to the Big Bend, where they went and how their geological training prepared them for collecting lunar samples on the moon. Since starting her research, she has published an article of her findings in the 28th edition of the Journal of Big Bend Studies and most recently presented the information at the Center for Big Bend Studies’ (CBBS) annual conference. 

The first group of astronauts to arrive in 1964 — which included Buzz Aldrin who would later be selected for the Apollo 11 mission and Cernan — arrived at what is now the Marfa Municipal Airport in April and were welcomed with great fanfare by civic leaders and school children from Marfa and Alpine. Dasch came across some local families that still have sheets full of astronauts’ autographs from the time period. 

At the airfield, the crew was met with a selection of makeshift rental cars provided by Casner Motors in Alpine (at the time, there was no rental car agency nearby). Dasch said photographs she reviewed showed a hodgepodge of six cars, including a sports car and station wagon, which were possibly loaned from local citizens. On their trips out West, the astronauts were regulars at the Bien Venido hotel in Alpine, where they slept and ate meals. 

The Big Bend region was specifically selected as one of the sites for the astronauts’ introductory geological field training for its volcanic and intrusive features, thought to mimic that of the moon’s surface. In addition to their focus on volcanic terrain, groups also took advantage of the variety of geological features available in the region and traveled to many sites. 

“We knew that the moon was volcanic. It was dead volcanically, but there were lots of indications of volcanism, and craters, so they thought it was a good comparison,” said Dasch. 

Dasch’s 2016 CBBS journal article included quotes from NASA leaders who explained why the Big Bend region was selected for geological training. “We can’t say what the moon is like, exactly, but it may be similar to the Big Bend area,” said Ted Foss, a NASA staff geologist involved in the training program. Bill Muehlberger, a University of Texas at Austin geology professor and trip coordinator, said the Big Bend region offered the greatest geological diversity within the smallest area in the United States. 

Astronauts’ field training was focused on proper observation, documentation and collection of rock samples of note. They were trained to analyze rock positioning within the environment, and on one occasion were challenged to identify rocks at a site where foreign rocks, which were planted by training coordinators, peppered the surface. 

“From the beginning of their geology training, they were trained to recognize rocks that were more interesting than just the dirt at your feet,” said Dasch. 

Of the relationship between the geologists and their astronaut pupils, Dasch recalled how in 1964, at a training site on 118 South where the group was studying road cuts and layers of volcanic ash, the astronauts were active, running around and hiking up onto rocks, outlasting their field geologist counterparts, who had a reputation for running students ragged. 

“The astronauts were all super fit. And the geologists have to rethink that approach, because they were the ones who are worn out at the end of their trip here. So some of the astronauts definitely questioned ‘Why have we got to do this?’ But they were all in 100%, because they knew this was part of what was going to qualify them to go to the moon,” said Dasch.  

The group’s itinerary included trips to a site 14 miles east of Marathon to study folding and faulting, to Bee Mountain in Study Butte to study igneous intrusion, and to a loop through Big Bend National Park, including a stop at Santa Elena Canyon. Crews would drive back to town along the River Road, communicating via radios between vehicles, to discuss the changing terrain of the badlands, hoodoos and the Solitario. Dasch discovered one instance where a group peeled off from the scenic drive to make a beer run in Ojinaga. 

Astronauts, including those on the Apollo 11 and 17 missions, participated in more advanced geological training near the time they were scheduled to take off for the moon. The Apollo 17 crew traveled to the area the March before their December mission to collect rocks on foot and via lunar rover at the Sierra Madera Astrobleme, an impact crater located in Pecos County. 

“They came to our very own local impact crater, and did a dress rehearsal for what they were going to do on the moon,” said Dasch. 

Since the Apollo programs’ inception, the focus shifted more toward studying craters created by space objects rather than volcanic activity. 

“By the time we got to Apollo 17, from all the photographs that had come back from the earlier Apollo missions, the scientists understood that a lot of the craters on the moon were not volcanic craters, but were craters created by comets or asteroids hitting the moon,” said Dasch. 

The Apollo 17 lunar landing site in Taurus Littrow gave astronauts access to both recent volcanic and older lunar rocks, which were brought to the surface as a result of impact craters, therefore available for collection by astronauts Schmitt and Cernan.

“They came back with the oldest rock sample from the moon that was collected over all the missions,” explained Dasch. 

While early trips to the Big Bend consisted primarily of astronauts, geologists and occasionally NASA photographers and public affairs personnel, later trainings attracted more management personnel, who realized they needed a better understanding of the extravehicular activity (EVA), or astronaut movement on the moon, while they were back in mission control on Earth. Dasch said the increased interest from NASA leadership on the scientific pursuits of the lunar landings was, in part, due to the fact that in the wake of the initial success of the Apollo 11 mission to put a man on the moon the public began to wonder what the purpose of returning was. 

“Partly, it was political, because public interest was waning. We’ve been there, we’ve done that, why are we doing it over and over again?” said Dasch. “So they raised the emphasis on the science and the scope of the science that was undertaken on the moon expanded, because later missions stayed on the moon longer and had more opportunities to go out and explore.” 

The waning public interest in the space program was reflected in the Big Bend region, where the astronauts’ later training appeared to garner little, if not any, public attention. 

“Early in the program, it was big news, having astronauts out here. Later on, it didn’t even make the newspaper,” said Dasch.  

The vision to put a man on the moon, articulated by President John F. Kennedy and spurred by the orbital flight of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik in 1957, launched the space race, leading to a period of rapid technological development which the world still benefits from today, said Dasch. Those years of space exploration represented a special time in history where humans, rather than robots, were sent into space, she said. 

“Now it’s a different situation. ‘What do you need humans for? Why are you sending humans?’ is one of the big debates and, for the most part, robotic exploration returns greater dividends at lower costs. So it is a different era completely,” said Dasch. 

But NASA astronauts’ educational visits to the Big Bend may not be a thing of the past, said Dasch. There have been significant discussions in the past year about what geology training for NASA’s return to the moon, via its Artemis astronauts, will look like. In 2019, NASA announced its Artemis mission, aimed at putting the first woman and person of color on the moon by 2024. “We may send them out here again,” said Dasch. 

She plans to attend one of several Apollo 17 50th anniversary celebrations soon to reunite with old colleagues and celebrate the significance of the historic mission. Dasch said she’s happy to know there are plans in the works for human’s to return to the moon’s surface for the first time since 1972. 

“It’s 50 years since humans stepped on the moon, I think a lot of people believed we would go back much sooner than this,” said Dasch. “We’ve already lost a lot of the expertise that was developed in getting there before because those people are gone. So it’s a fine time to go back if we’re serious about exploring the moon.”