Ever stare at the moon and dream about going there? Ever imagine being the 13th man — or the first woman or kid — to walk on its desolate surface? Given the smarts, connections or money needed, it's just a fantasy, right?
But don't dismay! There's always 35°18'22.0"N, 111°30'19.4"W on Earth.
This site in northern Arizona doesn't look like much. (Admittedly, the moon doesn't, either.) The setting is monochromatic, 14 acres of basaltic cinders marked by a simple wire fence and surrounded by ponderosa pine forest. Craters pock the terrain. Bizarrely, they're positioned exactly as they are in quadrant II-P-6-1 of the Mare Tranquillitatis. (That's Latin for the Sea of Tranquility, as any moon fan knows.)
Here, a group of pilots trained in the late 1960s and early 1970s for the Apollo missions that took them to the moon. At Cinder Lake, as it's called, they got crash courses in lunar driving and geology so that they'd know exactly how to maneuver in space and what they'd be seeing, documenting and collecting for the scientists back home. Their military background hadn't prepared them to operate a rover, much less scoop up football-sized rocks while wearing enormous, insulated gloves. And they needed a lot of practice. A tool accidentally ripping into their spacesuits could have had a catastrophic ending more than 225,000 miles from Earth.
To assist with the training, engineers with the U.S. Geological Survey meticulously created this simulated moonscape about 15 miles northeast of Flagstaff. Between July and October 1967, they dragged an enormous tractor-mounted rake across the land to level it and rid it of vegetation. They next used surveying equipment to identify the center point of each crater needed. Then an explosives specialist and backhoe helped them bury precise amounts of dynamite, fertilizer and fuel oil to ensure each crater would be the correct depth and width.
The explosives were ignited in three stages to mimic the timeline of crater formation on the moon, 143 craters in all, up to 58 feet across and as deep as 12 feet. It was a booming success.
The location was chosen specifically because of its surface, which is covered with the dark gray, marble-size volcanic remains of a nearby 11th-century eruption. "The cinders were thought to be representative of what astronauts would encounter on the surface of the moon," explained archaeologist Dagmar Galvan of the Coconino National Forest's Flagstaff Ranger District, on a tour of the site last year in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo landing.
Yet the first astronaut to walk on the moon, seconds after uttering his famous "one small step for man" line, had some disappointing news. "The surface is fine and powdery," Neil Armstrong told NASA.
Yes, Cinder Lake missed the mark a bit.
There are even more discrepancies today. At Crater Field No. 1, decades of erosion have taken their toll, as have wildfire and flooding. The shallowest craters have disappeared.
A vivid imagination still goes a long way here, however. Squint hard at the stark surroundings. Lumber forward in pretend space boots. Take a small bunny hop. You might just think you're on the you know what.