Grand Canyon astronomer-in- residence Kevin Schindler aims to bring Apollo back down to Earth
GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — Nearly 70 years ago, the world was looking up at the moon.
Not only were they wondering what exactly was up there, they were also wondering who was going to claim its possible riches and scientific discoveries first.
Thanks to Project Apollo, their questions were answered in 1968. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong took their historic first steps on the lunar surface less than a decade after former President John F. Kennedy confidently assured Americans that the United States would prevail over the Soviet Union in the fast and furious space race.
Over six missions, the Apollo program landed 12 men on the moon. But before they headed for the moon, these astronauts spent many months staring at the ground.
Specifically, the ground in Northern Arizona.
Grand Canyon’s current Astronomer in Residence Kevin Schindler has been studying the astronauts’ training program, some of which took place within the canyon itself. He’ll walk visitors not only through the night skies, but also the depths of the canyon where the men who walked in space put their training wheels on.
Schindler, a historian and public information officer at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, has long studied the Apollo program, even though he started out much closer to the Earth.
Originally, he set out to be a geologist.
“I grew up in Ohio, and finding fossils in the woods really get me interested in geology and paleontology,” he said.
Eventually, though, he became fascinated with everything about space – Schindler said that’s when he started spending all his time looking up at the sky instead of down at the ground.
“Back in the 90s, I met one of the Apollo astronauts and I found it fascinating,” he said. “We as humans have this spirit of exploration. Leaving the comfort and safety to go into space, risking their lives. It captured my imagination.”
Before they walked on the moon
Schindler said all of the Apollo program’s astronauts prepared for their monumental journeys in northern Arizona. Not only did they need to reach the moon, they needed to be prepared to collect scientific information.
“They were test pilots, so they needed additional training,” he said. “Not all of them were excited at first.”
Well, everyone but Harrison Schmitt.
Schmitt actually had a Ph.D. in geology, so while the test pilots were learning how to collect rock and soil samples and identify geological features, Schmitt was learning how to fly rockets into space.
While it may seem as if the astronauts were not at all interested in looking at a bunch of rocks and try to tell one from another, Schindler said that bringing them to the Grand Canyon was meant to inspire them.
“Several said coming here (to Grand Canyon) was where they really got it, that they finally understood how rocks could tell a story,” Schindler said. “Aldrin described it as a very meaningful experience.”
The astronauts’ training at Grand Canyon, as well as other northern Arizona locations such as Meteor Crater, Sunset Crater and the artificially-created Cinder Lakes Crater Field, is one of Schindler’s favorite areas of research. He has documented their training process at many sites and plans to continue that work in the inner canyon. During his residency, he plans to follow in the footsteps of the flyboys-turned-rockhounds, documenting the locations they visited on their rim-to-river geology seminar.
While documenting these locations, Schindler said he would like to work with park to educate visitors about the canyon’s role in preparing for the moon landings. He plans to develop brochures and signage so that hikers can follow in the footsteps of some of the first men to leave the Earth.
“It’s permanent documentation of their training, but it’s also something visitors can use,” he said. “It’s a connection to an era-defining moment at one of the most magical places on Earth.”
It’s also important for Schindler to note that this connection isn’t just a historical footnote – classes of astronauts are currently working in northern Arizona to prepare for upcoming space missions. As early as 2025, the Artemis program plans to revisit our closest celestial neighbor.
“They’re still going to be doing science, and they still need to practice,” he said. “You can’t simulate everything.”
Schindler won’t only be focusing on earthbound science, though. There’s plenty to see in the night sky as well. In addition to programs about the Apollo missions, Schindler will also be educating visitors on myths and legends surrounding the stars. From ancient Greek and Roman myths to Indigenous stories of creation, Schindler said many different cultures see a lot of different things when they look up at the stars.
Surprisingly, though, he noted that a number of different cultures, not connected by time or space, have seen some sort of bear image in the Big Dipper.
Schindler is excited about his research and presentations at the Grand Canyon, which includes everything from community and school programs to star parties to simply setting up a telescope along the rim and letting anyone who walks by take a look.
“This is a great opportunity for me personally, but also for developing collaboration with places like Lowell (Observatory) and others,” he said.
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