Historical Parallels: Astronaut Field Geology Training at #HISEAS


When President Kennedy made his famous address at Rice University in 1961 calling for human mission to the moon, the impetus behind that goal was a political one.  The Cold War between the United States and the U.S.S.R was threatening to overwhelm the world. The spheres of influence of both nations led to an ever increasing “one-upmanship” in national pride. At it’s core, the American space mission of the 1960s was a political contest, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t knowledge to be gained from it.

Even as NASA’s human spaceflight programs began, there was a tremendous interest to use the missions to investigate extraterrestrial phenomena.  Space science was in it’s infancy, and aside from astronomy, there was very little understanding of the natural processes that existed beyond Earth.  Scientists representing a wide spectrum of the natural sciences sought to incorporate payloads and experiments onto the spacecraft in order to better the understanding of the space environment.

The Apollo missions in particular represented an astounding opportunity to increase our knowledge of our solar system.  Although by 1969 several unmanned space probes had made flybys of our neighboring planets, very little was known about the structures of these words. Our very own moon was as alien to us the stars in distant galaxies.  A new field was about to be born: lunar science.  And NASA intended to maximize the ability of the astronauts on the Apollo missions to bring back information about our celestial partner.

All of the NASA astronauts selected before 1965 were military test pilots by trade. Most had backgrounds in engineering as opposed to the physical sciences.  In order for them to conduct scientific experiments on the lunar surface, the astronauts had to complete basic courses in geology.

Like the Apollo astronauts, the HI-SEAS crew and I needed to learn about geology before beginning our mission.  None of the crew is a geologist or planetary scientist.  (I have some interest in the subject, but I don’t have any formal education in geological sciences) As part of our preparation for our mission, the HI-SEAS science team organized a 3 day field course in Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park.  In an interesting historical parallel, the Hawaiian volcanoes were one of the locations where the Apollo astronauts did their own geology field training as well!

Our training was led by Dr. Sarah Fagents of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. As a geologist, she not only teaches on the faculty at UH, but has participated in numerous planetary science missions.  Like Dr. Eugene Shoemaker and Dr. Farouk El Baz did for the Apollo astronauts, Dr. Fagents instructed us in the basic principles of rock formation igneous processes, mineralogy, volcanology, and  field techniques.  Over a period of 3 days, Dr. Fagents led us across the volcanic landscape of the island of Hawaii.

The planet Mars exhibits the most massive volcanoes found anywhere in our solar system. These  mountains are shield volcanoes, formed when repeated eruptions poured fluid lava, building layer after layer until they formed mountains of incredible height.  Remarkably, the Hawaiian islands formed the same way.  So what better place to better understand Martian volcanoes than to explore the best analog found on Earth?

The HI-SEAS crew traveled to the Kilauea volcanic complex to see actual volcanism in progress. Forming the centerpiece of the Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park, Kilauea is the most continuously active volcano on our planet. For over 30 years, the caldera has produced periodic lava flows and vented gases.  Although not yet the picturesque, peaked mountain like its neighboring Mauna Loa or Mauna Kea, Kilauea has a greater variety of volcanic features present.  This made it the ideal site for our field training.

So why didn’t we just include a trained geologist on our crew? Future astronauts exploring Mars will need to be able to be the eyes of the scientific community – not just for their own field of study, but as multidisciplinary generalists too.  The energy and resources it will take to safely land a crew on the surface of Mars makes it likely that future crews will consist of only a few persons per mission, so each astronaut will be required to be familiar with many sciences.  During the Apollo program, it was more imperative that the astronauts were experienced pilots, so their geological training was secondary.  It wasn’t until Apollo 17- the last lunar mission- that NASA flew a trained geologist, Dr. Harrison Schmidt, to the moon.

During the remainder of our analog mission, the HI-SEAS crew and I will be given tasks to explore, map, and catalog the geological features we encounter on the surface of “Mars”.  These tasks simulate the goals future astronauts will accomplish during planetary exploration missions.  Like the Apollo astronauts before us, we are using terrestrial parallels to help mankind understand the solar system.

For a thorough review of all the sites where the Apollo astronauts conducted field geology training, follow this link: http://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/ap-geotrips.pdf





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