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How Oregon's 'Moon Country' Helped Prepare Astronauts For The Lunar Landing

On July 20, the world will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Before the astronauts ever made it to the lunar surface, they trained in Oregon's own "Moon Country." That's what local newspapers called Central Oregon's lava fields after NASA visited the area. 

In the early 1960s, NASA worked to put a man on the moon, but they didn't know what to expect once they got there. In many ways, the moon was a mystery. What caused the heavily pocked terrain? Scientists debated whether the irregular surface was the result of volcanic activity or celestial impacts.

They decided to prepare astronauts for either condition — and recognize the difference. Astronauts took part in classroom and fieldwork studies in geology in what amounted to the equivalent of a master's degree in the subject.

From 1964 to 1971, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and dozens of other astronauts trekked to Central Oregon's unique landscape. Scientists believed the region might mimic the moon's surface. Astronauts and NASA personnel visited the tuff ring volcanic landmark at Fort Rock State Natural Area, the active volcano at Newberry caldera and the ancient mile-wide crater at Hole in the Ground. While stumbling through the black lava flows at McKenzie Pass, astronaut Walter Cunningham fell on the sharp rocks, ripping his glove and puncturing the protective suit.

In 1969, the United States reached the moon, becoming the first and only country to place a person on the lunar surface. Over the next three years, there would be six moon landings. So far, 12 men have physically experienced walking on the moon. Most of them trained in Oregon.

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