On January 16, 1963, NASA sent its second class of astronauts, the “Next Nine,” to Flagstaff to learn geology. The group included future Moon walkers Neil Armstrong, Pete Conrad, and John Young, as well as Moon orbiters Jim Lovell and Tom Stafford.
Accompanied by geologists, the group first visited Meteor Crater and Sunset Crater to study geological features up close. After dinner at Lowell Observatory, they went to Lowell’s ACIC office to see how similar features on the Moon were depicted on maps. They then split up into three groups to view actual lunar features through telescopes. One group stayed at Lowell to use the 24-inch Clark refractor while the others went to Northern Arizona University and the U.S. Naval Observatory’s Flagstaff Station.
The trip proved successful and northern Arizona soon became a focal point for astronaut training; in fact, every astronaut who walked on the Moon trained here.
Building on the success of project Mercury, which launched America’s first men into space between 1961-1963, NASA announced the selection of a second group of astronauts on September 17, 1962. The goal for this group of nine pilots, known variously as the New Nine, Next Nine, and Nifty Nine, was to help develop the Gemini and Apollo programs, critical steps in meeting President Kennedy’s bold declaration to send men to the Moon before the end of the 1960s.
The group included Neil Armstrong, Frank Borman (whose parents lived in Phoenix), Charles (Pete) Conrad, Jim Lovell, Jim McDivitt, Elliot See, Tom Stafford, Ed White and John Young. Of these men, all but See (who died in a plane crash) would fly in space, with six of them traveling to the Moon; Armstrong, Conrad, and Young ultimately walked on the lunar surface.
To not only achieve Kennedy’s challenge but also to gain important scientific knowledge of our celestial neighbor, the astronauts would need to familiarize themselves with the geology, geography and other aspects of the Moon. This meant the crews would need intense training to learn basic principles of observation, data collection and analysis. A good understanding of lunar cartography would also be very useful.
Officials soon targeted Flagstaff – with its distinct geology analogous to that of the Moon, plus the important lunar mapping going on here – as one locale for carrying out some of this scientific training. For the next several years this northern Arizona town would play a vital role in preparing astronauts to go to the Moon.