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The Extreme Measures NASA Took to Train Its Astronauts for Space

Clare Fitzgerald
Photo Credit: 1. Pool NASA / Getty Images 2. Keystone / Getty Images

In the 1960s, space travel was still in its infancy. As such, NASA had to find innovative ways to train its astronauts. This included conducting analog missions in some of Earth’s most difficult terrains, including dense jungles and barren deserts.

Beginning of a unique training regiment

Training began in 1960 with the original Mercury Seven: Scott Carpenter, Alan Shepard, Gordon Cooper, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Walter “Wally” Schirra, John Glenn, and Deke Slayton. While the space agency held much of its instruction in classrooms and at testing facilities, it understood the importance of onsite training.

Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Virgil Grissom, Walter Schirra and Donald Slayton standing together

Mercury Seven at the Stead Air Force Base, 1962. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

The astronauts were brought to Stead Air Force Base in Nevada, where training was divided into three phases. It started with lectures and briefings in survival techniques, before moving into demonstrations of survival methods. Once this was complete, they conducted field exercises aimed at preparing for conditions in space in case their re-entry craft landed off target.

Alfred M. Worden, Harrison H. Schmitt and Ronald E. Evans in the jungle

Alfred M. Worden, Harrison H. Schmitt and Ronald E. Evans at NASA’s Panama Jungle School. (Photo Credit: NASA / Wikimedia Commons)

Neil Armstrong sitting beneath a makeshift tent in the desert

Neil Armstrong sitting beneath a makeshift tent during desert training in Nevada, 1963. (Photo Credit: Keystone / Getty Images)

During these field exercises, the astronauts practiced desert and jungle survival techniques, such as crafting clothing and tents from parachutes and finding food. They were even taught how to identify venomous snakes.

NASA astronauts sitting before a lecturer in the jungle

Astronauts learning about jungle survival, 1963. (Photo Credit: Keystone-France / Getty Images)

NASA astronauts holding cameras

Astronauts conducting geology training in Iceland, 1967. (Photo Credit: Mirrorpix / Getty Images)

Seeing the benefits, NASA made these missions common practice for those preparing for space travel. In fact, the American, Russian, and European space agencies continue to practice wilderness training.

Training for the Apollo 11 moon landing

In preparation for their spaceflight, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins underwent intense training that involved onsite learning in Texas, Arizona, and Nevada. Using tools and their hands, the trio collected and analyzed soil and rock samples, so the process would be second nature by the time they landed on the moon.

John Glenn eating a piece of fruit

John Glenn eating a piece of fruit in the jungle, 1964. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

John Glenn and Neil Armstrong sitting on the ground

John Glenn and Neil Armstrong in Panama during jungle training, 1963. (Photo Credit: Pool NASA / Getty Images)

Simulations included digging trenches and collecting samples, selecting site locations, documenting sites using photography, driving core tubes into soil for sample collection, describing geological characteristics, and labeling collected samples.

NASA astronauts standing together in desert survival gear

Astronauts at Stead Air Force Base, 1963. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

NASA astronauts standing before the United States Air Force Jungle Survival School sign

Astronauts at the United States Air Force Jungle Survival School, 1964. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Speaking with Smithsonian Magazine, Stephen Garber said:

“The reason they trained at so many sites was to get an appreciation for the different aspects of various geological features [they would come in contact with during their missions]. They also had a combination of classroom training and field training, although the field training was really emphasized a fair amount because [NASA] wanted to ingrain the procedures in the astronauts’ memory, so they wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about how to take a sample or how to take a photo.

“Scientists back on Earth could analyze the samples and photos later on; the astronauts had enough to do and the point was to get them home safely.”

NASA’s geological training sites

During the 1960s, NASA had five sites in the southwestern US it frequently used, particularly in relation to Apollo 11. The first was the Grand Canyon in Arizona. In March 1964, the crew learned basic geological principles by collecting and identifying rock samples. They also hiked the South Kaibab Trail to the bottom and were tasked with identifying their location using satellite images and topographic maps.

Neil Armstrong riding a horse

Neil Armstrong during geological training in the Grand Canyon, 1964. (Photo Credit: Pool NASA / Getty Images)

They also visited the Cinder Lake Crater Field, which NASA spent four months turning the area into a mirror-image of the moon’s surface, testing the astronauts’ ability to identify their location by looking out of the lunar module’s windows and using satellite images.

Pete Conrad and Al Bean carrying analytic tools

Training at Cinder Lake Crater Field, 2001. (Photo Credit: NASA / Wikimedia Commons)

At Sierra Blanca in Texas, Armstrong and Aldrin paired up with a team of geologists to identify rock samples using VOX microphones and tape recorders and documenting their discoveries on camera. They also traveled to Hawaii, as its volcanoes created the perfect environment for extensive lunar training.

Fred Haise and Jim Lovell standing in the desert

Fred Haise and Jim Lovell, backups for the Apollo 11 mission, at Sierra Blanca, 1969. (Photo Credit: NASA / Wikimedia Commons)

NASA astronauts kneeling around a large rock

Astronauts in Iceland for geological training, 1967. (Photo Credit: Mirrorpix / Getty Images)

The final location was the Nevada National Security Site. According to the Apollo 11 crew, it was the most beneficial part of their training, and it became a recurring spot for future Apollo space missions. In February 1965, the three astronauts carried out a multitude of geophysical and geological tests at the Schooner and Sedan craters, as well as Buckboard Mesa.

Jack Swigert and Bill Pogue standing together in the desert

Jack Swigert and Bill Pogue, the Apollo 11 support team, at Sierra Blanca, 1969. (Photo Credit: NASA / Wikimedia Commons)

Neil Armstrong examining a geological sample

Neil Armstrong examining a geological sample at Sierra Blanca, 1969. (Photo Credit: NASA / Wikimedia Commons)

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The astronauts also explored ancient volcanic formations, including the Timber Mountain caldera, as they resembled the surface of the moon.