Following in the Footsteps of Astronauts

August 24, 2021 Posted by: Sarah Gage

 A barren, ashy valley surrounded by snow-capped mountainsThe Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes has served as a landscape of discovery for over a century. Photo courtesy S. Gage.

When has a national park left you feeling like you have stepped foot on another planet? When explorer Robert Griggs and his team first visited the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in 1916, they were awestruck by its otherworldly landscape – an idea shared by NASA about 50 years later.

In 1965 and 1966, NASA travelled to Katmai’s Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes for astronaut training. The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes was thought to resemble a lunar landscape: it was dry, barren, rocky, and volcanic. Thus, NASA believed that the moon-like surface would be an ideal training ground for the Apollo astronauts.
Red- and gray-colored volcanic rock laying on an ash-covered ground with mountains in the backgroundThe Valley’s landscape is covered in ash and volcanic rock, making it look extremely moon-like. Photo courtesy of M. Fitz.

The surface of the Valley is covered in fantastic geological features, which are a result of the 1912 volcanic eruption of Novarupta. The volcano emitted massive amounts of debris across the Valley. The once lush and green landscape was scorched by the hot ash and gaseous fumaroles covered the surface of the Valley Floor. During the 1916 National Geographic Society expedition into the Valley, botanist Paul Hagelbarger described the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes:

“As I came daily to know the area better, I was more and more impressed by the titanic forces that had been at work here. Human endeavor and achievement seemed dwarfed to insignificance by comparison. I felt out of place and like an intruder in this Land of the Gods. This Valley appeared to be on another planet that was in the process of formation.” (The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes by Robert F. Griggs, 213)
 A landscape with columns of steam rising from the groundWhen Robert Griggs was exploring the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, the landscape was covered in steaming fumarole vents. Photo courtesy of the National Geographic Society. 

When astronauts arrived in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in the 1960s, the space that Griggs and his team explored was no longer laden with steaming columns. The fumaroles had become extinct, but the surface of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes still appeared otherworldly. NASA recognized the Valley’s potential as a moon-like site and selected it – as well as several other “lunar” national park sites – to host the Apollo astronauts for geology training. Despite being in different locations around the country, the environments of Big Bend National Park, Craters of the Moon National Monument, and Grand Canyon National Park mirrored the dry and rocky landscape of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.

Upon arriving in Katmai for the short summer training periods, the astronauts “played the moon game,” as NASA called it. The Apollo men were dropped off by helicopter into the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes with a communication device and little information.
 Two men sit on the ground and hammer rocksNASA sent two groups of astronauts to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes for geology training in preparation of the Apollo missions. Photo courtesy of NASA.

On the Valley floor, they simulated a moon mission. The astronauts worked to complete a geology assignment, all while communicating their findings with scientists. The goal of the exercise was to assess and improve the communication between the astronauts and the geologists.

A group of people watch as a man points to an illustration on a chalkboard
In addition to doing geology training in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, the astronauts at Katmai also held evening lectures. Photo courtesy of NASA.
When the astronauts were not training in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, they spent time at a Brooks River fishing camp engaging in discussions and lectures about geology and volcanic activity. Like our visitors today, the astronauts learned about the Valley’s fantastic geologic landscape. Today, people visiting Brooks Camp can take a bus tour to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes where they, too, can experience the otherworldly atmosphere of the Valley and follow in the footsteps of astronauts like Buzz Aldrin (although we do recommend that, unlike the astronauts, you aren’t dropped off in the middle of the Valley with limited information).

NASA, VTTS, ValleyofTenThousandSmokes, KatmaiNationalPark, Apollo

Last updated: August 24, 2021

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