Iceland's Lunar Landscapes

The surprising connection of NASA astronauts and Iceland.

30 JUNE 2013,
The NASA astronauts, during their training period in Iceland
The NASA astronauts, during their training period in Iceland

In the 1960´s the United States began their ambitious Apollo program with the aim of bringing the first man to the moon. What does that have to do with Iceland?

When the American space agency NASA started training their astronauts they faced a unique problem. How and especially where should the astronauts train landing, exploration and extravehicular activities on the lunar surface? NASA decided the best way to prepare for the unknown moon safari would simply be learning-by-doing.

Thus NASA scientists picked all kinds of places on Earth that they thought might resemble the lunar landscape. One of these remote places was Iceland. So two teams of astronauts and geologists came to Iceland for astro-geological field trips, so called GFTs. The aim of those GFTs was for the aspiring spacemen to make themselves familiar with geological formations and other conditions that were thought to be found on the moon. Back then the only known informations about the lunar surface were the result of images transmitted by space probes orbiting the moon, everything else was merely speculation. These probe images led to the assumption that the moon's surface was most likely covered with basaltic rocks, especially so-called palagonite tuff.

Iceland is one of the youngest volcanic islands on this planet and therefore comparatively unaffected. It's the only region in the world where one can still find vast and barren areas of palagonite tuff which is the reason why NASA chose the island for their astronauts' training. According to NASA's official appendix, a team consisting of the astronauts Anders, Bassett, Bean, Cernan, Chaffee, Cunningham, Eisele, Schweikart, Scott and Williams visited Iceland from July 12th-16th 1965. In July 1967, a second team including astronauts Anders, Armstrong, Brand, Carr, Duke, Engle, Evans, Garriot, Gibson, Haise, Kerwin, Lind, Lousma, Mattingly, McCandless, Michel, Mitchell, Pogue, Roosa, Schmitt, Swigert, Weitz and Worden came to the island of fire and ice.

They found “Beautiful volcanic geology with practically no vegetation cover. Features includes calderas, ash cones, steaming volcanic vents, cinders, pumice, various types of lava flows. Probably the most moon-like of the field areas.”They were supervised by two Icelandic geologists, Dr. Sigurður Þórarinsson and Dr. Guðmundur Sigvaldason. The geological observations made by the astronauts around the edge of the Askja Caldera, a site of multiple volcanic eruptions, even lead to a revision in the interpretation by Icelandic geologists of the origin of some of the units erupted from the caldera. They also trained in vast scree fields on Reykjanes peninsula near Krýsuvík in the southwest of the island.

The astronauts were doing the so-called “moon game”, an exercise where they had to simulate being on the moon and collect representative samples of the area, identify rock formations, complete basic survival training and practice communication techniques. They were supervised by two Icelandic geologists, Dr. Sigurður Þórarinsson and Dr. Guðmundur Sigvaldason. During their stay in Iceland, the astronauts enjoyed their spare time and did what every tourist today does: horseback riding, fishing, dancing etc. Amongst the 12 men that have set foot on the moon, nine trained in Iceland, including Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong.