That’s no moon: Before these NASA astronauts went to space, they went to Sudbury

In the 1970s, the agency sent astronauts to northeastern Ontario to prepare for their trips to the moon — and helped drive the region’s scientific aspirations
By Claude Sharma - Published on Jul 22, 2019
a man holding a photograph up to the camera
Don Phipps, a Sudbury-based geologist, helped facilitate the training of NASA astronauts in the 1970s. (Claude Sharma)

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SUDBURY — In 1971, astronauts John Young and Charles Duke loaded up with equipment —backpacks, radios, cameras — and walked along rocky ledges, communicating their movements as if to a home base. Later that year, they’d do the same thing nearly 385,000 kilometres away as astronauts on the Apollo 16 moon mission. On this day, though, they were in the Sudbury Basin, practising for the real thing.

“Once they did their traverse, we would go over what they saw,” remembers Don Phipps, a local geologist who helped facilitate the training. “One of the objects of this visit is that when they got on the moon, they could report back with some kind of knowledge of what they saw on the ground.”

The visit was the first of two that NASA took to Sudbury to prepare for the final two Apollo missions. Fifty years after the first astronauts landed on the moon, local experts say that these visits helped redefine the public’s understanding of the area’s geological history and spurred a dedication to scientific discovery in the region.

On December 7, 1972, David Pearson, a professor in the School of Environment at Laurentian University, stayed up past midnight with his students to record the launch of Apollo 17.  Earlier that year, Pearson had joined astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison (Jack) Schmitt on a tour of the Sudbury Basin, a geological formation that resembles meteoric craters found on the moon and, like it, features breccia — “rock that consists of smashed up rock, rock with a lot of fragments,” Phipps explains.

“It was a very impressive experience to feel that you were rubbing shoulders with people who are going to the moon,” Pearson says. “Not just going to the moon as an adventure but extending our knowledge of the solar system.”

Pearson, now 67, says that the visit helped establish Sudbury’s reputation as a geological and scientific marvel. Before that, he says, it had been known as bleak and barren — it was often compared to a moonscape, and not in a complimentary way. 

“Sudbury had been the butt of jokes for many decades before the astronauts came here,” says Pearson.

Ruth Debicki, then a junior geologist with the province, had acted as a field guide, leading the astronauts, she says, to “landslide deposits, meteor impact sites, volcanic terrains, and what we call large igneous structures —  iron- and magnesium-rich intrusive rocks, so rocks that cooled from magma.”

She took them to Onaping Falls, which sits within the basin. Today, we know that the basin was formed 1.85 billion years ago by one of the largest meteorite impacts in Earth’s history (the area also features a  smaller impact crater near Lake Wanapitei). Although the theory was first advanced in 1964 by American geologist Robert Dietz, in 1971, many believed that the basin had been created by volcanic activity. Earlier that year, though, the Geological Association of Canada had held its annual convention in Sudbury and convened a special session on the meteorite-impact theory. This helped turn NASA on to the theory and established the region as a critical research hub. “If NASA sends astronauts to look at the geology here, because the origin of the Sudbury crater is comparable with the origin of the craters on the surface of the moon by meteorite impact, then that theory of the origin of the Sudbury Basin needs to be given more credibility,” says Pearson.

According to Pearson, NASA’s presence is still felt in Sudbury. He says that its visits served as a catalyst for the establishment of Science North, northern Ontario’s largest museum, in 1984. Pearson was its project director and founding director and today serves as the senior science adviser. Subury’s science sector now also includes SNOLAB, a world-renowned laboratory, opened in 2012, that specializes in neutrino and dark-matter physics.

“I think that their visits and the publicity of their visits created an interest in science in children in Sudbury and gave the city a different vision of its place,” Pearson says.

Phipps still holds onto mementos from both tours: photos with NASA astronauts, an itinerary of Apollo 16’s Sudbury field trip, and a memorandum from the United States government outlining the success of the geological simulations. He vividly remembers watching Apollo 16 land on the moon and hearing astronaut John Young say, "It looks like a Sudbury breccia and that's the truth. I can't believe it."​​​​​​​

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.
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