NASA astronauts using Eagle County as a training ground for moon landing

A signed picture from astronaut Randy Bresnik which was given to the town of Gypsum at the 2023 Gypsum Daze event in July. Bresnik was in town training for the Artemis mission.
Courtesy image

When NASA unveiled its Artemis program in 2020, it ushered in a new era of lunar exploration with a goal to study more of the moon than has ever been explored and set up a base camp at the moon’s South Pole.

But unlike the famous Apollo 11 mission of 1969, the Artemis program intends to send astronauts who are much more prepared for what they will encounter in their approach and landing. Thanks to the notes from that mission which were recorded by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, this time NASA has a better idea of how to train its astronauts for such a mission.

In setting up those training scenarios, the U.S. Army’s High-Altitude Aviation Training Site at the Eagle County airport in Gypsum has been identified as an ideal schooling zone due to the mountainous terrain surrounding the site.

Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas S. Tucker said NASA reached out to HAATS about a year and a half ago, wondering if the Eagle County-area training would be worthwhile for the Artemis astronauts to visit.

All agreed it turned out to be a good location for training, Tucker said.

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“Mainly it’s because of the mountains,” Tucker said. “Flying in mountains, you get a lot of visual illusions … you may be up flying and looking at the (landing zone) and thinking ‘OK that looks fine,’ and you get down here and realize ‘wow, those rocks are huge, I can’t land here anymore, I’ve got to hover.’ Those are the biggest things that correlate straight into what the moon is giving us.”

A signed picture from astronaut Zena Cardman which was given to the town of Gypsum at the 2023 Gypsum Daze event in July. Cardman was in town training for the Artemis mission.
Courtesy image

Tucker said HAATS was sent Armstrong and Aldrin’s notes from the moon Apollo 11 moon landing.

“It was pretty fascinating,” Tucker said. “Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong almost died on that first run, because they got spatial disorientation from ending up in what’s called a degraded visual environment, or a brownout, which they had never experienced ever in their careers.”

Tucker said the Apollo 11 astronauts were very up-front about what they encountered and didn’t sugarcoat anything in their notes.

“All of a sudden there they are, on the moon, and they’re experiencing brownout for the first time ever in their lives,” Tucker said. “The Apollo guys did such great after-action reviews, to write it out, and were very blunt and honest about what happened.”

After reviewing Armstrong and Aldrin’s notes, HAATS put together a training package for the Artemis astronauts, helping them to prepare for, and figure out how to overcome, a degraded visual environment. The training involves simulating a rapid rate of descent into a landing zone, where the astronauts can experience the visual illusions and rugged terrain they will encounter on the South Pole of the moon, which has a lot of mountains, craters and rugged terrain.

“We’re helping them be able to determine where to go for (landing zones), how to assess the LZ and land in it,” Tucker said.

And in addition to the landing, the approach is also an important part of the training.

“You have to be able to anticipate when to abort,” Tucker said. “When do I say ‘Nope, we’re not going to do this, I’m going to do a go-around, and not attempt the landing’? Or do we continue? So that’s part of what we teach, the approach-decision point.”

Most recently, astronauts Zena Cardman and Randy Bresnik went through the training program in Gypsum, visiting in July, and were able to attend Gypsum Daze along with Rene Ortega, the chief engineer of the human landing system program at NASA.

Bresnik thanked Gypsum for the hospitality in a signed picture.

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Part of the mission of the Artemis program is to increase the diversity of those who attempt moon landings, with the program aiming to land the first person of color and the first woman on the moon.

That first woman might end up being Cardman.

“Grateful to call Gypsum ‘home’ for some amazing training,” she wrote on her signed picture. “I’ll be looking for you from orbit!”

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