Faking the Moon Landing

Before computerized flight simulators could train astronauts, NASA built fake moons.

Jul 16 2014, 12:00pm
Image via NASA

How do you prepare to land on the surface of the moon when no one has ever been to the moon before?

You use a flight simulator, of course. But it's 1961, and computer flight simulators don't exist yet, so you do what engineers at NASA did and build the ultimate dark ride: an analog flight simulator called Project LOLA, or Lunar Orbit and Landing Approach, at the Langley Space Center.

LOLA was a system of massive glowing murals and scale model-orbs criss-crossed with ribbons of track. In total darkness, pilots would ride in carts along the tracks, poised at relevant angles from the ersatz moons, in order to practice translunar approach and orbit establishment. A field of simulated stars was front-projected onto screens by a four-axis "star ball" mounted over the cabin, completing the immersive effect.

The "cockpit" was a chair wedged into an overhead gantry, equipped with a closed-circuit television which served as a monitor; the would-be Apollo pilot would peer at a painstakingly airbrushed cratered lunar surface slipping below on a revolving conveyor belt. The LOLA Simulator was a huge project—setting NASA back $2 million at the time—a fair indicator of the effort and resources being poured into the space race in the early 1960s.

It didn't last long, though. The entire machine was dismantled not long after Apollo 11 graduated from fake moons to the real deal, when NASA discovered that the real difficulties for lunar pilots, namely the rendezvous with the Lunar Excursion Module, couldn't be accurately represented in the simulator.

I discovered this fragment of space history accidentally. Archival photos of buttoned-up aerospace engineers, silhouetted against glowing false moons, leapt out at me during a routine image search through the NASA archives.

It's beautiful and sobering stuff. A flight simulator is a tool designed to whittle the bracing effect of surprise into a manageable sliver. Pilots run simulations over and over again to prepare themselves, to commit to muscle memory the duties they might forget under duress, but one can never truly prepare for space. One can imagine it, as we all do, and even learn to anticipate its constraints, but being human is inextricably bound to being on-planet. Blasting away is a great strangeness. How can one ever be truly ready for it?

Test subject sitting at the controls of the LOLA simulator. Image via NASA Commons.

Most flight simulators, even today's sophisticated models, with their wild capacity for roll and yaw, recreate the experience of flight from within a contained cockpit. They are closed boxes of illusion. Since astronauts and pilots always have a task, the simulator is usually a task-practicing machine: how to take off, how to navigate contingencies, how to operate the heavy machinery.

LOLA, however, seems like it served other purposes in addition to the purely practical—not necessarily by design, but as a consequence of its strange visual impact. Unlike other flight simulators, LOLA was an engulfing experience, a doorway into another world, simulating the more ineffable and unforeseeable eventualities of spaceflight.

Many astronauts return to Earth with a shared experience we call the "Overview Effect:" an overwhelming, almost spiritual sense of the planet's interconnectedness reached when seeing it from a different vantage point. Many such stories are collected in writer Frank White's book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. The Overview Effect isn't something that NASA, or any space agency, trains astronauts to anticipate; it appears unbidden, because space is mighty. 

Looking at the surreal images of LOLA, I can't help but be reminded of David Bowman, in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, coming across the famous black monolith in space and proclaiming, with stricken awe: "The thing's hollow—it goes on forever—and—oh my God—it's full of stars!" 2001's famous monolith contains the infinite within a deceptively small frame; LOLA contained the moon, on the grounds of an otherwise mundane research center in Hampton, Virginia. It ushered pilots through mundane doors and into the grandiose.

Alone in the darkness, cloaked in dots of light, and suspended over the pockmarked, glowing spheres, an astronaut could learn not only to land his craft, but to land his mind—softly, like a settling bird—on the moon.

Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell all sat in the gantry of this early simulator in order to accustom themselves to the surface of the moon. Image via NASA.

Incidentally, LOLA wasn't the only unorthodox lunar simulator used by Apollo astronauts. Outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, NASA converted the black cinder fields of an extinct volcano into a "lunar analogue"—a simulated lunar plain upon which astronauts could lope around, testing out rovers, hand tools, and scientific equipment. To achieve the desired effect, the US Geological Survey and NASA blasted hundreds of craters into the ground, creating a 500 square-foot, one-to-one copy of the future Apollo 11 landing site, a spot on the Mare Tranquillitatis. 

On the surface of this fake moon between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon, Apollo astronauts in replica spacesuits learned to navigate their rover around craters, scoop up soil samples, and make educated assumptions about geologic features. In the years since the Apollo program, terrestrial analogue sites have become an essential component of astronaut training. 

Geologists in replica space suits conduct a simulated mission at the Cinder Lake crater field. Image via Northern Arizona University.

Looking up at the moon, it still strikes me as a miracle that we managed—in a technological environment too primitive to even build a proper spaceflight simulator—to send humans there and back. It's due in some small part to to these incredible environments, these sites of inconceivable hubris, where we dared to bring space to the Earth.

LOLA is long gone, and visitors to the pockmarked craters of Arizona's Cinder Lake will discover that the original lunar analogue has returned to a pseudo-natural state, although some craters remain, softened by time, like waning pieces of land art under the desert sun. As space enthusiasts and denizens of yesterday's future, we should mourn the loss of these sites, so integral to the history of human exploration, the places where we took our first baby steps into space.