Risk and Luck

Risk-and-luck-Mark-ArmstrongThe Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs were deeply complex and continuous exercises in risk management. To accomplish so much, in less than a decade, took ingenuity, strong scientific discipline, a relentless test regimen, great personal sacrifice on the part of thousands and no small amount of luck.

Luck was certainly with Apollo 11, and my father was fortunate enough to spend over 2 hours on the surface of the Moon — and much of that time was spent gathering lunar samples — a task that required a substantial amount of geological training and knowledge that he received here in Iceland among other places.

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Apollo astronauts revisit training area in Iceland and explore a new lava flow

Astronauts and the family of Neil Armstrong at Drekagil Canyon
The astronauts and Armstrong family traveled in an original Mercedes Benz bus from the company that took care of the transport in 1965 and 1967. The driver this time is the grandson of the driver on the original field excursions. (Photo: Völundur)

Fifty years ago this month, a group of Apollo astronauts arrived in Iceland for a week of geology training. A second field trip was made in 1967. For two weeks in July 2015, astronauts from these groups have again spent time in Iceland, revisiting the same training areas and other natural phenomena found on the island, located in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean.

During this latest visit to Iceland, the astronauts also got the chance to explore the new lava flow at Holuhraun, the site of a volcanic eruption which began on 29 August 2014, lasted for some six months and produced a lava flow of more than 33 square miles, the largest in Iceland since 1783.

It was very special to be back in Iceland after all these years.  Hard to believe; half a century has passed!  It was a great reminder of the wonderful friendly people of Iceland, somewhat typified by the fact that our hosts had gotten hold of the very same old Mercedes bus that had carted us out to the remote geologic sites 50 years before… and employed it to do so again!  Not only that, but the very capable and informative bus driver was the grandson of the bus driver we had 50 years ago. Now that’s not only interesting, but mindful!”
– Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 9 Astronaut

Walter Cunningham and Rusty Schweickart at the training area in the Icelandic highlands (Photo: Völundur)
Walter Cunningham and Rusty Schweickart at the training area in the Icelandic highlands (Photo: Völundur)

Harrison Schmitt who explored the lunar surface during the Apollo 17 mission arrived in Iceland on July 5 and a week later, Walter Cunningham of Apollo 7 and Rusty Schweickart of Apollo 9 arrived with their wives. They were joined by NASA astrogeologist Dr. Jim Rice and the family of the late lunar explorer Neil Armstrong.

“I have walked on the moon a second time,” Harrison Schmitt said, smiling to the group after walking on the new lava flow, still to be explored in detail.

Neil Armstrong's grandchildren unveil the Astronaut Monument in Húsavík. (Photo: Gaukur)
Neil Armstrong’s grandchildren unveil the Astronaut Monument in Húsavík. (Photo: Gaukur)
Mark Armstrong, speaking at the unveiling of the Astronaut Monument in Húsavík. (Photo: Hafþór)
Mark Armstrong, speaking at the unveiling of the Astronaut Monument in Húsavík. (Photo: Hafþór)

The trip was organized by The Exploration Museum in the town of Húsavík, Northern Iceland. On July 15th, the grandchildren of Neil Armstrong, Kyle, Bryce, Lily, Oks­ana, Andrew, and Kali, unveiled a monument outside the museum, honoring the 32 astronauts that trained in Iceland in 1965 and 1967, seven of which later later walked on the Moon. Last week, during a visit to the training area at Nautagil in the Northeastern highlands of Iceland, Armstrong’s grandchildren also got the chance to play the Moon-game, a game developed by the geology instructors to get the competitive astronauts who usually look towards the skies, to look down at the surface geology.

Apollo 17 moonwalker Harrison Schmitt on the new lava of Holuhraun.
Apollo 17 moonwalker Harrison Schmitt on the new lava of Holuhraun. (Photo: Helga)

The museum had previously been visited by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders and SkyLab and Space shuttle astronaut Owen Garriott.

The expedition to the Icelandic highlands and the Holuhraun lava flow was led by geophysicist and polar explorer Ari Trausti Guðmundsson and The Exploration Museum director Örlygur Hnefill Örlygsson.

See also:
Apollo astronaut training in Iceland 1965 & 1967

In this video: Neil Armstrong's grandchildren, Kyle, Bryce, Lily, Oks­ana, Andrew and Kali, unveil the Astronaut Monument in Húsavík on July 15, 2015. In all, 32 NASA astronauts were sent to Iceland in 1965 and 1967 to study geology as part of the Apollo program.

Photos by Völundur Jónsson, Helga Kvam, Gaukur Hjartarson and Hafþór Hreiðarsson.

A Trip to the Moon and the Role of Iceland in Apollo


A talk by Moonwalker and Geologist Harrison Schmitt
at Reykjavík
University – July 9, 2015 at 5.00 pm.
Hosted by The Exploration Museum.

The exposure of Apollo Astronauts to the geology of Iceland contributed greatly to their experience as they prepared for lunar exploration and sampling. All the lunar landing crews benefited from examination of the varied rock assemblages found in glacial outwash channels that resemble the complexities of the lunar surface debris layer.

In his talk, Harrison Schmitt tells us about his trip to the Moon, his scientific work on the lunar surface and the role that Iceland played in the training of the Apollo astronauts.

Harrison Schmitt has the diverse experience of a geologist, pilot, astronaut, administrator, businessman, writer, and U. S. Senator. He is a honorary fellow of the Geological Society of America.

At the end of his talk, Schmitt will be presented with the first annual Leif Erikson Exploration Award, by the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, on the occasion of Schmitt’s 80th birthday this week.

Learn more about the Training of Astronauts in Iceland.

Photo: Sævar Helgi Bragason

Apollo 8: First broadcast from the Moon

The Apollo 8 mission in December 1968 was a bright spot at the end of an otherwise bleak year in American history. After riots and the assassinations of MLK and RFK, people watched in awe as the three astronauts broadcast the first live pictures from the moon. The astronauts also captured astonishing photographs which revealed the fragility and isolation of our planet. The most famous, Earthrise by Bill Anders, has become one of history’s most influential images.

Apollo 8 took three days to travel to the Moon. It orbited ten times over the course of 20 hours. The crew made two television broadcasts. At the time, these broadcasts were the most watched TV programs ever.

Borman, Lovell and Anders made the second television broadcast at 55 hours into the flight. In it, the crew would broadcast the first television pictures of the Earth.

Lunar Module Pilot Bill Anders, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Commander Frank Borman — the first humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit, the first to see Earth as a whole planet, the first to see to the Moon and then the first to directly see the far side of the Moon.
Lunar Module Pilot Bill Anders, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Commander Frank Borman — the first humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit, the first to see Earth as a whole planet, the first to see to the Moon and then the first to directly see the far side of the Moon.

Apollo astronaut training in Iceland

Astronaut Bill Anders training in Iceland in 1967.
Astronaut Bill Anders training in Iceland in 1967.

In 1965 and 1967, two groups of Apollo astronauts traveled to Iceland to study geology. Among the astronauts in the 1967 group were Neil Armstrong and Bill Anders. Bill was on the crew of Apollo 8, the first flight to and around the Moon. Neil was the first man to walk on the Moon.

Learn more:
– Geology training of Apollo astronauts in Iceland
– 2015 re-visit of Apollo astronauts to Iceland

Opening of Apollo Space Exhibit

Sam Watson, Deputy Chief of Mission, US Embassy in Iceland
Sam Watson, Deputy Chief of Mission,
US Embassy in Iceland

Sam Watson, Deputy Chief of Mission,
Embassy of the United States of America, Reykjavik

Thank you, Sigrún. And thank you Örlygur who conceived this exhibition.

Good afternoon everyone. Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this wonderful event that recognizes a shared moment in U.S.-Icelandic history: the experience of America´s Apollo astronauts in Iceland in the 1960s as they prepared for their historic missions.

On behalf of the United States Embassy, let me congratulate you on this exhibition. Thank you for documenting this important aspect of the Apollo mission´s history.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced his support for the Apollo program to the U.S. Congress. He said: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

Half a century ago President Kennedy´s bold vision fueled a spirit of American innovation and optimism that my countrymen still hold dear. The space program captured the interest and imagination of Americans and of people around the world. After President Kennedy´s announcement in 1961, the scientific community united to pursue his goal.

The fishing tools Neil Armstrong used in river Laxá

Unknown to most Icelanders, the future Apollo astronauts came here in 1965 and 1967. They studied geology and practiced collecting samples under the guidance of Icelandic and American geologists. Nine of the twelve men who set foot on the moon between 1969 and 1972 came to Iceland to train.

Who can forget the photo or the grainy video of Apollo astronauts walking on the moon? We each have our own memory of the first moon landing. I remember watching it late one summer night and being amazed.

It was truly an unbelievable event. So unbelievable that my grandmother thought the moon landing was not real, but had been a Hollywood creation. She died years later never believing that man had walked on the moon.

Beyond the achievement of landing on the moon, the Apollo program and its predecessors produced an array of scientific accomplishments. They include technologies that improved kidney dialysis and water purification systems; sensors to detect hazardous gasses; energy-saving building materials; and fire-resistant fabrics that firefighters and soldiers use.

On a personal note, my daughter was born prematurely. She is alive today because of medical advances resulting from the Apollo program. The enormous investment of that decade in science and technology, as well as in education and research, produced a great outpouring of curiosity and creativity with innumerable benefits.

The Apollo lunar missions

Today, Americans and Icelanders continue to share a spirit of innovation and cooperation. Experts from the United States and elsewhere come to Iceland to learn more about geothermal and other clean energy sources. American businesses are attracted to Iceland for its affordable and clean energy as well as its highly educated workforce.

Last year, over 400 Icelandic students studied in the U.S. Every year the joint U.S.-Iceland Fulbright Commission pays for six Icelanders to study in the U.S. and many of them pursue technical degrees. Nearly a dozen American Fulbright scholars come to Iceland every year. Many pursue research in natural history or energy.

Next month, when a U.S. airline starts direct service from New York to Keflavik, Americans and Icelanders will have one more means to visit each other’s countries. Like the Apollo astronauts who came to Iceland in the 1960s, Americans will continue to visit Iceland with a sense of awe for its inspiring, natural, and unique beauty and appreciation for its friendly and welcoming people.

Having driven from Reykjavik through southern and eastern Iceland to reach Húsavík today, I can personally attest to the beauty of this country, the hospitality of its people and the unpredictability of its weather.

Thank you again for Iceland´s assistance to the Apollo mission. Congratulations on this excellent exhibition.