How Did Simulation Help NASA Reach the Moon?

Astronauts are some of the most highly trained individuals this world has ever seen. NASA used virtually every simulation and training method available to them in the 1960s to ready the fateful individuals for their historic flight. Simulation played a key role in how the astronauts functioned on the moon, and everything down to how the flag was planted was rehearsed until ingrained in their muscle memory. Let’s take a look at exactly how simulation on the ground made reaching further than humans ever had before, possible.

In order to train astronauts, NASA had to build accurate models of practically every situation the crew could find themselves in. This included things like recreating a lunar lander and accurately depicting the landscape of the landing site. Everything was done to make sure that when it was mission time, the astronauts had all seen it before. Neil Armstrong is seen below practicing his first step onto the moon and off of the lunar lander. In a 2003 email, Armstrong was quoted as saying this about the following simulation:

I really don’t have the foggiest idea of what I was doing. I don’t think it had anything to do with simulation. If I were simulating a mission phase, I would have the helmet on and suit pressurized. On the other hand, if it was only 5 days before flight, I would not be wearing the suit unless it was for a purpose.”


July 9, 1969 Image Source

The simulations that helped astronauts get to the moon in the 1960s looked a little different from what many would consider simulations today. There were few computers, and simulating something meant getting out there and building a model to practice with. Nowadays, astronauts experience reduced gravity by taking trips up in specially designed jetliners which fly parabolic arcs, giving riders realistic zero gravity for less than a minute at a time. When training the astronauts for the Apollo missions, moon gravity was simulated by suspending each astronaut on a steep incline horizontally. This allowed for 1/6th of Earth’s gravity to be felt by the astronaut on their feet.

No stone was left unturned in the quest for simulating everything that the astronauts might experience. NASA even teamed up with Bell Aerosystems to create a model Apollo lander from tubular aluminum. 4,200 pounds of thrust was generated from an electric turbofan engine, which allowed for accurate handling in Earth’s gravity compared to the moon. Armstrong completed many test flights in the mock lander to prepare himself for piloting the actual lander on its descent to the moon.


April 22, 1969 Image Source

Once Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, their primary mission was to collect moon rocks and observe the moon from a first person perspective. In order to train astronauts for this task, NASA and the US Geological Survey (USGS), blasted large craters in the Arizona desert to simulate lunar terrain. Teams of geologists and scientists from USGS took the astronauts on tours of the landscape giving them in-depth knowledge of geologic features and lunar landscapes. Astronauts would also drive a replica lunar rover around the terrain and practice all soil collection and sampling techniques they had at hand.

Surprisingly, the research and development completed by the USGS in simulating the Moon’s surface actually led to advances in the understanding of craters. In the effort to accurately recreate lunar craters on earth, the team studied craters to a greater extent than ever before. Understanding was increased so far that 3 terrestrial craters were discovered on Earth. One crater was found at Sierra Madera in Texas, one at Chesapeake Bay, and another in southeastern Nevada.


Image Source

Astronauts even practiced for circumstances they may find themselves in diverging from the intended plan. Like military pilots, they practiced for making a crash landing in the jungle. This jungle survival training took the crew to the Panama Jungle Survival School in the Panama Canal Zone. They learned how to find food, survive in dense jungle, and build shelter. They mastered everything necessary to survive the worst of circumstances. Below, you can take a look at footage from NASA in 1969 depicting simulation training at the Lunar Research Center.

Simulation continued day and night for the astronauts all the way up to launch day. From simulating water landings for the crew to how they should film the surface of the moon once there, everything was practiced and rehearsed. After all, NASA didn’t want the $25.4 billion they spent on the Apollo programs to go to waste. Another reason for all of this simulation goes beyond making sure the astronauts had their moves right. NASA wanted to test and simulate absolutely everything to make sure that what was planned was actually feasible. This was, after all, the first time anyone had landed on the Moon, so none of the fine mechanics had ever been worked out before.

Ultimately, simulation proved to be the most significant task the astronauts and NASA would accomplish, other than, of course, landing on the moon.

Apollo 11 Archives
Wired: The Incredible Things NASA Did to Train Apollo Astronauts
Northern Arizona University: Apollo Lunar Training
Gizmodo: How NASA Created a Flight Simulator for the First Astronauts
Profile photo of Trevor English
Trevor is a civil engineer by trade with an extensive background in internet media and marketing. He loves finding new and interesting topics and bringing them to the rest of the world.

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