“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”
These immortal words circulated across the airwaves 44 years ago today, July 20 1969, as Neil Armstrong left the ladder of the Eagle lunar lander and touched down on the surface of another celestial body for the first time in history. The implications were far reaching, and the goal of reaching the moon fulfilled the dreams of an entire nation, if not all humanity. From Wikipedia, “Apollo set several major human spaceflight milestones. It stands alone in sending manned missions beyond low Earth orbit; Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to orbit another celestial body, while the final Apollo 17 mission marked the sixth Moon landing and the ninth manned mission beyond low Earth orbit. The program returned 842 pounds (382 kg) of lunar rocks and soil to Earth, greatly contributing to the understanding of lunar geology. The program laid the foundation for NASA’s current human spaceflight capability, and funded construction of its Johnson Space Center and Kennedy Space Center. Apollo also spurred advances in many areas of technology incidental to rocketry and manned spaceflight, including avionics, telecommunications, and computers.”
In the remote desert of southern New Mexico, less than 40 miles from the border with Mexico, lies a distinct geological formation known as a “maar” that resulted from an underground volcanic explosion between 24,000 and 80,000 years ago. Kilbourne Hole, as it’s known, is a popular recreational destination by many locals in Dona Ana County. Known for its green tinted peridot crystals and an infamous bullet-riddled automobile, the 1.3 mile wide hole was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1975 for its unique characteristics. But from 1969 to 1972 Kilbourne Hole hosted some of the very same men who would later walk on the moon as part of the Apollo lunar missions.
In April of 1969, mere months before the crew of the Apollo 11 would fulfill their mission, the crew of the Apollo 12 were in the full swing of training in the very harsh, barren, and lunar-like landscape that Kilbourne Hole provides. In November of that same year, James Lovell and Fred Haise of the ill-fated Apollo 13 crew would make the same visit. Over the next three years, crews from Apollo missions 14-17 would all make the stop in Southern New Mexico to undergo further Geologic Field Training.
New Mexico has been involved with the cutting edge of aeronautics, rocketry, and other fields of space exploration since its infancy in the 1930′s when pioneers such as Robert Goddard, Clyde Tombaugh, and others found themselves seeking open, less populated areas for testing rockets, utilizing telescopes, and other experiments. While much of the work performed by these men would be invaluable to the later manned space travel, the adventures of the men and women who have actually taken that “giant leap” are what fire our imaginations as we look the future.
We have the opportunity today to honor those brave travelers and preserve their legacy Kilbourne Hole, along with a wide variety of countless other cultural and historical sites, should be protected further by being included in the proposed Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks national monument.