How Might We Preserve the History of the Lunar Landing Research Facility?


The Lunar Landing Research Facility in 1974 when it was being used for aircraft drop tests.

The Lunar Landing Research Facility in 1974 when it was being used for aircraft drop tests.

How might we preserve the history of the Lunar Landing Research Facility (LLRF)? It is a germane question. Located at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, the LLRF was built in 1965 at a cost of $3.5 million. It was a large 400 feet by 230 feet A-frame structure where a lunar landing training simulator allowed astronauts to practice landings in a simulated one-sixth gravity of the lunar surface. It was an impressive site on the horizon near Hampton where it could be seen from a far-off distance. It also served as a Moon-walking simulator for Apollo astronauts by suspending the subject at his side so that he was free to generate walking movements on a plane inclined at 80.5 degrees.

After ending the Apollo program, NASA maintained the LLRF and it was designated a National Historic Landmark on October 3, 1985, in no small measure because:

Experiences gained by the Apollo astronauts on the Lunar Landing Research Facility indicated that it was possible to successfully master the complicated skills that were required to land the LEM on the Moon. Both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin trained there for many hours. Only when they successfully mastered skills necessary to fly the LEM would NASA approve plans for their historic first landing on the Moon in July 1969.

Because of this, the Lunar Landing Research Facility was an indispensable tool that enabled NASA to land a man on the Moon by July 1969.

Furthermore, NASA cast the history of the LLRF as critical to the Apollo effort. As it stated concerning the National Historic Landmark in its fact sheet on Langley Research Center’s contributions to the Apollo program:

Langley’s Lunar Landing Research Facility, completed in 1965, helped to prepare the Apollo astronauts for the final 150 feet of their lunar landing mission by simulating both the lunar gravity environment and full-scale LEM vehicle dynamics. The builders of this unique facility effectively canceled all but one-sixth of Earth’s gravitational force by using an overhead partial-suspension system that provided a lifting force by means of cables acting through the LEM’s center of gravity.

Twenty-four astronauts practiced lunar landings at this facility, the base of which was modeled with fill dirt to resemble the surface of the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin trained on it for many hours before liftoff of Apollo 11. As was the case with all space missions, the successful landings of the first two men on the moon depended heavily on expert training in ground equipment like Langley’s Rendezvous Docking Simulator and Lunar Landing Research Facility.

With a sense of pride in the role this site played in one of humanity’s greatest adventures—perhaps its greatest—NASA nonetheless was unwilling to ensure funding necessary for preservation of this site into for future.

All of this reached a crisis point in the mid-1980s when NASA made clear to the National Park Service that it had no funds available for upkeep of sites ancillary to the mission of the agency despite their historical significance. By that time the crash test program had ended and preservation of a large open air historic site presented numerous challenges for NASA.

The spaceflight revolution captivated many in the news media; including then CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite. During a 1968 visit to Langley, the adventurous Cronkite tried out the Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator - a series of cable-supported slings hanging from the Lunar Landing Research Facility designed to approximate lunar locomotion. At this ingenious facility, astronauts practiced what it would be like to walk on the moon.

The spaceflight revolution captivated many in the news media; including then CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite. During a 1968 visit to Langley, the adventurous Cronkite tried out the Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator – a series of cable-supported slings hanging from the Lunar Landing Research Facility designed to approximate lunar locomotion. At this ingenious facility, astronauts practiced what it would be like to walk on the moon.

NASA had long tried to gain an exemption from the requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 for proper preservation of designated historic site either on the National Register or Historic Places or one of the select few National Historic Landmarks. Several of NASA’s sites, including the LLRF, were in the latter category. It has always been a challenge to balance historic preservation with reuse of facilities, but NASA began a campaign in the early 1980s to enjoy the benefits of recognition without the requirements of maintaining facilities in line with the law. A “man-in-space” theme study has identified several sites for preservation; for each NASA tried to delay designation. During deliberations of designation of many of them in 1986, NASA’s associate administrator for management stated:

This Agency has a dynamic research and development mission which requires that we make maximum use of limited Federal government resources. To do so, we are constantly modifying, rehabilitating, reconfiguring, adjusting, and altering our facilities to meet now program requirements…in the interest of minimizing Federal expenditures for facilities, we plan to continue to change these facilities as needed to meet future programs.

This correspondence did not result in the desired exemption and NASA made other entreaties to both the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior. On October 2, 1987, NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher told Secretary of the Interior Donald P. Hodel, “NASA simply cannot afford to become entangled in time consuming protracted negotiations over the status of planned changes in operational facilities which are absolutely crucial to the Nation’s continuing aeronautics and space research, technology, and exploration missions.…Accordingly, I have no choice but to request that you take action to dedesignate the facilities (NASA NHLs) described in Enclosure 1 as historic landmarks.” No action resulted and NASA made the same request in 1989, again with no resolution.

Prevailing on Rep. Robert Walker (R-PA), the ranking minority member on the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, in 1989 NASA pursued a legislative waiver in the agency’s fiscal year 1990 authorization bill to exempt its National Historic Landmarks from provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The preservation community responded by persuading Congress to delete this language from the NASA appropriations bill but it did not resolve the issue. Other scientific organizations, especially the National Science Foundation, have also weighed in to obtain waivers from the legislation governing managing of designated historic sites. As Harry Butowsky of the National Park Service suggested in 1990:

The question that the listing of technological facilities in the National Register of Historic Places has raised is the general perception among members of the scientific community who fear that such a move would severely limit their ability to upgrade or modify their facilities. While the National Park Service continues to believe that the designation of properties as National Historic Landmarks and their listing in the National Register of Historic Places are compatible with their continuing function as scientific resources, members of the scientific community have expressed their concerns. During the next few months all of the interested parties must see if an agreement is possible that will satisfy the concerns of the National Science Foundation and the owners of the observatories so that both the historical significance of these properties can be recognized and important scientific research can continue as in the past.[viii]

The matter did not rest long like this. In 1990 Congress asked for an analysis of what should be done to reach some accommodation and the result was joint study of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to come up with a set of measures that presumably all could endorse. Instead, the recommendations of this group pushed back on the position of NASA’s leadership.

Neil Armstrong at Lunar Landing Research Facility, Feb. 12, 1969.

Neil Armstrong at Lunar Landing Research Facility, Feb. 12, 1969.

The Advisory Council turned the NASA position on its head: “Given the late-20th-century’s pattern of rapid technological change, however, the protection of the physical environment that facilitated that change takes on increased importance. Federal agencies managing or assisting scientific research have a leadership role in the stewardship of historic properties under NHPA. They are obligated to present and future generations, whose tax dollars will continue to fund their operations, to consider the effects of their actions on the historic values embodied in select facilities.” Its recommendations are quoted below:

The assumption that the NHPA is fine for the majority of Federal activities, but inappropriate for scientific research and development must be rejected. Other Federal programs meeting national priorities must take into account historic preservation, just as they must minimize natural environmental degradation and ensure equal employment opportunity. There is validity, however, to the view that because of the nature of the scientific research process, a special effort should be made toward maintaining flexibility in the planning and execution of research work and meeting the time constraints of priority programs….

With better communication, education, and cooperation among all parties, and with some clear understandings on funding and time constraints facing all parties, the Council’s regulations and the Section 106 review process are flexible enough to accommodate the needs of both scientific research and technology operations and historic preservation.

This did not end the dispute. Since that time NASA officials have been hesitant to maintain the LLRF indefinitely. But there also is no stomach for destruction of the site.

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