Before the invention of computer flight simulators, engineers at NASA needed a way to help astronauts visualize landing on the moon.

So they built LOLA, or Lunar Orbit and Landing Approach, at Langley Space Center: 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, and practice translunar approach and orbit establishment in a field of simulated stars, front-projected onto screens by a four-axis “star ball” mounted over the cabin.

The “cockpit,” a chair wedged into an overhead gantry, was 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, weren’t represented in the simulator.

I discovered this fragment of space history accidentally; archival photos of buttoned-up aerospace engineers silhouetted in dark rooms surrounded by false moons leapt out at me during routine image-searching. It’s beautiful and somehow sobering. A simulator is nominally technical, 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 (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, and how can one ever be truly ready for it?

Most flight simulators, even the sophisticated ones pilots train on today, with their wild capacity for roll and yaw, recreate the experience of flight from within a contained cockpit. They are closed boxes of illusion. And since astronauts and pilots always have a task–a context to separate them from the inkiest black–the simulator is usually a task-practicing machine: how to take off, how to navigate contingencies, how to operate the heavy machinery. Except, maybe, LOLA wasn’t. Rather, LOLA seems like it served other purposes, too: not just a tool but an engulfing experience, a doorway into another world, a simulation of the more ineffable and unforeseeable eventualities of spaceflight.

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!” An infinity, contained within something deceptively small: LOLA, the cosmos inside a building, in its analog glory, ushered pilots into such a picture. Alone in the darkness, cloaked in dots of light and suspended over a gleaming sphere, an astronaut could learn not only to land his craft, but to land his mind–softly, like a settling bird–on the moon.

Bonus: All this cosmic exploring is great, but once you land on the moon, you need to know how to navigate the terrain. Via the excellent Venue project of North American land exploration, check out this former lunar surface simulator in Arizona, built from a volcanic lakebed pockmarked with manmade craters. As space enthusiasts, we should mourn the loss of these incredible environments, so integral to the history of human exploration, the places where we took our first baby steps into space. As Geoff Manaugh writes, “an Offworld Landscapes National Park or National Monument is an incredible thing to contemplate.”


  1. #1 Matthew
    January 23, 2013

    Simulating the sublime

  2. #2 Brad
    Dinkey Creek, CA
    January 23, 2013

    Since childhood, I have thought that the best job in the world be a byline writer. Hypothesis affirmed.

  3. #3 Dennis Nilsson
    January 27, 2013

    Thanks for sharing!