The next best thing to surface of moon

Tests of lunar exploration gear in an Arizona cinder field

In Focus -- Science

October 18, 2007|By Howard Witt | Howard Witt,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CINDER LAKE, Ariz. -- It looks, for all the world, like someplace out of this world, which is pretty much why NASA scientists and engineers recently journeyed here to a remote volcanic cinder field in northern Arizona.

In this barren, black moonscape of a place just outside Flagstaff, where NASA's Apollo astronauts trained for the first moon landings more than 40 years ago, history is repeating itself as the nation's space agency tests out concepts for the next generation of spacesuits, lunar rovers and robots that will be needed to send Americans back to the moon as soon as 2020.

The first time around, it was one small step for a man. But on the return trip, lunar rovers will be driving for hundreds of miles and astronauts will set out on daylong hikes as they build what is envisioned as a self-sustaining colony on the moon. So an entirely new inventory of comfortable, flexible spacesuits, as well as remote-controlled vehicles and intelligent robots, must be designed from the nuts and bolts up.

And it has to be done quickly. It might seem as if NASA's target for the Constellation moon mission is still far in the future, but given the long lead times necessary to allow for production and testing of new space equipment, space agency engineers figure they have only a couple of years to complete new designs. Just this month, NASA invited proposals from private aerospace firms interested in bidding for the contract to build the new spacesuits.

All of which is why, on a hot day in September, dozens of NASA engineers were clustered around two technicians clad in 160-pound white spacesuits as they clambered down from a prototype lunar rover. The technicians then plodded through the crunchy cinder field, formed more than a millennium ago when an ancient volcano spewed enough lava to fill up a 1,000-acre lake.

"This kind of represents what the moon is like," said Joseph Kosmo, the test director. "We can flesh out realistic requirements here and then assess what kind of technology would be most effective and efficient in starting us back to the moon and eventually on to Mars."

The test astronauts stopped occasionally to bend over and collect cinder samples, push a drill into the ground and set up mock satellite dishes, in a simulation of the work that astronauts will be doing when they return to the moon. They stepped inside a plywood cylinder that resembled a lunar porta-potty but was really a mockup of an airlock that might be used to brush off fine-grained lunar dust.

If the Apollo astronauts had attempted many of these contortions and perambulations in their stiff, 1960s-era spacesuits, they would have quickly toppled over or torn open a catastrophic hole. Even a newer suit from the space shuttle era would not permit the astronauts to take a few steps, because it was designed for floating in space rather than walking on the ground.

"The Constellation program has very aggressive requirements and a lot of new challenges the Apollo program never faced," said Amy Ross, a spacesuit engineer. "Things like the duration of the mission and the activities that are expected to be performed - those are new, so we need to develop entirely new systems."

The futuristic-looking spacesuits are only concepts at this point and probably only loosely resemble what the astronauts will be wearing on the moon. But many of the new ideas contained in these suits - such as a rear-entry configuration permitting an astronaut to quickly climb in and out, and articulated joints at the hips, knees, elbows and elsewhere permitting wide freedom of motion - will almost certainly be included in the final designs, NASA engineers say.

The same goes for the mock lunar rover that the technicians were driving. At this point, the dune buggy-like vehicle, bristling with laptop computers, cameras and solar panels strapped on with plastic ties, looks like a contraption that might have emerged from a weekend hobbyist's garage.

But this robotic rover is no toy. Running on no more power than the average household light bulb, it can sample the environment, navigate featureless terrain and be driven three different ways: by a human in the driver's seat, by a computer and by a remote-control joystick manipulated by engineers back at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Larger versions of the autonomous vehicle that include a pressurized crew cabin for extended forays and a long truck bed for hauling equipment are being designed.

"In the Apollo era, since we had an unpressurized rover, we were pretty much limited by the walk-back distance the astronauts could cover in case the rover were to fail," said Geoff Yoder, an official of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington. "We were pretty much limited to about 10 kilometers [about 6 miles]. Now we're looking at about 200 kilometers as the starting point."

Yet as outmoded as the Apollo technologies now look to a new generation of aerospace engineers who were not yet born when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon, not everything old is irrelevant.

Just ask Kosmo, 67, who was here in the late 1960s as a spacesuit engineer when Armstrong and the other Apollo astronauts trudged across these same cinders to rehearse their historic missions.

"I look and I reminisce how simplistic things were in comparison to how things are today," Kosmo said. "We did everything with slide rules."

Howard Witt writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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