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NASA RATS Bring the Moon to Earth
10.18.07
There were times during the two weeks Lindsay Aitchison spent in the Arizona desert when she couldn't help but look around and think about what an amazing job she has.

A NASA scientist, wearing the Mark III spacesuit, simulates geological work by digging through the top soil of the moon-like cinders of Cinder Lake in Arizona. Meanwhile, in the I-suit, another scientist maps the terrain in SCOUT.

Aitchison has been a NASA spacesuit engineer since she graduated from college in 2006. The day-to-day work itself is pretty cool. But once a year, she gets out of the laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and joins other scientists and engineers in some of the same places where Apollo astronauts trained for their lunar missions. Aitchison and her colleagues spend two weeks testing concepts for spacesuits and rovers that could be used during NASA's next trip to the moon.

September 2007 marked the 10th annual Desert RATS outing -- RATS is short for Research and Technology Studies -- to remote locations in Arizona or California, which figuratively bring the moon and Mars right down to Earth. This year's field tests took place near Flagstaff, Ariz., in a geologic oddity known as Cinder Lake.

"It's an amazing thing," Aitchison says of the spot where, a millennium ago, hot magma and ground water made violent contact and created a sea of black, pea-sized cinders that resemble a moonscape. Not far from this spot, the astronauts of Apollo 15, Apollo 16, and Apollo 17 learned how to gather samples of the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "This is where it started. This is where we started making history," says Aitchison. "The opportunity to recreate what's been done before and build upon it -- that's just amazing. It's kind of picking up where they left off in 1972."

NASA scientists simulate taking a sample of lunar soil using a drill powered by a solar array. The tasks was meant to identify any problems that might crop up when using long cables to power equipment on the moon.

Joe Kosmo, who’s had a hand in every spacesuit design since the Gemini program, was at Cinder Lake training the moonwalkers in 1972, and for 25 years, he longed to go back. When Kosmo returned to the desert with a field geologist in 1997, NASA had been flying the space shuttle for 16 years, and wasn't planning to stop. But Kosmo held out hope that NASA's focus would shift beyond low Earth orbit once more, and he wanted to be ready when it did. He anticipated that geology would be a major task for the next astronauts to reach the moon or Mars, and he knew their spacesuits would need to be up to the task.

"It was more of a look-see -- a demonstration to see, fundamentally, what does a field geologist do on planetary exploration," Kosmo recalls of the first Desert RATS outing. "We were trying to get some idea of the sense of mobility, and some of the requirements for hardware and equipment that would be necessary to support these exploration tasks." In the ensuing decade, annual trips offered engineers and scientists from NASA's field centers, industry, and academic institutions across the country to see how the ideas they've dreamed up at their desks and in their laboratories hold up outside.

Over the years, three different spacesuit designs, and as many as eight different robots have made the trips to Arizona and California. Now that NASA is on its way back to the moon, the lessons of Desert RATS are being put to good use.

NASA scientists drive SCOUT through a site survey. In the inset photo, they use SCOUT's navigation system to map out coordinates for each of their multiple sites.

Kosmo has laid out a notional, five-year plan to demonstrate separate elements of NASA's evolving lunar architecture in the Desert RATS field activities through 2011. "Perhaps at the end of the fifth year, we'll be able to do a complete build up of what would constitute lunar architecture for an outpost," he says.

The 2007 tests focused on finding efficient methods for completing some basic lunar surface tasks, such as site surveys and solar power system deployments. A rover called SCOUT – short for Science, Crew, Operations and Utility Testbed -- played a central role in the activities. SCOUT was driven through various tasks by spacesuited engineers who climbed on board, as well as by engineers a few hundred feet or a few hundred miles away. SCOUT also drove itself through the same tasks, using an onboard autonomy system. The idea was to find out which method worked best for the different tasks, because the astronauts' time on the lunar surface will be precious.

"When we return to the moon, we know we're going to have to do certain tasks," says the SCOUT project manager at Johnson, Frank Delgado. "If we can find efficient ways to perform some of these tasks with the use of autonomous or remotely controlled vehicles, we can free up some astronaut time to perform additional science or other lunar base assembly tasks."

Delgado will spend months determining exactly how the different methods compare, but he doesn’t have to wait that long to say that he learned something in the desert that he couldn't have learned in his office in Houston. "This type of test activity makes us handle contingencies in real time," he says. "I know we’re going to encounter unknowns when we get to the moon, and encountering unknowns while we're doing these field tests gives us important real-time, decision making experience."

NASA's Lindsay Aitchison teaches students about some of the requirements necessary to work on a martian surface.

Aitchison says that's why she considers Desert RATS to be the best training she could ever get for her job. "If something's going to go wrong, it generally happens when you're in the middle of a big test," she says. "When you're out in the field, you don't have time to wait, so you find real solutions to the problem. You have to do it right then, make real decisions. It forces you to think of the consequences."

Barbara Romig agrees that teaching such lessons to Aitchison and others in the next generation of NASA engineers is an important benefit of Desert RATS. Romig joined the field trips in 2002, and has risen to the position of test conductor as Kosmo's second in command.

"There were a lot of younger people in the field this year – we had a lot of mid 20s and 30s," says Romig, who is 28. "Getting the hands on experience, doing it ourselves, working hand-in-hand with people like Joe isn't the only way to get that experience," she says, "but I think it's the best way."

Brandi Dean
NASA's Johnson Space Center