IN THIS EPISODE (in order of appearance):
[upbeat instrumental music]
Johnny: If you wanted to test something that was going on the moon, how would you do it? Well, for sure, you'd have to perfect everything before you get it up there, right?
Jennifer: Yeah, exactly. How do you make sure the things you're testing down here on earth will work at their best in a much more hostile environment, like the moon or mars? I guess one way would be through computer modeling, right?
Johnny: Yeah, that'll definitely help, but, you know, when it comes right down to it, you still have to physically build and test real equipment to make sure it's ready for the big show up there. Hey, I'm Johnny Alonso.
Jennifer: And I'm Jennifer Pulley. And today on NASA 360, we're gonna find out how NASA researchers conduct analog field tests to make sure the equipment we're building for next-generation space missions will work correctly, hundreds of thousands of miles away from the comforts of earth.
[upbeat rock music]
Johnny: Our world has changed a ton since we first landed on the moon back in 1969. I mean, just think about it: cell phones, personal computers, digital cameras, and even ipods. The list goes on and on. So with all the changes since '69, it's pretty obvious that we're not gonna be using the same old equipment and tools to get us back to the moon. Nah, we got to update them and use the most modern technology available today.
Jennifer: That's right. And think about this: the Apollo lander that carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon had less computing power than a dollar-store calculator does today. Well, with that as an example, we know that everything else we took to the moon in the 1960s has to be completely updated. Today NASA is in the process of testing new designs that will get us back to the moon and on to mars. And of course, lots of testing can be done in labs. But eventually, you have to test equipment in real-world environments and situations. This type of testing is called analog testing. And it can be done almost anywhere, underwater, in volcanic environments...
Johnny: To very remote desert environments like here. Today I'm just outside flagstaff, Arizona, at the black point lava flow. Now, this is where NASA researchers are testing equipment that one day may make it to the moon. Now, this testing is called desert research and technology studies. But most of us, well, we just call it desert rats, or D-RATS for short. Now, as we said before, when you're doing analog testing, you have to mimic the extraplanetary environment as best as you can. Turns out, here in Arizona, some of the terrain is really a close match with the moon. So NASA boxed up lots of equipment and shipped it out here to the desert to see how it all works. I spoke with a few of my buddies to find out a little more about what's being tested out here. All right, follow me. Let's talk to somebody that knows something about analog testing, my buddy Zane Ney. Yo, what's up, man?
Ney: Hey, how's it going?
Johnny: Good to see you, man.
Ney: Good to see you.
Johnny: Tell me a little bit about analog testing, D-RATS...
Ney: Well, we're out here in the desert because this kind of gives us a feel a little bit like what a lunar surface is like. And so what NASA's trying to do is to determine what is the efficiencies we need within our systems to operate appropriately on the moon. And so what happens is, when you start building hardware, it gets a little bit complex. And so we can't really take those and put those in a lab and test them because labs just aren't big enough for some of the things we're doing. Like, for instance, we just did about 100-kilometer test, where we ran the rover, the LER., which you may have seen earlier, around this whole site. And we went and found geological sites where we actually tested the geology. We had evaluations of the crew on board. We had evaluations of the vehicle and its systems and how it's operating. And so this is kind of like a really large laboratory. And so the analogs, what they allow us to do is to basically try to bring some of the things that are really hard to evaluate down into a more scientific evaluation to determine if the end result that we really want is efficient. So some of the things that we're doing, for instance, is, we're running the LER. for a long distance over rough territory to see how it holds up, to beat it up a little bit, to determine what type of hardware we need to build for the lunar surface. Some of the other things which you might be seeing behind us right now is the lance blade. And this is another objective of, "okay, when we go to the lunar surface, "we're gonna build berms, "and we have to build landing sites, "because the surface is not really hospitable for really landing or operating on." so basically what we're doing is, we're combining all these other groups' objectives into one so that we can run a real mission and let the hardware tell us if the ops concept is right and, in reciprocal, tell us if the ops concept meets the hardware.
Johnny: All right, so, Zane, is this, like, the only place in the world, I mean, to do, like, lunar surface testing similar to the lunar surface testing?
Ney: Well, actually no. What this provides is a geology-rich environment that we actually know. This place has been discovered. What it allows us to do is have a controlled environment. So we could go explore someplace we've never explored before, but now we're exploring, so it's hard to gauge, "are we really exploring it right? "what is the efficiency of the exploration from a geology standpoint?" so what we have here on this ground is the ability of the geologist to know what they're really looking at and determine what is the crew looking at, and did they really see at each individual site what they expected to see? And so from that standpoint, this is a really good ground. Now, if you take a pan around, you can see there's a lot of grass, there's a lot of trees, and there's a lot of wildlife. So obviously, on the lunar surface, we don't have any of that. But what we do have is a large lava flow. What it allows them to do is explore in the operational content the way we would be exploring the lunar surface. So it's very good. But there are other places that we're looking at. And there are other places we may use. But right now, this is a very good database for us.
Johnny: Well, Zane, thank you so much, man.
Ney: No problem.
Jennifer: Another vehicle being tested at desert rats is something called Tri ATHLETE. Here is Johnny with the Tri ATHLETE principal investigator Brian Wilcox to tell us more.
Johnny: So, Brian, you know, we saw this back at Moses Lake, okay, in one episode that we shot a while ago. But it looks a little different. Can you tell me why it looks a little different?
Wilcox: Sure. It is quite a bit different. It's a whole new vehicle. It's bigger. It's twice as big. So the ones last year were 1/4-scale for the lunar mobility system. It's a cargo carrier. And these are now 1/2-scale. So we made the system-
Johnny: The legs are twice as long-
Wilcox: More than twice as long, actually. And actually, they're made in two three-legged vehicles so they can separate from the cargo pallet that carries the habitat. So the habitat is actually on a separable cargo pallet. And so the landers will come down on the moon with interchangeable cargo pallets. And the two three-legged vehicles dock with the cargo palettes on each side. And then they carry that off of the lander and can carry it around the moon and set it down by separating. You know, they just release the dock and can set that cargo palette anywhere on the moon.
Johnny: So, Brian, why do we need something like this on the moon?
Wilcox: Well, we need to be able to carry cargo off the landers and move them to places where, for example, habitats can dock together. So you can have a laboratory module and a habitat module, and you can bring them together so people can walk between the habitation and the laboratory space. The idea of athlete is that, we use relatively small wheels. And we roll on most of the terrain, because most of the terrain is nice and firm on the moon. But occasionally, there are either very soft places or very rocky places. And then we would use the legs to walk. So the whole thing is actually lighter than a normal all-terrain vehicle that has the same payload.
Wilcox: And that allows you to do things that you can't otherwise do, such as we are demonstrating here today, which is to drill up on the side of a cliff face, where some of the most interesting geological samples would come, you know, from way up high on a cliff face. And it's real hard for the astronauts to get up there. And, of course, the safety-
Wilcox: You know, a normal geologist might be willing to repel up or down--you know, come down from the top. But you would never let an astronaut do that, for safety reasons, whereas, if you had a vehicle like this that could reach up on the side, especially with no crew inside, you could also lift an astronaut up and do maintenance on the side of, you know, your return vehicle. If you had essential maintenance that needed to be done, you could use this as a cherry picker and basically lift-
Johnny: Just a lift.
Wilcox: And you'd--that would allow you to get an astronaut up there to do repair.
Johnny: Brian, this was awesome. Thank you so much, man. And, you know, definitely, good luck with the program.
Johnny: You just saw some analog testing in the desert. When we get back, Jennifer's gonna take you underwater. Stick around. This is NASA 360.
Jennifer: Okay, Johnny will be back in just a few to show you more from the desert rats testing in Arizona. But right now, let's talk about some other analog testing going on at NASA, this time, underwater. The first one is called NEEMO, or the NASA extreme environment mission operations program. This program sends groups of NASA astronauts down to the Florida keys to live and work in an underwater facility called Aquarius. This 80-ton steel chamber is submerged in about 60 feet of water 3 miles off the coast of key largo. NASA aquanauts are exposed to similar situations that they may be faced with on long-duration missions, like to the international space station. NASA astronauts live and work on board the undersea lab, which provides physical isolation, operational and communication complexity, and a place where science objectives typical of a space mission can be performed. Every bit of this training is designed to expose astronauts to extreme environments for training purposes and to research crew behavior, habitability, and space analog life sciences. While down there, the aquanauts do a lot of training. For example, they may use specialized suits that simulate what it will be like to work on the moon. While in these suits, they can simulate moonwalks along the ocean floor and assemble structures to get the feeling for what it might be like to work on the moon.
Jennifer: They also prepare for space missions by testing tools and vehicles, like remotely operated vehicles that are equipped with advanced navigation and communication equipment. All of this testing is helping to work out all of the kinks for future space missions. And believe it or not, NASA aquanauts are even practicing medical procedures on Aquarius, using specialized medical-grade dummies. Imagine if you were an astronaut and you got sick on a long-duration space mission. Your options would be pretty limited for medical treatment. So to train for medical emergencies in space, astronauts have practiced something called telementoring. This is a method where physicians on earth guide non-physician astronauts to perform necessary medical procedures. In one training exercise, a surgeon in Canada helped the aquanauts perform emergency removal of a gall bladder, using something called the ZEUS robotic surgical system. Using this robotic system, the aquanauts were able to effectively test these medical techniques and add a valuable tool to help keep our astronauts safe.
Jennifer: Of course, this idea is not just good for space. It can be used right here on earth in remote locales, where immediate medical treatment may not be available. Besides the coast of Florida, NASA is also conducting underwater analog testing at a remote site outside the U.S. called pavilion lake. Pavilion lake is a very unique lake a few hours east of Vancouver, Canada. Beneath its surface, there are very rare carbonate rock structures called microbialites. These types of microbialites were very common in earth's early years. In fact, they were the only forms of life on earth for the first few billion years. Today they can only survive in very extreme environments, such as the cold, deep sections of pavilion lake. So why is NASA interested in this research? Well, there are two main reasons: first, the microbialite structures provide a modern example to the ancient, fossilized microbialites preserved on earth. So studying how these modern structures form and are preserved in the rock record will provide us with tools to identify signatures of ancient life on earth as well as on other planets. Secondly, our research and exploration, using remotely operated vehicles, autonomous underwater vehicles, scuba divers, and submersibles provide an analog to human exploration missions on the moon and mars. So the research and exploration methods developed at pavilion lake will undoubtedly contribute to future human missions and exploration to other planetary bodies.
Jennifer: Stick around. You're watching NASA 360.
Johnny: Now, as I said, there are a lot of cool things being tested out here. But one of the coolest is something called the lunar electric rover, or the LER. basically, it's a pressurized vehicle that's gonna allow our current and future astronauts to travel much further than the Apollo astronauts ever did. The rovers of the past were awesome. But before they came on the scene, Apollo astronauts were pretty much confined to a short distance around the landing craft. But after the rovers came around, man, did things change. For the first time, astronauts could really travel a good distance away from their landing craft and do some real exploring. But even as cool as the rovers were, they still had major limitations. They still had to carry all of their oxygen on their backs, and there wasn't much room for storage. And the astronauts had no protection from solar proton events, and on and on. With the new LER., NASA has really tried to address all of these major concerns. This new rover rocks. Astronauts will now be able to travel thousands of miles, crisscrossing the moon in a protected, self-enclosed, pressurized environment. So in this episode, we've talked a lot about the LER. but what we haven't talked about are the human factors that go along with it. So for two weeks straight-
Johnny: Yeah, 14 days, we've had one astronaut living on this rover. And I got a chance to talk with him before he cracks the hatch. Let's go talk with astronaut Mike Gernhardt. Come on. How are you, sir? This is Johnny Alonso from NASA 360.
Gernhardt: Johnny, how you doing?
Johnny: Not bad. I'm sure you're counting down the minutes.
Gernhardt: Well, we got about 60 of those to go, so we're-
Gernhardt: It's gonna be bittersweet getting out of here. We've had a great time. We've had a lot of fun. And I'd like to do this on the moon with Brent.
Johnny: Of course. How are you, Brent?
Garry: Doing good, Johnny.
Johnny: Good. Very good. Very good. So the questions that are running through our head-
Johnny: I mean, what's it like being in here for 14 days?
Gernhardt: My first adjective would be, it's a lot of fun. It's an amazing vehicle in terms of its operational capabilities. We've done things that you couldn't possibly do with any other class of rover. It's actually comfortable, even luxurious in some regards with respect to the sleep stations and the food prep and all that. It's really been a delightful experience. And like I said, it's bittersweet. I could do another couple weeks.
Johnny: Better you than me, bro. I don't know if I could handle it. But seriously, I mean, like, is there a bathroom in there? I mean, what do you do, I mean, to pass the time? Do you have video games? I mean...
Gernhardt: Well, one of the things that makes this work so well is that we're busy all day long. We're focused. We're doing geology. We're doing operational things. At the end of the day, we've got some housekeeping to do. Every day, we have exercise for at least an hour. By the time we get done with that... Several nights where we watched movies together. We also have a bunch of human factor performance tests to do. So we're basically going at a pretty good pace from about 5:30 in the morning to maybe 10:30 or 11:00 at night.
Johnny: So have things worked out the way you expected them to work out?
Gernhardt: They really did. You know, I had an image in my mind of what this would be like, and it basically was everything that I thought it would be, possibly easier and more fun than I might've expected.
Johnny: So is some of the formation out here, I mean, would you expect some of this on the moon? Would it be kind of similar or the same?
Garry: Some of it. Studying the black point lava flow itself- The basaltic laval flow, the moon, all the dark spots, all the lunar mare, that is composed of basaltic lava. The top part here is what we we're looking at. It varies so much from the stuff that you would find on the moon. And I've had a great time. The science team has been wonderful. Made some really great traverses. For me, this is a dream come true- Doing geology on the moon is actually what got me into geology. So this has been just a real dream come true right here.
Johnny: Now, how close is this LER. mock-up- I mean, how close is it to being the real thing to you?
Gernhardt: Great question. We designed this vehicle as a 1g proof of concept vehicle. Operate it within all the functional requirements that you have with the flight vehicle. Didn't want to spend the money to make it a pressure vessel and things like that. So with respect to our daily operations, it is nearly identical to what the flight unit would be. But we're taking all the lessons we've learned. And I've got ten pages of notes. But we're gonna do generation two starting in October. That will be a ground ops new design integrated with a new chassis, which--generation two will probably look a little bit more like the flight vehicle than this.
johnny: Guys, thank you so much for everything. And we look forward to seeing you guys when you pop out in a couple minutes or so, all right?
Gernhardt: Okay, thanks.
Garry: Thanks, Johnny.
Johnny: Most definitely. Thank you guys.
jennifer: About an hour after Johnny spoke with Mike Gernhardt and Brent Garry, the LER. team pulled into the tent for the last time, completing their successful 14-day mission. After a few minutes of cleaning out the vehicle, Johnny hopped inside the LER. with astronaut Mike Gernhardt for a tour.
Johnny: Can you tell us about the LER. program?
Gernhardt: Yeah, so the LER. program was a concept we came up with not more than 2-1/2, 3 years ago. And we went from concept. And we wanted to evaluate that concept, so we built a 1g concept vehicle that we operate exactly like we would on the moon. So the size of it's the same. The systems are the same. The suit ports on the back, where we jump into suits and get on the surface in ten minutes, all of that's the same as it would be on the moon. And the idea was to build it and then take it and do a real lunar simulated mission to see if it met our vision of what it was. And it did. I mean, it actually met it and exceeded it. And then we've learned some minor little things that we want to tweak. But through all of that, by the time we get to the moon, we're gonna be hitting the ground running.
Johnny: Can you tell me a little bit about what we have here?
Gernhardt: Yeah, so this is the front cockpit. And we've got great windows. That's the first thing. We can see out these windows. And if you can see down here, there's a helmet bubble you can put your head in.
Johnny: Yeah, I was gonna ask you about that.
Gernhardt: And I can drive you up within an inch of a rock, any rock you want. So the idea is that we can make observations from inside the vehicle as good or better than we can in a space suit. So we don't have to spend all the time in the suits. And when we're sitting inside, we've got cup holders. Here's my coffee. And I can talk to the geology crewmate that I had, Brent Garry. And we can discuss what we are seeing and what our plan is when we go out in the suits. All of that makes you much more productive for the time that you're in the suits on the surface.
Johnny: I see.
Gernhardt: So getting into the suits...
Johnny: Yes. It's been a big question of mine. I know that you have these ports, correct?
Johnny: Yeah, can you talk...
Gernhardt: Yeah, let me give you some background. It takes us at least six hours to get out of the space station, 'cause we got suits and parts. We got to put the suits together, put them on. We have to do some depressurization things of that nature. So it's six hours to get out the door. With these suit ports-
Gernhardt: You see them in the back-
Gernhardt: We open a hatch on the inside. The suit has a back hatch, which we also open. And then we literally step into the suits, just step into them. And we have a computer display outside the vehicle. And we hit buttons that then close the hatch. And there's a small vestibule between the suit hatch and the interior hatch. And so instead of having to depressurize a large air lock with two people in it, all we do is depressurize that small vestibule between the two hatches. So we can depressurize in like two minutes and not lose much gas.
Johnny: Uh-huh, right.
Gernhardt: Here, we can get out the door, boots on the moon, in ten minutes.
Johnny: Get out. Really?
Gernhardt: Yeah, and that's a game changer.
Johnny: Help me compare this to, like, the old rovers of yesteryear.
Gernhardt: Yeah, so big difference. The Apollo rovers were unpressurized. So it's like a little dune buggy or something. So you're really on the space suit. You only have eight hours of life support in your space suit. So you have to drive that rover out, do your science, turn around and get home before eight hours runs out. Okay? In this rover, we have a pressurized cabin. And we can do two weeks in here. So instead of having to come home every night, you keep going. So we can do--traverse distances of up to 200-plus kilometers in two weeks versus-
Gernhardt: Apollo could never go more than 10 kilometers away from the station.
Gernhardt: And so we're actually living in these. And that's another big difference. And the other huge thing is that we work with this system of two rovers. There's two astronauts in each of two rovers. So as we go out, if one gets stuck or breaks down, we could all four get in the other one and come home.
Johnny: There you are.
Gernhardt: And we did that yesterday. We simulated a rescue.
Johnny: Oh, I know.
Gernhardt: And we rescued the crew. And we got back in 24 hours. And it was a fun learning experience.
Johnny: It was a good mission. So the LER, I mean, how is this powered?
Gernhardt: So this is the lunar electric rover. And it is powered on lithium ion batteries. And we're really pushing the state of the art with respect to the energy density or the specific energy, the storage of the batteries. So the point is, for us to be successful, we're gonna push the state of the art. And our success lines up with the success of electric cars here on earth. The other thing I'd say-
Gernhardt: And this is hard to believe- But this whole vehicle, which weighs about 4 tons, it only has 20 horsepower.
Gernhardt: But the humvees can't keep up with this. We can go up 30-degree slopes, over big rocks. And it's because we're really smart with the suspension, which is both active and passive in the traction control system. So it constantly adjusts the forces on the wheels. Ad it puts all that energy and that power onto the ground. And so all of this really helps the whole green energy, the evolution of where we're going, you know, with green energy and plug-in cars here on Earth.
Johnny: Mike, listen, it was great talking to you. And congratulations on a successful mission.
Gernhardt: Yeah, well, great, Johnny. It was a great mission. We learned a ton. And it's great to have you guys in the vehicle and see what we experienced for 14 days.
Johnny: You got it, man. Thank you so much, bro.
Gernhardt: Thanks to 360.
Johnny: You got it, man, thanks.
Jennifer: For Johnny Alonso, I'm Jennifer Pulley. See you next time on NASA 360.
Jennifer: Lots of testing can be done in labs. But first, eventually-
Johnny: Or the LER. basically... Gonna kill me. Gonna kill me. Do it again. Ready? Basically, it's a pressurized vehicle that it's gonna allow our -
Johnny: Again, again, again. Okay. Brian, thank you so much. This was totally awesome. I mean, you know-
Johnny: Two? Let's do this again? You ready? Drive out- I'm getting--yeah.
Jennifer: To make sure the equipment we're using we're building.
Johnny: I mean, think about it. Cell phones, personal computers, digital cameras, even iphones... Or iPods. [laughing] one more...