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NASA EDGE: Extreme Analogs
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NASA EDGE: Extreme Analogs Transcript

Extreme Analogs
Desert Research And Technology Studies Team (D-RATS)
- John Olson
- Lucien Junkin
- Keith Cowing
- Julie Townsend
- Jim Rice
- Brent Garry
- Mike Gernhardt

Black Point Lava Flow, AZ. An extreme frontier. These are the analog voyages of the Desert Research And Technology Studies Team. Its 14 Day mission: to explore strange new rock formations, to seek out new technology, to avoid meddling co-hosts: to boldly go where no LER has gone before. Cue the music. This may be a dramatic introduction, but it gives you an idea of how adventurous the D-RATS team can be when it comes to preparing for the next bold step in exploration. The time line may be uncertain, but whenever the date is set, NASA will be ready to explore the Moon like never before.



CHRIS: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

BLAIR: I’m very happy to be back in the studio.

CHRIS: You’re giddy.

BLAIR: I’m so happy to have four walls, a roof, bathroom, all that good stuff. It’s great!

CHRIS: You didn’t like being in the desert for 10 days?

BLAIR: [stammering] No offense to the desert or anybody out there.

FRANKLIN: At least there’s climate control here; air conditioning.

BLAIR: I want my weight loss to be in a controlled environment.

CHRIS: The focus of today’s vodcast; we’re actually covering the Desert RATS which is part of an analog field test that NASA conducts each year. That’s the focus of the show, analog field test.

BLAIR: Yes, absolutely, which is a very interesting term in and of itself.

CHRIS: Yes. What is analog field testing?

BLAIR: I’m glad you asked Chris because I’ve come up with my own scaled down, really functional definition. It is like this. Analog field test is… no I’m not going to read the answer. It’s where you use non-digital technology. You got out into the field and answer a series of very important questions for your project.


BLAIR: It’s a low fidelity answer but it’s one, nonetheless. There’s no answer. I came up with that on my own.

FRANKLIN: That was a great attempt but we had an opportunity to talk to John Olson, head of DIO from NASA Headquarters, about what an analog field test really is.

JOHN: Analog testing is using extreme environments here on the Earth to test the systems, the architectures, our concepts of operations. It’s a great opportunity to do training for not only astronauts and our scientists but also the communications and the navigations and all the different elements that take to have a successful mission.

BLAIR: Okay, that’s not bad. I have to tell you guys I actually knew that. I worked with John Olson on that. His delivery wasn’t quite what we rehearsed but nonetheless, we worked together on that.

CHRIS: John said he didn’t even know you.

[Franklin laughing]

BLAIR: Wall of deniability. That’s what’s happened.


CHRIS: The Desert RATS is just one of many analog field tests that NASA conducts each year. This past year, they conducted two other analog field tests. One is in the arctic region of Canada, on Devon Island, called the Haughton-Mars Project. The focus of that analog field test was to conduct simulated lunar exploration activities including sample extraction, human research activities and EVA tool development.

FRANKLIN: Also, in British Columbia, they did the Pavilion Lake Research Project where they were setting out to test and develop research and exploration methods. These extreme test environments are what NASA uses to work out the exploration program.

CHRIS: Yes, because we don’t have them at the field centers. We don’t have that terrain that is analogous to the lunar environment or to the Martian environment. They have to do these tests in remote locations.

BLAIR: A shout out to all those guys because if those environments are anything like the extreme conditions of the Black Point Lava Flow, my hat’s off to them because it was definitely extreme.

CHRIS: It’s not only above ground like with Pavilion Lake. It was below ground. It was in the ocean.

BLAIR: Oh, underwater.

CHRIS: We do have analog field testing in the Arctic region as well as underwater by the coast of Florida, which is the Nemo Project. Before we have a break, if you want to learn more about analog field testing at NASA, go to the website and we have a whole slough of analog field tests that NASA has conducted over the past 3 or 4 years; also, some tests in Hawaii as well.

BLAIR: If you’re feeling really ambitious, take your laptop top to an extreme environment and look up that website and try that.

FRANKLIN: Believe me it’s in there.

BLAIR: It is in there. It’s in there and it’s going to be in our show.

CHRIS: You’re watching NASA EDGE.

FRANKLIN: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

BLAIR: When we come back, hopefully we’ll gain a little sanity and unpack all to this stuff.


BLAIR: I have to tell you seeing that footage again of the Desert RATS puts me right back into the heat and the thick of things out there in Arizona.

CHRIS: We had such an awesome time out there for ten days. The mission itself, the Lunar Electric Rover, the LER mission was a 14 day mission where we had astronaut Mike Gernhardt and geologist Brent Garry living inside LER1 for 14 days. Franklin, I was kind of envious, you and Ron had a chance to go out with them each day film them, shoot video, still pictures, and be right there on the scene.

FRANKLIN: Pretty interesting. From day one, Ron and I went out with the rest of the team. It actually took 45 minutes to an hour to get out into the field across the terrain to where the guys were in LER. When we got there we followed them as they went through their day-to-day activities, doing EVAs, taking rock samples, basically doing the same things they would if they were on the moon. It was a really interesting experience.

BLAIR: Even though you were in close proximity of the LER and the astronaut and geologist, you were not supposed to interact with them.

FRANKLIN: There was a communication lock down. I think I saw one of the guys eyeballing my Snickers bar when I broke it out. Can I get a bite of that Snickers bar?

BLAIR: I’m sure it was very difficult for them.

CHRIS: The cool thing about this is not only was it LER that we saw. We saw other robotic vehicles as well. We saw TriATHLETE. We also had CHARIOT B, which was the improved chassis that the LER was on. We had the chance to see not only LER dock with TriATHLETE but LER rescue two other people in another LER.

BLAIR: Tell you what; let’s take a look at some of the footage and interviews we gathered while we were out there in the field.

CHRIS: Sure.

CHRIS: Lucien, do you need a special driver’s license or permit for this?

LUCIEN: No. We’ve got a lot of people driving this.

CHRIS: They tell me you’re a crazy man driving this. Is that true?

LUCIEN: [laughing] I’m the one who gets all these assignments.

JOHN: Each year we’re building. It’s a test build up approach. Now we’ve added science backroom planning. We’re rolling in education and public outreach.

FRANKLIN: What is the Challenger Learning Center?

KEITH: The Challenger Learning Center is a network of educational organizations. We have a big umbrella organization. We have 50 or so learning centers scattered across the United States where students can go in. We have a mission control where they can do simulations of missions. Mostly it is an educational organization focusing on stem topics.

CHRIS: You’re very intense. You’re concentrating. Is this going to be a difficult task getting over these rocks?

LUCIEN: My teammates don’t necessarily like me going over this stuff but it does prove the vehicle. They don’t like it when I start but by the time we get to the end, it’s good stuff.

BLAIR: Your latest incarnation of, if you will, of ATHLETE.

JULIE: That’s right. We decided the first one wasn’t big enough, so we went bigger.

BLAIR: Was there an intentionality behind making it so ominous looking? I get scared when I see it.

JULIE: It’s actually a half scale model. The one we’ll send to the moon is twice as big in every dimension.

BLAIR: What are some of the major differences between this version of ATHLETE and the former version of ATHLETE?

JULIE: This version splits into two TriATHLETES. That means we have our hexagonal vehicle, with our six legs on it, the same as we did before. But now we can actually split that. It splits into two triangular vehicles, each of which has three legs, and operates as its own independent robot. In the middle, the third piece is a cargo palette that will carry all of the power equipment, solar cells for power generation that would charge the TriATHLETES and also charge the LERs, if they wanted to come over and dock with us.

BLAIR: How did it interact with the other Desert RATS vehicles?

JULIE: We had a lot of interactive stuff with LER this year. The first thing we did was train to drive the ATHLETE. They had a control station from inside the LER where they commanded the ATHLETE vehicle.

BLAIR: Has it been a success so far this week?

JULIE: This has been a huge success. Considering that this vehicle, when we brought it here, was all of two weeks old from final assembly. We’ve been working out some kinks in the field here and there but we have been able to meet every single milestone we came out here to do. Our biggest milestone is what you’re seeing right now, demonstrating half-scale unloading of cargo from a mockup Altair.

CHRIS: Wow. You’re doing a much better job than yesterday. I have to tell you that much.

FRANKLIN: I noticed there are a lot of geologists out here this year. Why? What do geologists add to the testing?

JOHN: Science is one of our key objectives as we’re looking at missions. By bringing in the field geologists and doing real-time field geology ops, we’re basically reconstituting an art and a science. It’s a little bit of both that we haven’t had robustly since we went to the moon, 40 years ago.

FRANKLIN: We’re here with Dr. Jim Rice from Arizona State University. He is one of many geologists out here at the analog field test here at the Black Point Lava Flow. Dr. Rice, tell us a little bit about basalt.

DR. RICE: Basalt is this black rock you see here. That’s why it is called Black Point Lava Flow. Basalt is a volcanic rock that was extruded by a volcano. The reason it has this dark color is because it’s made of minerals, primarily iron and magnesium. You can see in this chunk here these little pits or cavities in here. These are called vesicles. These were formed when the rock was molten and there was a lot of gas charged in here. When the gas comes out and cools, it leaves behind these pits. This is a really great analog for the moon. The moon is mostly basalt.

FRANKLIN: The type of exploration that has taken place here over the past couple of weeks, it that the same type of projects and exploration that will take place on the moon when we return?

DR. RICE: The way we conduct the geology with the science operations room and the crew in LER, we want to see what the crew is seeing. They’re also describing it to us. It will give us details of the rock to see these vesicles or minerals in there. You can see how big it really is. We have a scale bar that will show the color chart and dimensions of the rock. We’re trying to learn with this exercise, since technology has advanced over the last 40 years, how to incorporate that in the field.

FRANKLIN: Dr. Rice, thank you very much.

DR. RICE: Thank you. My pleasure.

BLAIR: I applaud Franklin on your interview with Dr. Rice.

FRANKLIN: He just gave me the 411 on what the geologists, in the field, were trying to do and what geology meant to the return to the moon. It was very interesting to talk to him.

BLAIR: We happen to have Dr. Brent Garry on the phone, uber geologist.

CHRIS: Doctor?

BLAIR: I don’t know what he is. I’m not even sure this is Brent. Brent, are you there?

BRENT: I am here, guys. How are you doing?

BLAIR: Doing great.

BRENT: Uber geologist, I like that.


BLAIR: I’m still waiting on some verification on that. It’s good to have you on the show and find out what life was like for 14 days on the LER.

CHRIS: How did you land a gig with astronaut Mike Gernhardt on this 14-day mission?

BRENT: It was a tough task of finding the right chocolate bar with the golden ticket in it. It was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunities. I was part of the crew for the 3-day mission during the Desert RATS field test in 2008. I was involved as part of the science team. I was a geologist on the science team that helped plan the traverses for last year’s missions. I put my name in the hat again for the 14-day mission. Mike and I worked well as a team. We both wanted the challenge of putting the LER through its paces for two weeks. It was a great opportunity. It was a Field of Dreams type of scenario out there for me.

BLAIR: This is exactly the thing we want to hear about your trip. We need to take a quick break. Do you mind hanging on the line, Brent?

BRENT: No, I don’t mind.

BLAIR: Great. You’re watching NASA EDGE.

CHRIS: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

[police siren]

JOE: I think he’s going to want to see a license and registration.

BARBARA: We don’t have a license and registration for a test article.

JOE: See if we can find something. Maybe we can find Mike Gernhardt’s thesis for this system.

BARBARA: Oh no, here he comes.

JOE: Let me do the talking. Hello officer.

OFFICER: Sir, do you know how fast you were going?

JOE: No, officer. Do you mean here on earth or on the moon?

BARBARA: Go, go, go!

OFFICER: CR3 dispatch, I’ve got a runner. It looks like they’re going to make a left on 5th Street.

[gavel pounding]

BARBARA: Yeah. Well, you shouldn’t have used the co-host as your character witness.

JOE: You’re certainly right about that.

BARBARA: Come on, let’s get this place cleaned up.

JOE: You bet.


BLAIR: That’s Brent Garry, geologist or supposed geologist, from the Smithsonian Institute, who is still on the line with us. Thanks so much Brent for the interview.

BRENT: No problem.

CHRIS: What was the primary objective? Was it more science oriented in terms of looking at the geology of the rocks or was it looking at the science operations?

BRENT: The primary focus was definitely the science operations side of things. We haven’t been back to the moon in over 40 years. This new generation is relearning how do we study the geology and the science of another planetary body using the spacesuits, the tools and the vehicles. We’re definitely out there for the science operations side of things but we did build in a lot of true science objectives as we would on a real mission. We were trying to figure out what was going on geologically with the area.

BLAIR: Did you do any prep work in terms of the region? What was your approach going out to the desert trying to simulate lunar conditions?

BRENT: I wanted to go in blind about the geology. We had members of the science team who are familiar with the area but I personally did not want to know the story. All our planning was done by the science team, using satellite image, remote sensing image, of the area. I wanted to go into it fairly blind, not knowing the whole story already.

CHRIS: Talking about going in blind, I think you have something special for Brent.

BLAIR: I do. This is my own science operations test.

BRENT: Oh boy.

BLAIR: What I’d like to do is ask you a series of questions about Mike.

BRENT: Okay.

BLAIR: We’ll start with the first question. How often did Mike Gernhardt brush his teeth?

BRENT: Oh my gosh. I don’t know. We had these suite stations down. I couldn’t see behind the curtain.

BLAIR: He seemed to indicate he thought you were more observant.

BRENT: Yeah. I was looking at the rocks and the sunset. I wasn’t paying attention to his hygiene. Hopefully at least once, I would say at least once a day.

MIKE: I brushed my teeth twice a day, once in the morning and once again at night.

BLAIR: What was astronaut Mike Gernhardt’s favorite meal?

BRENT: He had a couple. I know he love the spaghetti and meatballs. He loved the lasagna and he loved this beef chili mac one.

CHRIS: An Italian person, huh?

BRENT: Yeah. It is one of those three I’m pretty sure.

MIKE: My favorite meal would be chili mac or the spaghetti and meat sauce.

CHRIS: Pretty good, Brent!

BRENT: There we go.

BLAIR: You gave three but two were included.

BRENT: He gave two, okay.

BLAIR: Very good. That’s a point for you. How many times did astronaut Mike Gernhardt shave?

BRENT: I know he shaved daily. I remember we talked about that. I myself would probably go every three days…

BLAIR: Typical geologist.

CHRIS: Peach fuzz.

BRENT: Typical geologist. You’ve got to come home with scruff.

MIKE: I shave once a day, every day in the morning.

BLAIR: What about the favorite movie during the mission?

BRENT: His favorite movie during the mission was Boon Dock Saints.

MIKE: That’s a good question. I guess I would have to say Boon Dock Saints. That was a great movie that Brent brought.

BLAIR: This is a little more serious question. During your rescue mission out there in the desert, if you could only have rescued one of the two simulated astronauts, which one would you rescue? What do you think Mike Gernhardt’s response would be?

BRENT: It’s a trick question. He would have done a self-sacrifice thing. He would have put Zane Andrew in the LER with me, and he would stay behind himself.

MIKE: Oh, that’s not a fair question. I wouldn’t accept any less than getting them both.

BLAIR: One final question, boxers or briefs?

BRENT: I’m guessing briefs.

MIKE: They gave us briefs. We had no choice in the matter.

CHRIS: Brent, that was a lot of great information you provided us. We’re just so thrilled for you having that opportunity to be in LER for 14 days. We look forward to next year with you.

BLAIR: And submit to the game.

BRENT: Thanks. Do I get any prizes? Do I get my NASA EDGE polo shirt?


CHRIS: We’ll have to talk to Franklin about that one.

FRANKLIN: I’m the gatekeeper to the polo shirts?

BLAIR: Well, he is a gatekeeper.

BRENT: Thanks guys. It was my pleasure. Thanks for all your support with the Desert RATS over the years. Look forward to seeing you guys again out there next year.

CHRIS: You’re welcome. We had a fun time.

BLAIR: We loved it. You had an opportunity also while we were out there to talk to astronaut Mike Gernhardt inside the LER.

CHRIS: Yes. Absolutely.

BLAIR: This was post-mission. You didn’t violate any of the science involved there.

CHRIS: Correct.

BLAIR: This was after the mission was over.

CHRIS: And also, as we were coming back he let me drive the LER.

FRANKLIN: Oh man. How was your parallel parking?

CHRIS: Hey, I parallel parked that better than I do my car.

BLAIR: Let’s take a quick break.

CHRIS: Absolutely.

BLAIR: When we come back and we’ll find out what Mike has to say about the 14-day mission in the LER.

CHRIS: You’re watching NASA EDGE.

FRANKLIN: An inside look and outside look.


BLAIR: An inside and outside look at all things NASA. The co-host saves the day.


CHRIS: Mike, the first thing I noticed when I stepped in here and sat down was the display screen is different from last year. Tell me about the improvements.

MIKE: One of the things we found out last year was we had a touch screen and it was on an arm that moved around. When you’re vibrating, you never quite touch what you wanted. Now we’ve gone to new software with edge keys. You can actually react your hand against the monitor and push the edge key. It’s much better in the high vibration environment. We’ve also added a very sophisticated navigational display where you can see where we are, which is the arrow, and these are the nav points we’re going to. The copilot, if we wanted to skip this next nav point…

CHRIS: Right.

MIKE: You can scroll down and load 2A instead of 2B. It tells you your distance to the next nav point. You can modify your flight plan on the roll. We’ve got a much better camera display.

CHRIS: That helps you drive in reverse or picking up the Pup.

MIKE: The Pup adds additional consumables and it has a solar array to recharge this vehicle so we’ll nominally sit here for 3 days with no Pup but if we want to extend it to 14 days we have to dock with the Pup every 3 days and recharge the battery.

CHRIS: Tell me about the 14-day mission. How was it?

MIKE: The first adjective I would use to describe it was fun. It was really fun and high-fidelity with respect to all the details that we would have on the moon. We had mission control, flight plans, flight rules, real geology, and of course, we had the automated suit ports. We had mechanical actuation that opens the hatches. We have an aft display that we can toggle the [UNDETERMINED TECHNICAL TERMS]. After two weeks, I was ready for two more weeks.

CHRIS: Just like a real mission, you had your food on board; you had your facilities when you had to use the restroom.

MIKE: Right.

CHRIS: Suit ports in the back. You were self-sufficient.

MIKE: Yes, we were absolutely self-sufficient. In fact, one of the things we were investigating was how well we would perform and what our productivity would be with no comm. We’ve collected the data. We haven’t analyzed it yet but my impression is that we performed every bit as well with no comm. as we did with full comm.

CHRIS: I heard you say earlier you exercised everyday. How many hours did you exercise?

MIKE: We did a minimum of an hour a day. The argometer sets up on the isle there. It worked great. It was a good stress reliever. It also has resistance exercise with bungee cords and so forth. I think that was a key part of keeping an even keel on the habitability throughout the time.

CHRIS: When you look at the next gen. what do you envision as the next round.

MIKE: We’re going to do a brand new integrated design between the mobility chassis and the cabin. We came up with this idea of the Small Pressurized Rover after the chassis had already been designed. We had to fit the two together. It’s worked remarkably well but gen. 2, we’re probably going to head to a more elliptical shape, which will give us more width and storage area. We’re going to build that as a pressure vessel. This is like NASCAR technology. We have a welded tubular frame with skins on the outside. It serves the purpose of gen 1 but as we move to generation 2 and then generation 3, it will become increasingly more flight-like.

CHRIS: The host of NASA EDGE is about to drive the LER. We have a great teacher and astronaut, Mike Gernhardt. This is behind us, right?

MIKE: It is.

CHRIS: Okay. We just go forward. Max power is 84%, if I’m looking at that correctly.

MIKE: I can bump your rates up. Now you’re 100% but you’re in low gear, so that’s 3.6 km top speed.

CHRIS: If I want to turn I just…

MIKE: Just twist it.

CHRIS: Nice. Mike, this is so cool. You must be like a kid in a candy store driving this thing, being in it for 14 days and doing experiments for NASA.

MIKE: It was great. It’s the closest thing to a lunar mission here on Earth. As I’ve said before, I sincerely want to be the first one to run this on the moon. If I don’t make that, if the program gets delayed, at least all the work we’re doing will make it better for those who go.

BLAIR: I’m officially jealous. I’m trying to be a medianaut. I want to go into space. You’ve actually driven the LER. You’re that much further than I am on my path to get to the moon.

FRANKLIN: I drove on the Autobahn.

BLAIR: Forget all of it for a second. I can’t believe we have so much stuff that we haven’t even gotten to in this show; on the Desert RATS, and these analog tests. I feel incomplete.

CHRIS: I think you’re right. We’re out of time for this particular vodcast.

FRANKLIN: Yeah. This show is jam-packed.

BLAIR: It’s jammed in there.

FRANKLIN: It’s jammed in there.

BLAIR: You cannot miss it. There’s too much.

FRANKLIN: Too much.

CHRIS: We’ll call this part one.

BLAIR: And Lucien hasn’t even gotten over the hill yet.

CHRIS: That’s right. We haven’t figured out if he’s made it yet. We’ll come back for part two. You want to do that?

BLAIR: Let’s do that.

FRANKLIN: Let’s do it.

CHRIS: You’re watching NASA EDGE.

FRANKLIN: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

CHRIS: How did you say it? It’s in there!


BLAIR: Too much.

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