NASA lands at Meteor Crater

Earlier this year, President Bush announced plans to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 as a stepping stone for a manned mission to Mars. But before humans go “boldly go where no one has gone before,” they need to be properly equipped.

For the past week and a half, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Desert Research and Technology Studies (“RATS”) team from Houston has been testing a prototype suit and tractor at Meteor Crater.

The archetype equipment being tested now most likely will have evolved into something better by the time astronauts leave for Mars.

“It’s concept and technology that produces the next generation,” Senior Project Engineer Joseph Kosmo said.

Meteor Crater is the ideal location because it is the most well preserved impact crater on the planet. It allows NASA scientists to test equipment in a lunar-like environment but with the safety and conveniences of home. Apollo astronauts trained at the crater and previous experiments produced the Mars Rover.

This is the seventh year that Kosmo and the “RATS” have been using Meteor Crater to test space suits and vehicles. The focus for the past two weeks has been on controlling a heavy-duty tractor built to pull a mobile science lab over rough terrain and “Matilda” — a rock-gathering robotic vehicle. The NASA team is also testing controls and a heads-up display integrated into the suit.

Whatever astronauts eventually wear to the moon and Mars, they will need to be able to move with ease while walking and getting in and out of vehicles. Geologist Dean Eppler was wearing the suit during testing this week. He is in his words, “the crash test dummy.”

He practices moving in different ways so he’s not fighting the suit. Although the suit weighs 200 pounds, he said it only feels like 50 and walking is almost normal.

“It’s almost indescribable,” he said. “It’s like wearing a heavy backpack and welder’s gloves.”

Eppler is connected by computers and a radio to the rest of the team. Other than that he said being inside the suit is like being in his own little world.

“Concentration is different,” he said. “I joke that if Godzilla walked up behind me I wouldn’t know he was there until he grabbed me. I’m very focused on the task.”

One test involved the best way to remotely control the tractor. Eppler had four buttons on his right arm that he could use to steer. The buttons are soft fabric sewn into the arm. The controls are more convenient but may be more difficult to use with “welder’s gloves.”

The scientists also are testing the alternative — a hand-held control that resembles a RC car controller.

The suit also contains a heads-up display at eye level. The display contains a checklist in Microsoft Powerpoint the astronauts can use to perform tasks. Eppler said it looks like a checklist hovering in the air.

NASA is testing which way is easier, the display or a checklist written on paper attached to the suit’s arm.

The “RATS” work year-round on the equipment in harsh terrains such as Death Valley, the Mojhave Desert and Northern Arizona.

“It takes most of the year to prepare for the field test,” Project Engineer Amy Ross said. “But we can take the tractor out anytime at the Sim Mars rock pile at Johnson (Space Center).”

Some elementary and high school students in Michigan, Ohio and Texas have already seen the experiments live from their schools. The NASA team connected to eight schools over the two weeks for its Distance Learning Network. The kids could ask questions in real time by way of a the satellite-link Web-broadcast.

“The kids are pretty sharp,” Kosmo said.

This Friday, the general public can watch live demonstrations and meet the Desert RATS in person at Meteor Crater’s “Astronaut Park” from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Meteor Crater is located at Exit 233 off I-40, 20 minutes west of Winslow. For information, visit meteorcrater.com or call 1-800-289-5898.

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