NASA may not return to the moon for another 10 years, but that's not stopping the U.S. space agency from conducting lunar expeditions.
In June, research teams from seven NASA centers gathered at Moses Lake, in central Washington state, to test prototypes for new moon-worthy robots, vehicles, and spacesuits. During the two-week-long field test, the teams and their machines replicated logistical and scientific operations that might be carried out on the moon.
It was the first time that all the centers were involved in such a test, which gave the teams a chance to see how well the equipment they'd designed played with others.
The field test also offered a ”much broader area to stretch your legs,” says Bill Bluethmann, a robotics engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center, in Houston, who served as the expedition's leader. Moses Lake boasts 1200 hectares of sand dunes, popular with the off-road crowd. NASA liked the spot, too, because the loose sand and treeless horizon roughly simulate the lunar surface.
Among the vehicles fielded was a gold-toned, six-wheeled lunar truck called Chariot. Intended to carry up to four suited astronauts, Chariot has an active suspension that lets any part of the truck be lifted and lowered independently. ”If one wheel fails, we can just pick it up and continue the mission,” says Lucien Junkin, the vehicle's chief engineer. Chariot was designed and built in just 12 months. Under such a compressed schedule, he says, the team became experts at ”5-minute design reviews.”
Also on hand was a four-wheeled lunar prospecting robot called Scarab, which can operate in daylight as well as at night. Built by the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, the robot totes a 1-meter-long drill for taking geological samples.
During the field test, the teams replicated remotely controlling the robots from Earth by sending commands from a cockpit at the Johnson Space Center.
Talk of a U.S. return to the moon raises the inevitable criticism: been there, done that. But this time will be different, NASA's Bluethmann says. Unlike the Apollo era's quick trips, the manned and robotic missions NASA envisions will extend over months or even years. That will mean constructing a lunar infrastructure to support personnel and equipment, as well as a reliable, reusable means for shuttling cargo and crew.
Of course, NASA may not have the place all to itself by then. China plans an unmanned lunar landing as soon as next year and a manned mission by 2017. India is also contemplating a manned mission in 2020. The Google Lunar X Prize, meanwhile, is offering US $30 million to whomever can land a robot on the moon, drive 500 meters, and beam data and images back to Earth; so far, 14 teams have registered to compete.
But the moon isn't an end in itself, at least for NASA. The agency's current plan calls for a manned Mars mission by 2031. ”We're going to practice on the moon, develop the technology, learn firm lessons about how humans and machines operate on a remote surface, and then apply them to Mars,” says Bluethmann. ”The nice thing about the moon is that it's comparatively close.”
To Probe Further
For more on NASA's lunar robots, see Slideshow: Next Stop, The Moon