Desert RATS and Human Space Exploration

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NASA scientists spent some time in a lunar-like Arizona environment this month conducting their Desert RATS (Research and Technology Studies) tests of technology they hope to take to the moon, Mars and beyond. See what they’re working on. And hear what Kip Hodges, Director of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration has to say about the future of U.S. human space flight.

Ted Simons: Five years ago, former president George w. bush endorsed the constellation program and its goal of returning humans to the moon by the year 2020. Today, the future of manned spaceflight is uncertain, the constellation program is underfunded, and it's unclear what path President Obama will want NASA to take. The Augustine report is expected to provide answers and options. It's due out next month, but a summary has already been released, and this week on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are questioning the lead author. More on the report in a moment with the director of ASU's school of earth and space exploration. But first, we go to northern Arizona where NASA scientists are testing technology they hope to take to the moon. David Majure and photographer Scot Olson show us some off the things they're working on.

David Majure: Something is going on in the Arizona desert. Something that's out of this world. Or rather, something NASA hopes to send out of this world to the moon, Mars and beyond.

NASA researcher: I'm Certainly the father of that.

Mike Gernhardt, Ph.D.: I sort of have had the concepts and vision.

John Olson, Ph.D.: This is the big synergistic event. This is probably our cap stone.

Kip Hodges: Every year something new is happening out here and we're learning lessons that change the technology.

David Majure: For two weeks, NASA worked on the black point lava flow about 40 miles northeast of Flagstaff.

NASA researcher: That vehicle then can walk off the lander because the legs are sufficiently long and thereby transport that cargo anywhere in the vicinity of the lander.

David Majure: They're desert rats taking part in the annual desert research and technology studies. It's one of NASA's analog missions where technology is tested in places with characteristics similar to the lunar surface.

NASA researcher: Under realistic conditions, we test them out so we can continue to evolve and refine their designs.

David Majure: Media and guests were invited to see what the researchers have been up to. They're testing rovers and robots designed to make manned missions more efficient and productive.

Mike Gernhardt, Ph.D.: So the first step is the moon, and Mars we don't have the technology yet to go there. So what we want to do is combine the experiments we're getting on the international space station with this new lunar program. We learned how to operate on a planet for extended periods. We think vehicles similar to this would be used on mars but will validate them in the real-world environment.

David Majure: A centerpiece of desert rats is the lunar electric rover.

Mike Gernhardt, Ph.D.: We can climb 30-degree hills.

David Majure: Veteran astronaut mike againhardt and another team member spent 14 days living inside the LER.

John Olson, Ph.D.: This is a big milestone event for us. Essentially what we're doing is we're trying to validate that yes, we can have folks live in a vehicle for 14-day extended mission. So succeeding here in the initial results were very positive. That helps anchor our design assumptions and our architecture assumptions for building our whole integrated system on either the moon or the mars or wherever.

Mike Gernhardt, Ph.D.: We lived in it two weeks this year. I think we can do four. In four weeks you can do a lot of traversing on the moon. We averaged probably 35, 40-kilometers a day. It's actually pretty easy to drive. So now I'm going to go into high gear. The top speed is 50 kilometers per hour. You can smoothly go from going straight to going sideways where you're traveling along a geological content line. You know, I'll go over this pile of rocks to show you the active suspension system. If you were doing this in your car or truck, you would certainly be spinning your tires. With the active suspension, it handles it like nothing.

David Majure: When astronauts are ready to leave the rover for a moon walk, they enter their spacesuits through suit ports at the rear of the vehicle.

Mike Gernhardt, Ph.D.: This is backpack. It stays with the suit.

David Majure: This saves time and air, because you no longer have to depressurize the cabin.

Mike Gernhardt, Ph.D.: Rather than having an airlock, You have to reclaim all this to pump which is an hour. It takes seconds to dump this volume.

David Majure: Plus the suits and any dust they accumulate stay outside. Kip hodges, director of ASU's Earth and space exploration is a science team member of desert rats.

Kip Hodges: One thing that I think is wonderful for us at ASU is we have a strong history, a strong tradition of field scientist, of field geology on the planet that we call home. Now we have an opportunity to think about doing field science again for the first time since Apollo on other planetary surfaces. It's very gratifying that NASA recognizes the need for that they're very enthusiastic about getting folks, particularly in academia for this.

David Majure: Despite many uncertainties about spaceflight in the U.S., the desert rats remain focused on their goal.

John Olson, Ph.D.: The senior decision makers at NASA and the white house are deciding what the future paths will be. However, I think this activity, whether it's the moon or mars or any future destination is fundamental to proving out, as we already mentioned, those technologies, those systems, and the interaction between. So it's been evolving and refining those for the future. So we're pretty excited about the results here this year.

Tim Simons: Joining me to talk about the future of manned U.S. spaceflight is kip Hodges, director of ASU's school of earth and space exploration. Thank you so much for joining us again on "Horizon."

Kip Hodges: Thank you.

Ted Simons: That is fascinating stuff. I want to get to that rover in a second. Desert rats, desert research technology studies. How important is it to have what exists in northern Arizona, such a similar atmosphere or I should say landscape to the moon? How important is that?

Kip Hodges: It's really critical. I think a lot of work being done for exploration is being done in places that are really difficult to get to. For example, they're done in the high arctic desert, but it's really valuable for NASA to have places like northern Arizona, like portions of Arizona that don't have all that much pesky vegetation so they're easy to work in and very similar to the kind of terrains that might be encountered on the moon and mars.

Ted Simons: How similar? I imagine lunar dust is a major concern for a variety of things. Do you get close to that up there?

Kip Hodges: It's a really difficult thing to really get an analog for the lunar soil, because basically that's an unusual -- because basically that's an unusual event in the solar system. Because there's no atmosphere on the moon, it's constantly pounded by meteorites for billions of years so it has consistency of talcum powder. We don't have anything quite like that here on earth.

Ted Simons: talk to us more about the lunar rover. That's an engineering marvel. I love that thing, I love the big window at the bottom. You can be in short sleeves at the moon looking at the bottom of the surface.

Kip Hodges: One of the dangerous things about planetary exploration is anything can go wrong. It's like you're diving an literally only surviving because of the technology survive surrounding you. It's much more dangerous than that because of meteorite impacts, solar activity could have a tremendous negative effect. What the l.e.r does, it allow you to be in a larger, safer environment to do some science. One of the great things about that vehicle right now, besides its technological capabilities of moving around, it has all of the beautiful windows you saw in the clip; all of this sort of bubble on the very front of it that gives you this up-close view of the rocks. So if you're a geologist like I am and you want to be able to really look at the rocks carefully, you can do so, as you say, in your shirt sleeves and not have to get out of the rover, get in the suits and put yourself in excess danger. That was the plan when it was built.

Ted Simons: It's all very encouraging and exciting but now we have the Augustine report coming out. First of all, what is this? How important is it?

Kip Hodges: This was a commission created by the Obama administration principally to advise it on the future of U.S. human spaceflight. To go and review the constellation program. Ask whether it was viable and ask if there's something else perhaps we should be doing instead. So the report has not been released yet, but the summary report has. In this case, the summary report would indicate lots of options but no really specific recommendations. I think that's one of the things that has people in congress a little bit concerned about the outcome of the final report.

Ted Simons: One of those folks in congress is Gabrielle Gifford's. She was critical of the summary. She said it was basically like a cartoon with no details on cost, schedule and these sorts of things. What is the future of manned spaceflight? The summary report says that basically NASA is underfunded and under resourced and under everything. They got a point there, don't they?

Kip Hodges: Absolutely. I think the concern in congress and I think the concern for the president will be that that's something we knew already. Every administration, including the Obama administration, has looked to functional cuts in the budget for NASA as it's moved forward. And this year the budget is a little bit on hold pending the release of the Augustine report and what the administration decides it wants to do with that report. So that's absolutely fair. I think one of the most interesting things that's come out of the summary report so far has been the recommendation that in order to do much of anything with regard to deep space exploration, we'll probably have to spend on the order of $3 billion more a year. That's obviously a significant amount of money, but if NASA's budget increased by $3 billion a year, the total NASA budget would be about 1/10 of 1% of the total federal budget. People I don't think understand that all of this technology is actually costing the American government relatively little compared to a lot of things it's spending money on.

Ted Simons: People may not understand that, may not be aware of, is NASA doing a good enough job? I think what we just saw I think would fire the imagination of a lot of people. It looks like a science fiction movie going on up there. That rover is amazing. Is that message getting out?

Kip Hodges: I don't think it's getting out enough. I think there are a lot of people at NASA working hard on this, but it's like they've never quite connected with the American public. I think the press can do a great deal; the media can do a great deal as well to try to help get the word out. It's just not there yet. I think it should be. As you say, it's absolutely true that having things like this running in the field, these tangible assets that NASA has to build toward the future are fundamentally important. They're there, real, and functional today. Having them ready to go to the moon by 2020 is an entirely doable thing. It's just having the resource to make it happen.

Ted Simons: The space shuttly ends in 2011, right?

Kip Hodges: Right.

Ted Simons: What will happen then?

Kip Hodges: The original plan was to retire the shuttle in 2011 and have a new rocket that was available to take humans from the U.S., to take humans into low earth orbit. In other words, the relative portion of space that the space shuttle typically goes to that the international space station is in. This new rocket, what is called the Aries I rocket was the first phase of the constellation program. Then they would build the Aries V rocket. The problem is that Aries I has been behind schedule. It's been somewhat over budget but not as over budget as a lot of things that NASA actually does. It just recently, I believe it was last week, had its first successful test firing of the engine system for the Aries I rocket which is a long way from flying but at least the engine works. That was the original plan. I think one of the things the Augustine commission has to consider is the fact that Aries I is sufficiently behind schedule, that it will probably be in excess of five years before we have the capacity to get back to low earth orbit if the shuttle is retired. So that's what some people have a concern about. We're going to continue to fund and continue to work in the international space station as a partner. However, we will have to depend on Russian rockets to get us to it until Aries I or something similar to that is ready. That has a lot of people concerned.

Ted Simons: Real quickly, your colleague, Lawrence Krauss, has an idea of send astronauts one way. That would be the most effective way to do it. Send them there and don't send them back.

Kip Hodges: Essentially colonize Mars. Lawrence is sort of one of the latest of people to popularize that. It's an interesting idea. I think you would find a lot of people, space scientists and engineers, would take a one-way ticket to mars and be colonists. I think it would be difficult to convince the American public that we want to send people on a one-way ticket to Mars at this juncture.

Ted Simons: Thank you for this.

Kip Hodges: Thank you.

Kip Hodges:Director of ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration;

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