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How to reach space - on a pair of junkyard shocks

NASA scrounges to build and test would-be astronaut gear

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 30, 2004


By 6:45 on a chilly desert evening, a deep indigo sky has squeezed what remains of the day into thin lines of pink and turquoise twilight along the horizon.

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Satisfied with nightfall's progress, NASA engineer Joe Kosmo gives the word, and his crew begins to pressurize a spacesuit glistening under a floodlit canopy.

Tonight's objective: to test new helmet lights to see how effectively they might illuminate an astronaut's path.

If you've ever wondered how exploration equipment makes its way into space, welcome to the rolling flanks of Arizona's famed meteor crater. For two weeks a year, this stark landscape becomes a surrogate planet - a place where a small team of scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration drive a futuristic electric tractor, guide small robotic "scouts," and test an array of other gear astronauts may need in their cosmic garages for future explorations of the moon and Mars.

Disclaimer: These machines aren't ready for prime time. Stuck with a Kmart budget, the NASA team builds much of its hardware from off-the-shelf parts, space-center castoffs, and junkyard finds.

The chassis for their electric tractor? Reclaimed from a discarded all-terrain vehicle. Shock absorbers for the vehicles? Culled from junked motorcycles. Engineers bought a digital microscope for one of the rolling geology labs from a department store toy section. And the crew fashioned a unique scoop out of a discarded desk-lamp shade.

"We've done this on a shoestring," says Dr. Kosmo, a 43-year veteran of the space program and the senior project manager for the Desert Research and Technology team, aka the Desert Rats. The team, based at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, makes its annual trek here to test concepts with prototypes. "You can only do so much in the laboratory," Kosmo adds.

Driving the effort is a simple fact: Exploring planet surfaces is a lot different - and more physically demanding - than spacewalks. During each of the final three Apollo missions, for example, astronauts spent three days on the moon gathering samples. A seven- to eight-hour trek on the lunar surface actually could turn into a 10- to 12-hour workday after including time spent suiting up and preparing the spacesuits for the next day's outing, notes John Gruener, a flight-systems engineer at the Johnson Space Center. At the end of those three days, "the astronauts were just worn out."

"The big challenge for us is how to make extra- vehicular activities routine," Mr. Gruener says. "We're talking about astronauts going out three or four days a week for four to five weeks at a time. There's a real concern you're going to wear out the crew."

Spacesuits that flex like you

To avoid that prospect, NASA is designing lighter, more-flexible spacesuits whose air and cooling systems can be replenished in the field. It also is developing work methods and tools that reduce the astronauts' exertions, which in turn determine how quickly they use up those "expendables."

The desert tests are especially important now that NASA has a cadre of mission controllers who never have experienced an Apollo-era lunar exploration.

"We've got a whole generation of flight controllers who know nothing but the shuttle and the international space station," says Dean Eppler, a geologist who is serving as the projects' faux astronaut, known formally as a "suit subject." "They've had no experience at planetary operations like Apollo."

With that in mind, the Desert Rats are linked via satellite to an experimental mission-control center in Houston to begin rebuilding that expertise.