In 1964 astronauts, scientists and engineers traipsed around Central Oregon training for the upcoming moon missions; almost 60 years later scientists and engineers returned to test out the sites and new space suits for a future mission to the moon.
The effort was part of the NASA Artemis Program, which aims to land a woman and a person of color on the moon by the end of the decade, and the NASA Haughton-Mars Project, which is working on developing training and systems for an eventual flight to Mars with astronauts.
Pascal Lee, SETI Institute planetary scientist and director of the NASA Haughton-Mars Project, said normally training sessions take place on Devon Island, Canada. This is a large and uninhabited island with a meteorite crater 20 kilometers across. He said the Canadian terrain is appropriately cold and lifeless for training. But COVID has impacted international travel and for a long time visitors from America were not allowed into Canada unless they followed stringent quarantine and isolation guidelines. He said that Central Oregon quickly rose to the top of the list due to the Apollo missions in the 1960s.
When the United States was in the process of sending astronauts to the moon people did not know what the lunar surface would be like. Trying to find places that are barren and lifeless is difficult in the United States. NASA at that time decided on the lava flows of Central Oregon and other features, all of them fairly close together. This included: Fort Rock, Hole in the Ground, Lava Buttes, Big Obsidian Lava Flow and the lava flow atop McKenzie Pass.
All of those locations were used this year along with two new locations that were added as part of Lee’s and the mission testing: Pumice Slope at Crater Lake National Park and the Skylight Cave near Sisters – the first time a space suit has been tested inside a cave.
“It was time to reassess the former Apollo testing sites to see how close they were to the actual conditions of the moon,” said Lee.
In his estimation he said most of the sites fit within the moon parameter, though additional sites are needed as the next moon mission will be visiting the lunar south pole, where water ice has been discovered which could be turned into rocket fuel to send humans to Mars.
“During the Apollo missions the astronauts landed at flat sites. This was to keep it safe. They landed and explored frozen and flat lava flows on the moon,” said Lee.
The lunar south pole is not that flat. It has hillier terrain and astronauts will need to be able to get up and down hills safely, and be able to explore possible caves on the moon. If someone looks at the moon they will notice dark and light features. The dark features are frozen lava fields which are flat, while the lighter parts are more hills and mountains.
Lee said the goal of the astronaut suit testing — designed and built by Collins Aerospace, a division of Raytheon — was to see how the suit did on different slopes and conditions rather than flat ground. He said they took the suit along with people from Collins Aerospace to test the suit in different kinds of conditions and how it performed walking up and down different slopes while collecting material.
“The sites in Central Oregon are perfect for astronaut education, though not entirely for the type of conditions they will find on the moon. Central Oregon is the perfect spot to teach astronauts for future moon and mars missions how to identify different types of rocks,” said Lee.
He said the new sites, the pumice slope and the painted hills, are more akin to what one will find on moon and mars. He said once astronauts are getting closer to the mission they will begin training, while the current training is a more technical aspect with engineers and other scientists testing out the different interfaces.
“The trick is the interface. On space walks astronauts have a binder with their checklists and procedures on their wrist. That will not make sense to carry something that bulky while on a moon or mars mission,” said Lee.
The new suit has different interfaces, including a voice command interface, and visual display inside the helmet, both of which have pros and cons. Lee said the testing was to try out those interfaces and see how the person inside the suit did and how the electronics reacted.
“The important part of the testing is getting that real time data and information. The technology has matured and is beginning to be incorporated into the suits,” said Lee.
The group spent a day at each location, and spent from the crack of dawn until mid day testing the suit at each location before moving to the next location.