Desert RATS Intern Blog: Week #1 of DRATS 2010

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By Kevin Buckley and Courtney Gras, Moon Work Interns
Kevin recently earned his bachelor of science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland. Courtney is an electrical engineering major at the University of Akron, and starts a co-op term this fall at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

Week 1

August 31 to September 5 was the first week of the rover traverse. On Tuesday, everything we had been setting-up and preparing for came together. The base camp was very busy – the Mobile Mission Control Center was full of engineers and scientists communicating with the rovers and the ground crew as everyone was working to make sure everything started on time and according to plan.

In the mornings, we ran the Mission Management Team (MMT) meeting with all of the team leads. The purpose of the meeting (held every morning and every evening) is to see where each team is with their objectives, and determine if there are any changes to the plan.

Mission Management Team

The MMT morning meeting for Mission Day 1.

Throughout the week, we supported different parts of the traverse. We had the opportunity to help the science team with the Gigapan camera and participate as test subjects for the Habitat Demonstration Unit (HDU).

As the week progressed, we were able to see the differences between two different kinds of communication that were being tested – constant communication with the rovers and two-a-day communication. It was interesting to see how the different communication methods influenced the mission.

Desert RATS Mission Day 4: Crew Blog – Living in the Lap of Luxury

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By Dr. Jim Rice
Dr. Jim Rice is an Astrogeologist working at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. For the 2010 Desert RATS field test, Dr. Rice will be the geology crew member on rover A in week one, as well as a member of the science backroom for week two.

Friday, September 3

I was just thinking today about our living conditions onboard Rover Alpha and how easy we have it compared to the Apollo astronauts who landed on the moon.

The last three Apollo lunar landing missions (Apollo 15-17) had a small lunar rover with them. However, their rover wasn’t pressurized, meaning that they had to wear their spacesuits the whole time they were on Extra-Vehicular Activities (EVAs) (moonwalks and yes even the moondrives:-). Their EVAs typically lasted between 6-8 hours. When the Space Exploration Vehicle goes to the moon, Mars or asteroids it will be pressurized and the crews will not have to wear their space suits except when they go EVA!

Living in the rover these past four days has really made me appreciate even more what the Apollo crews went through on the lunar surface. We have a nice roomy rover that has even more room than the Lunar Module (LM) where they lived and slept for 3 days during their lunar missions. We even have full length sleeping quarters (I am 6’3″) and lots of room inside Rover Alpha. We get to drive in our street clothes pretty much, and cover much more territory than the Apollo crews. They had to return to the LM located at the same spot every day. We can roam and do not have to return to a set location since we are a home on wheels. We cover much more territory and distance covered translates into maximized scientific gain.

Our simulated mission living and conducting EVAs from the SEV is helping lay the foundation for crews of the future in exploring other worlds. Wow what a thrill this has been!

Rover and Portable Utility Pallet

The Rover pulling along the Portable Utility Pallet (PUP).

Desert RATS Mission Day 4: Crew Blog

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By Chris Looper
Chris Looper is Chief Engineer of the EVA Branch of the Astronaut Office, and is splitting time as a test subject and as Traverse Director of Desert RATS 2010.

Friday, September 3

Day 4 was our first day of traverses with communications only between the two rovers, except for a morning and evening briefing with the Mission Control Center (MCC) at Base Camp. It was fun just as the previous days were and interesting to be testing a different mode of operation.

It really seems the terrain you are exploring and your overall objectives for your mission will dictate to you the best mode of operation for using two rovers. Jim and I are getting better at how to work together addressing a rock outcropping. The training we are getting is something that a real exploration crew would get over a long period of time. We can sense the learning curve as we figure out ways to try to be more effective. It is obviously a huge learning experience for me (being an engineer) since, even though I have some graduate level course history in geology, I have no field experience at all, nor any field training except for what I was able to pick up in previous Desert RATS tests.

Luckily, I enjoy few things more than walking around in nature observing all there is to see. All the different aspects of geology are interesting although the terminology is difficult to retain unless you are immersed in it in your everyday work life. I have learned that one of the keys to good field geology is simply being observant of those things relevant to what you are trying to understand and describing what you see. We are over halfway done on our 7-day traverse and looking forward to the days ahead.

Chris Looper shows how the crew moves from inside of the rover to the suit port in preparation for a spacewalk:

Chris demonstrates putting on the life support vests used during the “shirt-sleeve” Extra-Vehicular Activities (EVAs):

Desert RATS Mission Day 3: Crew Blog – The Value of Field Geology

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By Dr. Jim Rice
Dr. Jim Rice is an Astrogeologist working at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. For the 2010 Desert RATS field test, Dr. Rice will be the geology crew member on rover A in week one, as well as a member of the science backroom for week two.

Thursday, September 2

Some of you may be asking, why are the crews doing all this field geology on their traverses? Well, that’s a good question, so let me give you my take on the importance of doing field geology on future NASA manned missions of exploration to the moon, Mars and/or asteroids.

First of all, fieldwork is the foundation of all geological studies, ranging from the interpretation of geochemical data to the creation of geophysical models. Without detailed observations of field relationships between collected samples, and an understanding of the geology in the region of interest, all other data cannot be interpreted correctly. Fieldwork is essential to the study of geology.

Conducting field geology is equivalent to law enforcement agencies performing crime scene investigations, which have been popularized by the TV series CSI. You see, a field geologist goes about his work in much the same manner. Although the geologist uses different tools and techniques, he still must be meticulous, detail oriented, curious and dedicated. If a geologist is well versed in the art and skill of field geology, then he can read rocks and the landscape like the pages in a book.

Indeed, to the trained field geologist, each rock and landscape records evidence of the geological history of a region. Thus, the field geologist is the most qualified person to have the honor of reading the geological history book of a region. When we explore the surfaces of other worlds, we are first and foremost doing field geology. Therefore, astronauts must be trained to be field geologists in order to maximize the science return of future missions. Field geology cannot be learned in a book or laboratory. One must go into the field. There is an old expression that says the best geologist is the one who sees the most rocks. Simple, but oh so true!

Desert RATS crew member and rock formation

A Desert RATS crew member in the midst of a stunning rock formation in the Arizona desert.

Desert RATS Mission Day 3: Crew Blog

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By Chris Looper
Chris Looper is Chief Engineer of the EVA Branch of the Astronaut Office, and is splitting time as a test subject and as Traverse Director of Desert RATS 2010.

Thursday, September 2

Day 3 is in the books. Rover A that we are in is very live-able, even though it is the first generation concept cabin. The chassis (wheeled portion) of the rover is, I believe, also a first of its kind concept vehicle that has been put through the ringer and still runs like a champ. It can take you anywhere you would want to go in the type of terrain we are in here in northern Arizona.

We traversed westward today approximately 5 km, and are camped at the northern base of a cinder cone volcano that has a lava flow extended from its base towards the north. It is amazing terrain to be allowed to explore. We are trying to steadily make small improvements in our arrangement of stuff inside the rover. Today, we duct taped the window shades into the most efficient configuration for keeping the sun out of our eyes while also helping to keep the cabin cool.

Our present location is 10 km or so to the west of the highway, and so very dark outside. The two rovers are parked about 20 feet apart for test purposes. In a real space mission, we would probably be docked tonight so that we can conference with the other crew easier either tonight or early in the morning. Tomorrow, we are to drive always within line of sight of rover B and execute the day’s plan using coordination between the two rovers only. It will be an interesting experiment which I look forward to.

Desert RATS Mission Day 2: Crew Blog

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By Chris Looper
Chris Looper is Chief Engineer of the EVA Branch of the Astronaut Office, and is splitting time as a test subject and as Traverse Director of Desert RATS 2010.

Mission Day 2 is drawing to a close and I have to say it has been better than a typical day in the office. I feel very fortunate to be able to participate in the Desert RATS testing. I have spent my career as an engineer at NASA testing and working operations of Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA) hardware for the International Space Station. To be able to simulate moon and Mars surface operations, including EVA, for future NASA exploration is an ideal way for me to spend my work time. It is also inspiring to be working with a large group of people who are so dedicated to excel.

ATHLETE rover

The ATHLETE rover, viewed from a distance, at the close of mission day 2.

I am writing this at 8 p.m. and I can see one of the rover team members is remotely updating files on the rover’s computer (one of several). Jim and I accomplished all the objectives for the day with a total EVA time of 1 hour and 20 minutes, and approximately 10 km driven. We are at the planned camp site for night two, and it’s a relief to be able to be following the plan that took so much effort for people to produce. We all understand that hardware failures can occur or bad weather can set in, which would force us to deviate from the designed mission plan.

Barring such events, however, we are driven to succeed. It is also important for us as test subjects to reflect on the main test objectives and try to capture while we are here immersed in it the key things we are learning. This is challenging because it is a test of integrated systems with typically more than one variable in play at once. Differentiating cause and effect from different variables can be hard.

Desert RATS Mission Day 2: Crew Blog

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By Dr. Jim Rice
Dr. Jim Rice is an Astrogeologist working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and the geology crew member on rover A during week 1 of Desert RATS.

Wednesday, September 01

Today was another fantastic day onboard Rover Alpha! We conducted two really exciting Extra-Vehicular Activities (EVAs) where we observed, documented and sampled a new type of lava flow, different from the ones we saw on day one. On our second EVA, we sampled yet another type of lava flow, which also appeared to be the youngest lava flow seen thus far. The highlight was climbing a small volcano called a scoria cone — we were able to look down into the vent. We collected samples from the volcano’s rim. The view was spectacular and we were able to survey the surrounding landscape, a very beautiful and serene locale. All our samples and observations will allow us to piece together the geologic history of this region much like we will do when we explore future destinations, be it the moon, Mars or asteroids.

Desert landscape

Looking down on the rover and chase teams from atop the small volcano.

If I had to describe our daily life in Rover Alpha, I would say it’s very much like camping out, although there are some big differences. We have power, computers, both a hot and cold water dispenser, air conditioning, exercise equipment and an indoor bathroom.

We spend all our time in the rover, except when we do EVAs — the rover is a very comfortable home on 12 wheels. Being part of this field test is a very distinct honor for me! It is pretty awesome to be part of the team testing this prototype rover. I am loving every second and am very proud to be part of this hardworking and talented team. This is a remarkable experience that I will never forget. I certainly hope to see this marvelous and capable rover exploring some extraterrestrial real estate in the not too distant future.

Desert RATS Mission Day 1: Crew Blog

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By Chris Looper
Chris Looper is Chief Engineer of the EVA Branch of the Astronaut Office, and is splitting time as a test subject and as Traverse Director of Desert RATS 2010.

We got an early start trying to get things situated in the rover before time to depart on the first traverse. The beginning of the test day in a field test is always very hectic. It is a large operation with many things going on that has to converge at 0800 (or as close as possible) so wheels can roll. We started 30 minutes late, but made that time up with a shorter lunch.

From our perspective inside rover A, all objectives for the day were accomplished. We performed four spacewalks at the four prescribed locations and ended the day at the planned camp one at the desired time. Total Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA) time was 2.47 hours and total distance traveled by our rover was 7.8 km. We are now 5.7 km from base camp.

We kept track of Stan and Jake’s progress in rover B, mostly by checking with Mission Control. During parts of the day, we could see rover B and at times were close enough to talk. They also had an excellent day with all objectives met. Both rovers experienced some malfunctions which the rover chase team repaired quickly and efficiently. It is a big relief to know we have a good start.

Jim and I spent a couple of hours this evening getting things arranged in the rover and finding out the details of what was packed in each of the bags. We didn’t have time to do a very good job of this first thing this morning. The videos below are of the inside of the rover after we did some unpacking and while we crossed Highway 89 with State Trooper assistance.

Chris Looper narrates the trek from rover A, and offers a brief comment about crossing the highway before reaching their destination:

Chris describes arrival at the site – you’ll see the Tri-ATHLETE rover moving across the terrain:

Chris gives a brief tour of the inside of the rover at the end of Mission Day 1, showing the food, water supply and other items:

Desert RATS 2010: Training, Practice and Teamwork

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by Dean Eppler
Dean Eppler is the D-RATS Science Lead.

Total chaos – like what you’ve probably experienced if you’ve ever put on a school play, or gone on a long, complicated family vacation. That’s what it’s like to start up a complicated test like Desert RATS. My name is Dean Eppler, and I’m a geologist with NASA, one of the folks responsible for organizing and helping run Desert RATS. My job is something called “science operations development” – simply put, it’s using my background as a field geologist and space suit test subject to figure out how we’re going to do science with crewmembers on planetary bodies throughout the Solar System.

Field geology, when we do it on the Earth, is a relatively simple operation – you go out into the field, either by yourself or with a field assistant, walk the ground and find the bedrock, and enter descriptions of the rocks on your maps and in your field notebooks. In space, the environment and the ways we cope with space add complexity that takes a lot of testing and practice on Earth before we’re ready to try it in space. For instance, when the Space Shuttle or International Space Station crews go into space, it’s only after literally years of planning, practicing, making mistakes and re-practicing. This process of training is critical, because nobody does a complex thing like get ready for spaceflight right the first time.

Here at Desert RATS, we’re doing the same thing – bringing new hardware into the field, putting crewmembers in the vehicles, and doing a dress rehearsal of our plans to see what doesn’t work. Monday was the first day of our operation – something we call a “dry run,” which is like a dress rehearsal – and like all dress rehearsals, we find out what things worked (and lots did) and what things did not work as we’d hoped. This included getting a group of scientists together who do geology on the Earth, and working with the engineers and crew members to fix problems, find out what doesn’t work, and learn to improvise to make the mission a success.

The one critical element of a successful test is teamwork – a complex mission is based on many people’s talents. Here in the field, we have engineers, scientists, educators, astronauts and medics, and we all need to work together to make the test work. The other critical element is patience – it takes many years of testing, training, reworking and retesting before a mission is ready to go into space, and the whole team has to be patient when things go wrong, to work each problem to get operations rolling again. Twelve days from now, our test will be over, and we will have learned many things to make next year’s test successful – including how we can all work together to solve problems and achieve a common goal.

Desert RATS Dry-Run: Crew Blog

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By Chris Looper
Chris Looper is the Chief Engineer of the EVA Branch of the Astronaut Office, and is splitting time as a test subject and Traverse Director of 2010 Desert RATS .

Today we had a practice day, referred to as a dry-run, where we were able to operate the rovers and perform a practice spacewalk. It was a very hectic day but a very good, full day of learning new things about how to make the rover work and practicing the geology sampling procedure we are to employ.

As is typical for the first day with all the various systems working together, communications through the radio network was challenging. Everything should smooth out within the next few days as all the system experts have sufficient opportunities to understand what it will take to get things working together. I gained a better appreciation today for the responsibilities of a test subject in this environment. In addition to understanding and trying to follow the plan, I will have to make a concentrated effort to ensure we (the rover A test subjects) also provide all the subjective data expected. There is a lot of it, throughout the day, before and after all the events.

Tomorrow we begin our seven-day mission portion of the overall 14 day mission. I learned some points today which should help me to take care of rover A so that it will be in good shape for days 8-14. I know most of the people participating in the test, since I have worked Desert RATS for the last few years. It makes it a comfortable environment knowing they are good people who take pride in what they do. I am also looking forward to working with Jim Rice in rover A for the next week. I have got to visit with Jim a few times over the last few years but never for any length of time. Three video links touring base camp are below. High definition video is very jiggly when you’re walking (sorry).



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