FORT IRWIN, Calif. (Nov. 23, 2011) -- Fort Irwin Soldiers got a chance to help test equipment last week that they may never have imagined they'd see when they joined the Army.
A team of researchers for NASA and aerospace companies came to the installation Nov. 7-11 to conduct field tests of equipment that could potentially be used in future missions to the moon and Mars. Their goal was to evaluate how humans could conduct surveys of soil and environment that would allow them to choose sites for outposts in space.
To accomplish that goal, the researchers played out a scenario that simulated a manned space landing in which astronauts arrive on the moon or Mars, travel in a pressurized rover, and perform soil tests and collect samples.
About 10 Soldiers were used to test a prototype of spacesuit ports that lock in to a pressurized rover. In this new design, the suits hang off the back of the rover, attached by head and shoulders to a port. This would eliminate the time-consuming need for astronauts to enter an airlock chamber to don spacesuits and acclimate to the air they'll breathe. With the ports, astronauts need only to slip into the suit while inside the rover and unlock the port to perform space walks.
The new design also eliminates potential dust buildup in spaceships because the suits are always kept outside, said Pascal Lee, project lead for the field testing.
"The Soldiers were super helpful because they presented us with a wide range of body shapes and sizes," Lee said. "We don't want the suit ports to be too tightly tailored to an individual."
Spc. Robert Pierre, 2nd Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, helped the researchers with their testing and got to try out the spacesuits.
"It's definitely a new experience," he said. "I never thought I would do something like this."
Fort Irwin was chosen as the site for the testing because its terrain is similar to that of the moon and Mars, and because it could provide access to maxi-ambulance Humvees, which have been the standard vehicle used to simulate the pressurized rovers, Lee said. If pressurized rovers are eventually used, they would provide astronauts with mobile living and working quarters that would allow them to remain on the surface of the moon or Mars for extended amounts of time.
Working at Fort Irwin was an extremely positive experience, Lee said. Plans are in the works for a second phase of research here in the spring that would test the feasibility of using robots to follow up on the outpost site evaluations performed by humans.
"Our collaboration with Fort Irwin was very fruitful," Lee said. "It's the beginning of a beautiful relationship."