Science and Technology News

Friday, July 27, 2012

Reaching The Final Frontier.

Gene Roddenberry had it right when he said that space is the final frontier.

What he may have neglected to mention, however, is how rough and tumble that frontier really is, or how difficult it is for us to ride through that star-speckled range.

I think it goes without saying that if we ever want to traverse the stars with the grace and ease afforded galaxy-class starships, we first need to start with strolling our own solar system. And by “strolling” I mean taking very well-planned and orchestrated steps in the right direction. Yes, the NASA space program is still reaching out into the universe, and every day they’re working to making space travel a practical and realistic future.

One environmentally inhospitable step at a time.
Let’s face it, unless you’re already a spaceship-flying alien or some kind of robot, space travel is not really smoothing sailing for us biped, oxygen-breathing, land-dwelling human types. But that’s not to say we’re letting a few challenging variables like food, air, water, and environment stop us.

Researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center are collaborating efforts to bring human beings out of low-Earth orbit. However, before we hop into the nearest rocket and strap MARS OR BUST on the back there is a lot of planning that goes into making that happen.

So how are the brilliant minds at NASA helping to make our footprints in the celestial sand? One of the ways is by using R.A.T.S. And not the white, furry types that frequent mazes. I’m talking about one of these:
Casual desert wear, good for any occasion.

That is one of the amazing machines in the project desert R.A.T.S. – or Research and Technology Studies – repertoire. The goal of the desert R.A.T.S. is to develop hardware that scientists hope will deliver people to other celestial bodies by understanding the limitations here on Earth. Basically, we’re beta testing intergalactic space travel. With robotic vehicles. In Arizona.

So basically this is a crawl, walk, run, blastoff situation.

“The overall goal is for us to be as prepared as possible for human space flight targets,” explains Dr. Jacob Bleacher, Research Scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in the Planetary Geodynamics Laboratory. “We want to be able to first fundamentally use the hardware and be able to survive and do the tasks that are given to us, and then make sure that we’re doing as much of the science that we have once we get there.”

I guess it is smart to take the space science vehicle for a couple of test drives – or ten million – before shooting her up into the cosmos. That way the experts can work out all of the problems here on the surface before they get out past the atmosphere.

Because no one wants to break down on the way to the nearest asteroid. It’s bad enough when it happens in Nebraska.
One of the biggest concerns for our future out in space is not just the getting-there-in-one-piece part, but the subject of hospitable living environments. Finding a way for researchers to live and work and not, you know, die, is vital to mission success.
You can’t just shove scientists into a space flight suit and say bon voyage.
Even here on Earth, working in harsh, inhospitable environments is something many humans deal with on a daily basis. There’s a lot of planning and preparation that goes into finding a consistently sustainable atmosphere for people to work and survive in, in order to succeed in the mission.

The military is no stranger to this type of challenge.
Making the gear, equipment, uniforms, tents, environments, and vehicles comfortable, or at least less uncomfortable, for service members is one of the many missions of the military. They’re consistently testing and perfecting equipment and technology long before it ever gets rolled out to the troops. NASA follows the same idea. The goal of the desert R.A.T.S. is essentially to field test technology here on Earth in order to change, perfect and improve what we have until it can be used outside of our atmosphere.

The military has had a hand in the space race for ages. Most recently the Air Force had the X-37 – nicknamed the spaceplane – in orbit for over a year, and the military has been working with NASA to develop this kind of sustainable living condition technology.

“In the 2011 field tests for desert R.A.T.S., we were testing some of the new tent designs that the military has been developing,” explains Dr. Bleacher. “I think they call them ‘air beam’ structures that could be deployed as semi-permanent fixtures out in the field.”

In the wild world of robotics, the military is also working to combine the strategic mission with the scientific community, creating a symbiotic relationship between troops and technology.
“A lot of the things we’re looking at now, telerobotic operations [for example], will certainly have overlaps with the military as a lot of the drone airplanes – and things like that – do. The military is really leading the way on telerobotic operations, which they use on a day-to-day basis now. We can learn a lot from the military, and hopefully they will learn a lot from what we’re doing in several of these different approaches.”

There are some surprising similarities to what service members deal with in a military strategic environment, and what astronauts encounter when it comes to space travel. For example, dust.

You don’t want to breathe it on Earth, you don’t want to breathe it in space.
The little known tale of the dusty astronaut...

Service members have to take precautions when they go to certain countries not to inhale the dust-riddled air for risk of breathing that into their lungs. Surprisingly, the same kind of threat applies to astronauts. Researchers learned this during the Apollo 11 mission. The astronauts put their suits on, then went outside and shuffled around in the dust (as one is want to do on the moon). Then when they came back inside and took their suits off, a lot of dust that was stuck to the suit was now floating around in their living environment.

And they were breathing it.
“The dust on the moon is a pretty hostile type of material,” explains Dr. Bleacher. “It’s basically like breathing in shards of glass.”

UGH! You never think of that! Shards of glass getting into your lungs. Your skin. Into your eyes! Talk about a little-known astronaut occupational hazard.

“One of the things that we dealt with in desert R.A.T.S. is trying to improve upon some of these living conditions.”
Dr. Bleacher says that reducing the amount of time the astronauts are inside of the suits is just one of the goals of the desert R.A.T.S. “If you look at the missions that we’re planning now – for example going to Mars- you’re not going for three days, you’re going for a long period of time. Many months, probably.”

The Apollo astronauts were in the suit all day for only three days, and they got pretty beat up. Operating inside a suit for many days in a row would be seemingly rather difficult. Minimizing the amount of time in the suit would make life for the scientists – and the mission in general – more manageable.

The military faces similar challenges in dealing with full battle-rattle + uniforms + harsh environments. There are times when you know exactly what five-day-old unwashed you smells like. And so do all of your battle buddies. Finding ways of making the equipment and uniforms more wearable and manageable is something that the military could benefit from as well as NASA.

The desert R.A.T.S. program is reaching out to test beyond the confines of clothing and equipment. And by that I mean taking a holistic approach to improving our chances of successful space flight.

The current goal, according to Dr. Bleacher, is to be able to leave low-Earth orbit. Which basically means the moon and beyond. The desert R.A.T.S. program is one of the ways researchers are working to make that happen.

The desert R.A.T.S. mission is one in a series of well-placed cogs in a strategic machine, but we’re not limited to using this technology for just space travel. Advancements being made at NASA affect positive change in the civilian and military communities as well. The greatest thing about this technology is that this is only the beginning.
“The sky is not even the limit at that point,” Dr. Bleacher says with an enthusiastic smile on his face. “We don’t really know what can happen or where we can go.”
I can’t wait for humanity to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Race you to the nearest asteroid.

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science. She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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