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Space Suit Testing in Flagstaff, Ariz. - Part 1

by Amy Ross
September 2-3, 2000

Field Trip Log

This is my first journal entry for this program and for our Flagstaff, Ariz., Space Suit Test Field Trip 2000. I am sitting in the passenger seat of a JSC motor pool van and we are just west of San Antonio. We just stopped for breakfast and are on the road again, heading to El Paso, where we will stop for the night. However, I ought to back up and explain how I got here.

Back in February the advanced space suit group (two engineers, one of which is me; four technicians; and one test subject, who is a geologist), got word that we would be funded for a remote field site test this year. Since 1997, we have done one remote field site test a year. The first was really more of a scouting expedition than a test. Just a couple of folks went out to Death Valley to look at some sights that had terrain features similar to the Moon and to Mars, one of which is Mars Hill. Although, the terrain of Mars Hill is very similar to that of Mars, because the site is a National Monument, we could not do our space suit testing there.

Other sites were considered and in 1998 the team (I didn't get to go on that trip because I was working on the space suit gloves that were going to fly for the first time on STS-88 that launched in December 1998) went to Flagstaff, Ariz., and tested the suit on four sites with various planetary terrain features, including an impact crater -- Meteor Crater. During that test the suited subject deployed a simulated Mars Scientific Experiment Package (Mars SEP) and did geological field site survey activities such as taking soil and rock samples. In 1999, the team (including me) went out to Baker, Calif., (about two hours west of Las Vegas, Nev.) to participate in the Astronaut-Rover (ASRO) Interaction Test. We, of course, were the 'Astronaut' part of the test. NASA Ames Research Center provided the rover. It was called the Marsakhod -- a Russian built chassis that Ames acquired then added control systems, instrumentation, and stereovision to it. We studied how best to share the workload between the robot and the astronaut. Together they performed Mars SEP deployment and did geology traverses. Which brings us to this year.

We already had an idea of what we wanted to do for our next field trip when we learned that we could make the trip. This year we are concentrating on deployment tasks. These are typical tasks expected to be performed to set-up a planetary habitat. Our test subject will deploy power cable (300 foot long) and a flexible solar panel (200 foot long). The subject will also perform a representative geology field site survey, including hand and machine drilling for core samples. Core samples allow scientists to look at the layers under the surface, which is a good place to look for signs of life and to understand the geologic structure and history of a region. Again, we are coordinating our activities with a robotic assistant. This robot is from NASA/Johnson Space Robotic, Automation, and Simulation division. The robot will pull the trailer with the power cable/solar panel. Sometimes it will pick a path on its own and sometimes it will follow the suited test subject. These interaction tests with the robot and astronaut help us to determine the most efficient division of labor between people and robots.

We've been preparing for the trip since February. The Exploration Office had helped us select the tasks, but we had a lot of questions. How long is the power cable? What size and how stiff should the cable be? What type of equipment will we need to deploy the power cable? How should we anchor the solar panel to the ground? What tools will the astronauts need to do that job? Where do you buy a hand core drill and which one do we want? What about a drilling machine? We did a lot of research and asked these questions to various smart people around JSC.

When we had the answers then we could start building the hardware. The technicians in our lab built the power cable and solar panel reels. The power cable also has a guide/tension device. The solar panel has a bar that helps in the deployment of the solar panel. They built the tools to anchor the solar panel to the ground. I helped fabricate the solar panel. They are many ways to do these things, but we tried our best to come up with simple, effective designs.

The space suits themselves are very important pieces of our hardware! We decided to take two of our three advanced space suit configurations to Flagstaff this year. That way we can also study the mobility systems between the suit designs. With the suits, we use a liquid air backpack to provide the suit pressurization, breathing air and cooling for our test subject while he is in the suit. We had identified some improvements that needed to be made to the liquid air backpack during the ASRO.

Before we left for Flagstaff, we needed to evaluate the hardware designs, the test procedures and the improvements to the backpack. Over three months we went out on the grass near our lab, and out to our newly constructed Mars Rock Pile (on-site at JSC) to practice. After each practice run we made iterations on the hardware to make them better.

Other preparations for the trip included checking, rechecking and checking again the lists of our hardware to make sure that we took what we needed to take. A lot of our hardware is one-of-a-kind, so if we leave it behind we are in big trouble.

Well, that gives you an idea of the work that led up to the trip. Now it is 1:01 and we are about 60 miles from Fort Stockton, Texas. The truck and trailer with all of our equipment lead our convoy. The pick-up truck with the drilling rig in the bed is in the middle and the van I'm riding in brings up the rear. So far I've kept busy writing this entry (just yesterday I went and got the inverter that lets me power the laptop from the van), playing solitaire, and napping. We'll get to El Paso around 6:00. The scenery won't change for the next five hours-scrub brush, creosote bushes, and cacti- sprinkled plateaus. I got solitaire twice, so I might try to continue a good thing. It's 291 miles to El Paso. Dean is telling us about he geology of the area. Very interesting. I'll write more later.


This is our second day on the rode -- we left at 0500 again. Jose and Kevin have never seen the country and were impressed with the scenery, as we drove from El Paso to Truth or Consequences, N. M. We stopped there for breakfast. I napped. It should be another 10-12 hour day to Flagstaff. So far, so good.


We just stopped for lunch near Holbrook, Ariz., and are less than two hours from Flagstaff. We've come through some very pretty country and have taken some pictures of various geological features to show the Center Operations folks back at JSC. They are helping us develop the EVA remote field test demonstration site (the rock pile). We want to add a hill with a face (like a cliff face). Joe pointed out some cap rock formations that he'd like to simulate.

When we get to Flagstaff we are going to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) office to drop off the trailer. We have an agreement with them and they let us stow a lot of our gear there so that it is safer than just sitting in the hotel parking lot. Once we're situated at the USGS, we'll head to the hotel to get settled in there.


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