MOSES LAKE, Wash. – Two NASA astronauts in spacesuits drove their lunar truck up a steep sand dune in a barren, wind-swept landscape so forbidding it was reminiscent of the surface of the moon.
Space agency officials certainly think so. NASA scientists and contractors recently spent two weeks here field-testing some of the vehicles and robots that will be used when humans return to the moon later this century.
"Believe it or not, this place has a lot in common with the moon," Robert Ambrose, deputy division chief for NASA, said of the unusual sand dunes in central Washington.
The key element is the soft, powdery soil that is mixed with volcanic ash and similar to lunar dust, he said. The soil forms high, slippery dunes similar to the lunar hills the vehicles will have to climb.
"Mainly we've got slopes, soft soils and wide open spaces," Ambrose said. "That's what we needed to test our machines."
The big drawback? Moses Lake has normal gravity, while the moon has about one-sixth of Earth's gravity, he said.
Moses Lake is a town of about 17,000 located 170 miles east of Seattle along Interstate 90 in the arid Columbia Basin. Many french fries served at restaurants nationwide are grown and processed here, but Moses Lake is otherwise a synonym in much of Washington for the middle of nowhere.
NASA is no stranger here, said Bill Bluethmann of the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The giant runways at a closed B-52 base serve as an emergency alternative landing site for the space shuttle. And Moses Lake was considered as a home for the planned X-33 spaceplane that was supposed to replace the space shuttle, but NASA canceled that program, he said.
The space agency has been tasked to return to the moon by 2020, and the tests in Moses Lake brought together numerous prototypes from laboratories nationwide to see how they worked in the field and how they worked together.
The tests started in late May in the Moses Lake Sand Dunes, a 3,000-acre off-road vehicle park.
NASA intends to collect buckets of the powdery soil, much of it blown here from volcanic eruptions in the nearby Cascade Range, so astronauts who have already walked on the moon can determine how closely the soil resembles lunar dust, said Lucien Junkin, director of the lunar truck project.
The lunar truck is a 12-wheeled, gold-colored vehicle that weighs 4,500 pounds and can carry four astronauts in spacesuits. With a top speed of 10 mph and the ability to attach various implements, it is designed to perform civil engineering on the moon, Junkin said.
The battery-powered truck, which can move in all directions, can be controlled from Earth or by the passengers, he said. And unlike the lunar rover of the Apollo era, crew members will stand in the vehicle and be secured into the frame so a bump does not send them into flight.
One recent day, two men in 300-pound spacesuits drove across the dunes, practiced collecting sand in bags and deployed a small robot down the ramp of the truck.
Other NASA equipment included the crablike ATHLETE (All-Terrain Hex-Legged Extra Terrestrial Explorer), which can roll or walk across the ground carrying a cylindrical living pod for astronauts, and the K10, a robot scout used to explore and map key places for astronauts to visit.
The Scarab, an unmanned vehicle that looks like a race car, is intended to operate in complete darkness at the bottom of craters to determine if they contain ice that can be converted into water for human use.
NASA considered dozens of sites for the testing before settling on Moses Lake. One reason was that temperatures were expected to be a manageable 80 degrees with no rain. Instead, the coldest, wettest spring in decades surprised the scientists.
Still, they were happy to avoid the triple-digit temperatures of the desert Southwest and enjoyed working close to a town, Bluethmann said.
Most of the year, vehicles are tested at various sites that cover a few hundred meters, he said.
"At some point you get tired of driving in the same circle over and over again," he said.
Ambrose said it is unclear if NASA will return to Moses Lake. Test sites are dictated by the specific needs of the scientists, and the space agency has many options.
"When we design a test, we figure out the right site for the test," he said.