Desert RATS in the Field

Desert RATS 2010: Training, Practice and Teamwork
Posted on Sep 02, 2010

Space Exploration Vehicle Rovers A and B docked to the HDU-PEM on September 5, 2010 near SP Mountain. Credit: NASA, Desert RATS

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.

Astronaut Stan Love in the foreground of an amazing view of a crater during Mission Day 5. Credit: NASA, Desert RATS

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: Human Factors
Posted on Sep 08, 2010 01:48:59 PM

By Robert Howard and Chip Litaker

The Rover pulling along the Portable Utility Pallet (PUP). Credit: NASA, Desert Rats

Dr. Robert Howard is the manager of NASA’s Habitability Design Center within the Space and Life Sciences Directorate at Johnson Space Center. At Desert RATS, Dr. Howard oversees human factors evaluations aboard both rovers and the Habitat Demonstration Unit.

Mission day 7 finds us at the mid-point of our 14 day D-RATS mission and my team, the human factors (HF) team, has been asked to explain a little bit about what we investigate in regards to habitability of the rovers and the Habitat Demonstration Unit (HDU). The field of human factors is a systematic application of discovering information about human capabilities, characteristics, limitations, and motivation in order to design technology and procedures for people to become more productive, safe, comfortable, and effective in the environments in which they use such items.

Habitation is the space which determines the overall living and working environment for an individual within a vehicle or habitat, which affects the quality of daily life and productivity while onboard a space vehicle. With the rovers, we study over 212 operational elements of each rover, 50 of which are for habitability alone. These elements include the crew interfacing with the displays and controls, preparing a meal, exercising, driving, visibility and daily habitat operations to name a few.

Crew members working in the geology glove box getting ready to analyze a rock sample. Credit: NASA, Desert Rats

HF engineers also look at a crew’s workload, fatigue, and thermal comfort while performing such tasks as driving, Extra-Vehicular Activities (EVA) and docking. We record the amount of water the crew uses, the weight of logistics (like clothing, food, equipment), and the amount of trash generated by the crew to understand the amount of consumables needed for a crew of two on a 7-day planetary mission. This in turn, assists mission planners who develop the missions the crew will possible go on in the future. By using standard human performance measures, HF engineers can obtain an understanding of the interaction between the human and the machine. This tells us if the crew can live effectively inside the vehicles we are designing.

The rovers are just one set of vehicles HF engineers are examining. On Mission Day 6, both rovers docked to the HDU, which simulates a working habitat called the Pressurized Excursion Module (PEM). The habitat has a geology station, a space suit maintenance station, a general maintenance station, and a medical station. While the crews are docked to the PEM, they live in the rovers and work in the PEM. The PEM is a very exciting development. The workstations allow the human crew to do many things on the moon that were previously impossible in human spaceflight.

A crew member prepares lunch. (Note the small sink and water hose he is using to rehydrate his meal.) Credit: NASA, Desert RATS

While in the PEM, the crews have specific tasks to perform on each station. For example, they examine and analyze rock samples they collected while on a traverse and they fix items needing repair. Together, the two rovers and the PEM can support a crew for up to a month. The crew could use the rovers as living quarters and as vehicles to conduct scientific exploration of the Moon, then return to the PEM for resupply, maintenance, and evaluations of collected samples. As with the rovers, HF engineers want to understand how the volume and architectural layout of the habitat works for the crew while they are performing normal working tasks and interacting with all types of technology.

By understanding how humans and machines interact with each other, human factors engineering in collaboration with vehicle design engineering can capture information on the design and present recommendations on how to improve the design to enhance the crew member’s performance and comfort. Information provided by HF engineers lends confidence to future planetary vehicle design. Field trials such as Desert RATS give HF engineers a more realistic testing environment to investigate the various elements of habitation.

To read more Desert RATS posts from the field, visit:

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Dr. Dean Eppler is a geologist at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. For the past eight years, Eppler has participated in field tests of experimental spacesuits as part of the Desert RATS (Research and Technology Studies) project. The suits are being tested to provide input to the development.

What’s it like to walk around on Mars in a space suit? No-one knows for sure. But geologist Dean Eppler has come as close as anyone. In this interview, he talks about his experience working in the Mark III experimental suit, as part of this year’s Desert RATS field season.

Desert RATS Test Robotic Rover
A group of scientists and engineers converged in the Arizona desert near Meteor Crater to “practice” for future human missions to the moon and Mars. This year’s experiments focused on interaction between space-suited “astronauts” and a very sophisticated rover named SCOUT.