Behind the Scenes on How NASA Is Testing Its New Lunar Rover


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Nov 20, 2023

Behind the Scenes on How NASA Is Testing Its New Lunar Rover

The pros and cons of driving with a joystick, testing GoPro feeds instead of windows, and what it’s really like to camp for two days inside a prototype moon rover. Astronauts and researchers from NASA

The pros and cons of driving with a joystick, testing GoPro feeds instead of windows, and what it’s really like to camp for two days inside a prototype moon rover.

Astronauts and researchers from NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency took to testing a pressurized lunar rover in the Arizona desert this past October, as part of NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies (RATS) program at the Black Point Lava Flow near SP Crater.

Think of it like an RV camping trip, but without the ability to just step outside and enjoy nature.

Crews of two astronauts at a time rotated through about 48 hours of living and operating out of the rover, while simulated moonwalks were the only time they could venture outside. It was all focused on gathering data about the future rover’s needs for design, driving modes, cabin configuration, and plenty more.

Marc Reagan, NASA’s longtime mission director and aquanaut, knows what it takes to lead missions in extreme environments—from the depths of Earth’s ocean to the surface of the moon. Reagan is currently serving as a mission manager for the Desert RATS program, including overseeing testing of the rover. He tells Popular Mechanics that this recent mission provided valuable data to further define the future construction of the pressurized lunar rover planned for the 2030 Artemis VII mission.

Reagan says that the preliminary work to support the October testing was months in the making. The rover used to mimic a future Artemis design was one crafted over a decade ago for the Constellation program. The work before the October mission included Reagan pulling together the entire plan for the objectives of the tests, training the crew, training Mission Control Center personnel in Houston, making sure all facilities were connected, and then replanning when things didn’t go the way they hoped.

“We were using a mockup of a pressurized rover,” Reagan says. The Artemis mission also has plans for an unpressurized rover, like what was previously used on Apollo missions, where astronauts could go for day trips in spacesuits. A pressurized rover, though, would allow astronauts to live for up to 30 days away from their main habitat, the lunar base.

“[A pressurized rover] allows you to wake up and get coffee and breakfast and start driving and get to the right place or the most compelling place, to then go do your moonwalk and get hands-on in science samples,” Reagan says. “It allows you to travel farther.”

While the October mission didn’t use an actual pressurized vehicle, the astronauts acted as though it was in order to experience operational concepts and logistics, explains Reagan. The astronaut crews started each of the missions in the afternoon of day one and spent about 48 hours in the rover, except for simulated moonwalks, exiting around noon on day three.

“We went ahead and loaded up the rover with two weeks of supplies,” Reagan says. “All the food, clothing, exercise equipment, all the things that would make that rover full when it would go out.”

The mission included looking at the logistical challenges of setting up a small-volume vehicle and understanding the right solutions. The team especially focused on researching the driving algorithms, the chassis, and the habitability of the interior.

The design of the lunar rover was from a previous mission, so that cabana-like design at the back is old and was originally designed as a protective transport area for spacesuits. The mockup materials aren’t space grade, either—the astronauts even needed a tarp to keep the rover from leaking if rain came. But the rover’s sizing was meant to be volumetrically accurate for stowage, a galley, a toilet, and a piece of exercise equipment.

“It is a lot like RV camping,” Reagan says. “They were eating camping food to a large degree.”

But without an airtight compartment, the rover got cold at night. And to keep everything mission-centric, the astronauts weren’t allowed outside, except for simulated moonwalks. “They didn’t get to just come out and grab some fresh air,” Reagan says. “They don’t get to enjoy nature on this, you are stuck in there. You get to see stars at night, but you don’t get to go out and smell the fresh air, a little something from the camping experience that is missing.”

There was one unexpected plus, though. “They guys did say the beds were really comfortable and they slept well in there,” Reagan says. “These aren’t luxury mattresses by any means.”

The mockup rover was flush with windows to allow for visual driving. But the right windows, to seal properly in a pressurized vessel, would mean extra weight. “One of the things [the researchers] were interested in seeing was how much you could drive safely just using cameras instead of just windows,” Reagan says. “If you could get rid of windows altogether, and throw some GoPros out there, you could save a lot of weight.”

Driving with just video and interior monitors turned out to be tricky, though. “If you are going to go to a camera solution, you got to do a lot better than fixed cameras and monitors and ask the operator to figure out what is going on out there from just monitors. One of the things that popped out at me is how hard it is [to drive] with just fixed cameras and monitors, how hard it is to see what you want to see and do what you want to do with that little insight.”

Then comes the driving capabilities. The prototype included wheels with full 90-degree, crab-like steering. That too comes with complexity in construction. The terrain of the Arizona desert tested the rover’s ability to use its wheels to pivot completely sideways and pirouette in place to help drivers get out of potentially dicey situations. They also tested more traditional 18-degree steering, much like that in a commercial car, to see if that had enough capability for a future rover.

NASA knows joysticks. Reagan jokes they get a discount on them since they use them so much. NASA features joysticks on spacecrafts, robotic arms, and shuttles. So when this rover was designed over a decade ago, it included a joystick. But that also made it quite tricky to yaw left or right and then not roll.

“The wheels turn hard, and it gets jerky and is not very smooth,” Reagan says. “The joystick is intuitive for some things, but it may not be the right solution for the rover.” NASA expects a yoke steering wheel—likely with controls on the handles—to be part of the non-pressurized mockup and Reagan says it will also offer the starting point for the first iteration of the driving controls for the pressurized design.

Reagan says a major objective of a pressurized rover is enhancing science capabilities—allowing astronauts to move to more places. Actually using the rover, though, has some practical considerations. He says the lights on the rover can light up a work site, the rover can carry heavy tools, the rover can follow or lead the team, and it can provide assistance down in craters. But to connect with the Mission Control Center, it must have a line of sight to Earth.

“Is it more valuable to get extra lights in a crater or stay on the ridge where MCC can stay involved and help out? The complexities of those trade-offs is something that popped out to me,” Reagan says. “There are a lot of capability and complexity tradeoffs on how you use the rover most effectively.”

Tim Newcomb is a journalist based in the Pacific Northwest. He covers stadiums, sneakers, gear, infrastructure, and more for a variety of publications, including Popular Mechanics. His favorite interviews have included sit-downs with Roger Federer in Switzerland, Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, and Tinker Hatfield in Portland.

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