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NASA returns to its old training grounds: The moonlike lava fields of Arizona


Fifty years after humans last walked on the moon, NASA wants astronauts to go back. So they have returned to their old training grounds, the moon-like lava fields of the Arizona desert. Melissa Sevigny reports from our member station KNAU.


MELISSA SEVIGNY, BYLINE: An RV-sized moon rover with 12 wheels and a bubble of windows cocooning the driver's chair rumbles over the Black Point Lava Flow in northern Arizona. Bare, black earth split by canyons stretches to the horizon. And old volcanoes dot the skyline. Geologist Lauren Edgar says it's a lot like the moon.

LAUREN EDGAR: And I was lucky to be pulled into astronaut training, particularly because we do a lot of work out here in northern Arizona, in the Flagstaff area.

SEVIGNY: It's Edgar's job to give astronauts a crash course in geology. And this is the landscape to do it in.

EDGAR: So they'll go out to a station, explore. As soon as they move on, we go in and kind of ground truth what they were seeing.

SEVIGNY: These forays into the lunar-like landscape are part of a series of simulated moon missions. American and Japanese astronauts paired up and lived inside the pressurized rover for three-day stretches. The space is cramped, with two fold-down beds and a toilet, but no stepping outside for a quick breath of fresh air. Edgar says this is a real practice run for the moon.

EDGAR: And we haven't done that since the Apollo era. So it was really exciting to ramp up that full-scale testing.

SEVIGNY: When the Apollo program ended in 1972, just 12 people had walked on the moon, all of them men. The Artemis program intends to put the first woman and first person of color on the moon. Marc Reagan is a manager of the simulated moon missions.

MARC REAGAN: The Artemis accords are about exploring the moon peacefully. And I liked seeing that we have this diversity of the population here on Earth starting to be represented in this.

SEVIGNY: The Arizona base camp bustles with scientists and engineers from all over the country. Michael Miller is with NASA's Kennedy Space Center. It's his job to make sure communications hardware will work in a lumpy landscape, like on the moon.

MICHAEL MILLER: I live in Florida. It's really flat and open and easy. Out here, there's a lot of mountains and plateaus and other things that affect the comms.

SEVIGNY: Industrial designer Lily Douglas has a 35-pound, prototype moon backpack stuffed with cameras and other gear.

LILY DOUGLAS: To be a part of hopefully making history, it's really, really awesome.

SEVIGNY: The rover is the star of the simulated moon missions. Space historian Kevin Schindler watches the 10,000-pound vehicle make a pinpoint turn, each of its 12 wheels moving independently. He says astronauts drove rovers in northern Arizona during the Apollo era, too.

KEVIN SCHINDLER: And so to see that what they did 50 years ago isn't just a historic footnote but is the foundation for what's happening today and that - in just a couple of years, we're going back.

SEVIGNY: It's the goal of Artemis not just to explore the moon, but eventually put down roots there, with a permanent base camp that can be used to launch future missions to Mars or beyond.

SCHINDLER: We learned so much by going to space and learned so much about the solar system and our place in it. We're explorers at heart.

SEVIGNY: This November, NASA plans to launch the first test voyage of the Artemis Program, an uncrewed spacecraft that will orbit the moon on a nearly month-long flight. A lunar landing with humans is planned for 2025.

For NPR News, I'm Melissa Sevigny.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Melissa grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Arizona and an M.FA. in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. Her first book, Mythical River, forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press, is about water issues in the Southwest. She has worked as a science communicator for NASA’s Phoenix Mars Scout Mission, the Water Resources Research Center, and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Melissa relocated to Flagstaff in 2015 to join KNAU’s team. She enjoys hiking, fishing and reading fantasy novels.