It's been almost four decades since the last Americans walked on the Moon, and it could be decades more before anyone follows in their footsteps. But like good scouts, scientists and engineers are staying prepared. Among other things, they're testing equipment and techniques in environments that are as Moon-like as possible.
An example is a project called Desert RATS, which is scheduled to get underway this week in Arizona. In years past, the project has tested a lunar rover, plus an ungainly vehicle that could walk across especially rough or steep landscapes.
Desert RATS is one of a long list of expeditions to sites that are like the Moon, Mars, or other space environments. In the last few months, for example, astronauts spent two weeks underwater to test techniques for spacewalks. A little later, another expedition was testing ways to live and work on Mars on a remote Canadian island.
One of the highlights of Desert RATS has been testing a new lunar rover. It has a pressurized cockpit that allows the two-person crew to live and work in shirtsleeves for days at a time. And when crewmembers want to get a closer look at something, they can slide into spacesuits that are attached to the back of the rover.
With a hot set of wheels to whisk them around, all astronauts need now is a ride to the Moon -- which is in good view tonight, by the way. It rises not long after darkness falls, with the brilliant planet Jupiter to its right.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010
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