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Alumni Newsletter 2012-2013

Graduate Students Debra Hurwitz and Mark Salvatore Participate in NASA Technology Development Study in NASA Houston Mission Control

Graduate students Debra Hurwitz (now a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston) and Mark Salvatore (now a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Arizona State University) were invited to participate in the NASA-run Desert Research and Technology Studies (colloquially known as “Desert RATS”) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, through Professor Jim Head’s long-standing participation in NASA Astronaut Training program.  Set up in the renowned Mission Control Center at Johnson Space Center, Hurwitz and Salvatore were two of 22 scientists tasked with planning and participating in geologic activities of astronaut crews at a field site north of Flagstaff, Arizona, where the majority of RATS activities occur.  The two were also responsible for providing geologic interpretations of the field site and for developing protocols to be used on future human exploration missions throughout the solar system.

NASA is committed to researching and developing methods, techniques, systems, and technology necessary to prepare for the future human exploration of space beyond low Earth orbit.  “The technologies and protocols being developed at Desert RATS are not for if NASA sends humans back to the Moon, on to Mars, or beyond, but when”, says Salvatore.  “Developing these systems now will ensure that the astronauts, engineers, scientists, and flight controllers will be ready to proceed with human exploration when the time comes.”  In pursuit of human exploration in space, NASA announced the design for the new Space Launch System that will be used to propel humans beyond lower Earth orbit on September 13, 2011, and NASA contractors began assembling the first space-faring Orion capsule that sat on top of the rocket on September 9, 2011.

This year’s Desert RATS activities were designed to test the capabilities of human exploration on an asteroid.  “It’s very different than working on the Moon or Mars”, says Hurwitz.  In particular, the astronauts will be challenged with working in extremely low gravity and with potentially crippling communications and mobility constraints.  “We worked with a 50-second one-way delay between Houston and the field to simulate data and communications restrictions, although 50-seconds is likely an underestimate of the actual delays that we would be facing.”  Hurwitz added that these delays prevented the field crews and Mission Control from engaging in conversational exchanges and put severe limitations on camera and GPS-tracking capabilities.

The teams only received one full day off during the two week operations test period and spent most of their free time interpreting images, generating hypotheses regarding the regional geology, and organizing sample and image data for use during future investigations.  The crew often worked more than 12-hours per day, but that didn’t stop them from enjoying their time working with fellow scientists and NASA astronauts.  “Working in Mission Control is as amazing as it sounds,” Salvatore added.  “We’re just honored to have been given the opportunity to help out.”

photo: Debra Hurwitz focus on her work in Houston Mission Control as the Science Geological Samples Lead.

photo:  Mark Salvatore and Debra Hurwitz sit at the Apollo Mission Flight Director’s console in the Apollo Mission Control Center, at the Johnson Space Center, Houston.

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