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New spacesuits, familiar test: NASA back in C.O. to prep for Mars exploration, return to moon

Much as the earlier, original 'moon suits' were tested here in the 1960s

(Update: adding video, comments from NASA director)

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- NASA recently tested new spacesuits designed for a return to the moon and future Mars exploration at a number of natural sites in special spots around Central Oregon and nearby.

Dr. Pascal Lee, director of NASA's Haughton-Mars project, led the testing effort in Oregon late last month. 

"We thought this was really fitting, because we do have a spacesuit to test, and we are going back to the moon, so we came to Oregon,” Lee said Monday. 

Came back, that is.

Apollo astronauts trained and tested their spacesuits in Oregon during the 1960s because the natural volcanic landscape closely resembles the moon.

He said they haven't been back to Oregon to see how helpful it really was, until now.

"We were blown away by the quality of all of them,” Lee said. 

A crew of about 10 people came to Oregon to test the new suits at some of those same sites, which includes Lava Butte, the Big Obsidian Lava Flow, Fort Rock, Hole in the Ground and the Yapoah Lava Flow at McKenzie Pass.

They also visited a number of new sites to prepare for NASA’'s next mission to the moon's south polar highlands -- and eventually Mars.

The new sites included Pumice Slope at Crater Lake National Park, the Painted Hills at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Skylight Cave and Little Nash Crater.

"In case you didn't know, Oregon has really beautiful analog sites for the moon, and also for Mars,” Lee said. 

The reason they're testing new sites like Starlight Cave is because for the first time ever, they're testing spacesuits designed specifically for caves.

Lee said they are defining requirements for what future spacesuits may need for cave exploration.

"We want -- there's a few other things I can't really talk about, but it was good,” Lee said with a big grin.

Another change being tested in the new suits is the addition of electronics.

The suits are being designed to display GPS maps, show heart rates, respond to voice commands and assist with detailed image sampling. Just what you'd expect from a 21st century spacesuit.

"Things that will make doing spacewalks on the moon and on Mars safer down the road,” Lee said. “This type of tech has to be tested in an actual realistic field environment, so that's why we came to Oregon."

Lee hopes the suits will be used on the moon within the next decade, and said this was a promising first step.

"The details are going to be written up in technical papers and journals, but the upshot is that it works really well, it works beautifully.” Lee said.

Lee said he could see astronauts exploring Mars by the mid 2030s, and hopes to do some more testing in Oregon before then.

"If you could only take astronauts to train them in five places on earth, Oregon, in my view, would be in the top five,” Lee said. 

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Noah Chast

Noah Chast is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Noah here.


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