Penguin Powered

Astronaut Trainees use Taos for Mars Stand-In


THE BASE: New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology graduate students Rod Stanton, right, and Tony Lupo work at "Mars Base" on the lawn of a Taos bed and breakfast recording data the astronaut candidates in the field radioed back to them.


Students learn a skill in New Mexico they may need on the red planet: how to find water

Albuquerque Journal

Monday, July 19, 1999

By John Fleck, Journal Staff Writer

Taos–Space exploration’s next great frontier is on the shaded lawn of a Taos bed and breakfast. Its "Mars base," where three New Mexico Tech graduate students surround a laptop computer while they listen to a two-way radio.

At the other end of the radio, four NASA astronauts-in-training work their way down a Taos street, stopping about every 100 yards to carefully measure the density of the rocks beneath their feet.

The astronaut candidates are working with New Mexico geologists, using northern New Mexico as a stand-in for a planet they hope someday to visit while also helping to solve the practical problem of better understanding the ground-water basin beneath Taos.

Wearing reflective road-crew vests instead of space suits, the trainees are the latest in a line of astronauts stretching back to the 1970s who have come to Taos to train.

For a week at a time each, four groups of eight astronaut candidates went through this summer’s program.

"It’s a chance to do the hands on stuff in the field for real," said 41-year-old astronaut candidate Mike Fossum.

For now, Fossum and 31 astronaut candidates are preparing for tours of duty in the International Space Station, a permanent dwelling now being assembled in Earth’s orbit. The first crew of astronauts is scheduled to take up residence there next spring.

But the eagerness in his eyes leaves no doubt he would like to be setting foot on Mars someday.

"I think every one of us would," he said. "That’ll be the next step in exploration."

Moon stand-in

Texas geologist Bill Muehlberger has been training astronauts in the Southwest since the 1960s.

They originally came because of landscape similarities to the moon, with its vast lava flows and volcanic mountains, with a dry climate that leaves the rocks largely uncovered.

"Most of their field trips were to volcanic area and impact craters, because they were going to the moon," recalled Muehlberger, a professor emeritus from the University of Texas at Austin.

In 1971 Muehlberger brought the Apollo XV astronauts to Taos, where he used a site southwest of town as a stand-in for Hadley Rille, their lunar landing site.

In the years since, he’s brought many groups of astronauts back, training space shuttle astronauts to understand geologic processes on Earth so they’ll understand what they’re seeing as they orbit our planet.

With this year’s team, which is being trained for longer stays on the space station, the goals are even more ambitious, said Pat Dickerson, a NASA scientist who helps manage the training program.

Spending months at a time in orbit, the scientists will be able to watch changes on the earth beneath them from day to day, as the Mississippi River delta expands, for example, or India'’ Ganges River changes with the arrival of the Indian monsoon.

"We have processes that we’d like to see play out over geologic time," Dickerson said.

Finding water

And then there’s the question of water–in Taos and on Mars.

Much of the astronauts’ geology training involves classroom instruction and tours to compare the geologic features they see on the ground with pictures taken from space.

But this summer’s program gave them something more –hands-on training with the sort of instruments Earth scientists use every day, the same sort astronauts might someday use on Mars.

And they did more than a make-work exercise–they helped New Mexico geologists trying to understand where the ground water is beneath the Taos mesa.

They’ve been studying the rocks and grave that washed down out of the mountains, covering the mesa on which Taos sits, explained Peggy Johnson, a ground-water expert with the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources in Socorro.

Johnson and Bureau of Mines geologist Paul Bauer have been mapping the geology of the Taos area to investigate the ground water available in the region.

To do that, they need to know how deep the bedrock is, which is where the astronaut candidates were able to help.

Using a sensitive gravity meter, they measured the force of gravity exerted by rocks beneath the surface. Dense bedrock exerts more pull on the meter than loose gravel and rocks, giving the scientists an indirect way of studying the underground geology.

"This was an opportunity for them to gather real data on a real project that has societal need," Johnson said. "We need to know this to answer questions of ground-water availability."

And that’s a question that will matter on Mars as well as in Taos.

If astronauts ever go there, one of their key needs will be water.

While there’s clear evidence that there once was water on the surface of Mars, none is visible today. But planetary geologists believe there might be water underground, in much the way water is stored in aquifers on Earth.

"This is exactly what you’re going to have to do" when you go to Mars, Dickerson said.


MARS, NM: Astronaut candidates Mike Fossum, left, and Garrett Reisman calibrate gravity meters in Taos, where they were training this month for what might be a trip someday to Mars.

(see other local press coverage)


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