Penguin Powered

NASA astronauts come to Taos to train

The Taos News

Thursday, July 15, 1999

By Su Wong, for the Taos News

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.

Hitting the streets in their fluorescent-orange traffic vests, the eight NASA astronauts in Taos for geologic training last week could easily have been mistaken for street surveyors.

In fact, the astronauts were working in conjunction with the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources. What the astronauts learned along the way is crucial to NASA's vision of planetary exploration. Understanding the geophysical structure of the southern Taos Valley has practical applications in the projected exploration of Mars. This knowledge is also essential to ground water study right here at home.

The location of a water source on Mars would enable sustained planetary exploration. Finding water for drinking and production of oxygen would also be essential to the sustained habitation of a space station.

Using a Worden gravimeter, a device which measures minute gravity changes in the earth, the astronauts were able to chart where faults lie in the rocks below Taos. A fault is a fracture in the earth’s crust. The mapping of underground rocks helps reveal how close to the surface water can be found.

Pat Dickerson, a NASA scientist supervising the group, said that astronauts need to learn about geology and land forms. They are the eyes observing changes in the landscape, both looking down at earth from orbit and exploring the surface of other worlds. It is for this reason that astronauts must know what they are looking for. "In the space station era, with three to six months in orbit, we look forward to having more time to do in-depth observation, to recognize fault lies and get pictures of them when the sunlight is just right," added Mike Fossum, spokesperson for the NASA astronauts, Class of 1998. Images alone are not enough. "Film does not yet capture all the colors that the human can perceive nor all the details and pattern-recognition with the brain behind it."

The ability of the astronaut to make potentially revealing observations and radio the information back to ground control is thus essential.

That process of radioing observed data back to a base was enacted in the astronauts’ Taos training. At base, a computer processed the acquired data and in a few hours, a profile of the surveyed area was available. This process enabled the astronauts to experience, in real-time, the results of their data collection. Ultimately, the data also helps the Town of Taos locate a spot most conducive to drill for water.

Astronauts have been training in this area since the ‘70s Dickerson said that the landscape in this area is ideal for providing "textbook examples" of any kind of land form they might observe looking at earth from space or while exploring another planet.

Professor Bill Muehlberger of the University of Texas, who was also supervising the group, gave an example of a real-life application of this training. In 1971 he gave the Apollo 15 space crew geologic training in an area near Taos Junction Bridge. This area, he said, replicated the astronauts’ moon landing site at Hadley Rille.

Although astronaut training has long been conducted in and around Taos County, this was the first time the astronauts were able to work with the Bureau. The collaboration began in early 1999 when Dickerson contacted Paul Bauer, a senior geologist with the Bureau, to suggest the training project. The opportunity of being able to simultaneously supply the Bureau’s need for geologic mapping data, as well as providing invaluable training for space exploration, was too serendipitous to resist.

The astronaut group out here last week was the last of four eight-member groups. Nicknamed "the Penguins" – "A joke about flightless birds," Fossum added – the astronaut class of 1998 consists of 25 Americans and six internationals. A few members in the class have already been in space and one has even been in the Mir space station. Vocations represented within the class include engineering, medicine, physics, chemistry, geology and even teaching. Some members of the class may be on a space mission within five years.

The astronauts loved the local scene. Aside from training hard, they danced at the Sagebrush Inn, where the group stayed, and may have been spotted at the Taos Storyteller. The group expressed a desire to return to Taos one day to conduct educational outreach programs in local schools.

"I consider a real important part of our job is to help build the next step, a generation of people who are thinking the big thoughts and dreaming the big dreams," Fossum said.


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