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NASA sets its sights on the moon from training grounds in Northern Arizona

A large vehicle with rounded edges and American and Japanese flags drives on a dark, rocky lava flow beneath blue mountains.
Melissa Sevigny
A prototype moon rover for NASA's Artemis missions roves around the Black Point Lava Flow north of Flagstaff.

NASA’s Artemis program intends to return humans to the moon after a half-century hiatus. But first, astronauts and engineers have to train and test lifesaving equipment here on Earth. So they’re returning to the same places where Apollo astronauts used to practice fifty years ago—the moonlike lava fields of Northern Arizona. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports.

There’s not a building in sight on the Black Point Lava Flow north of Flagstaff, just miles of desert. But a base camp is bustling with scientists and engineers who have come from all over the country to test their equipment. Michael Miller is an engineer with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It’s his job to make sure communications hardware will work in a lumpy landscape like on the moon.

“I live in Florida,” he laughs. “It’s really flat and open and easy. Out here there’s a lot of mountains and plateaus and other things that affect the comms.”

Industrial designer Lily Douglas hefts a thirty-five pound backpack, a design that may end up on the next moon mission. It’s stuffed with cameras and other gear.

“To be a part of a hopefully making history is really, really awesome,” she says.

Melissa Sevigny
Lily Douglas of the Johnson Space Center and Michael Miller of the Kennedy Space Center show off a prototype moon backpack.

NASA astronauts began training in Northern Arizona in the 1960s because its canyons and cinder cones mirror the lunar terrain. When the Apollo program ended, just 12 people had walked on the moon, all of them men. The Artemis program intends to put the first woman and first person of color on the moon.

Marc Reagan, a manager of the simulated moon missions, says, “The Artemis accords are about exploring the moon peacefully…. And I like seeing that we have this diversity of the population here on earth starting to be represented in this.”

Twenty-one countries have signed the Artemis Accords which lay out guidelines for space exploration.

“I think this is going to be one of the most complex things you see happen in society. It’s an international partnership, it’s got a lot of different pieces of space hardware that are coming together,” Reagan says.

The tests in the Arizona desert include everything from moonwalks in spacesuits, to setting up GPS on the moon, to teaching astronauts how to describe an otherworldly landscape. Lauren Edgar of the U.S. Geological Survey is one of the geologists who guides them. “They’ll go out to a station, explore, as soon as they move on, we go in and ground truth what they were seeing.”  

The astronauts radio their findings to Mission Control in Houston, as if they were really on the moon. “We haven’t done that since the Apollo Era," Edgar says. "It was really exciting to ramp up to that full scale testing.

Artemis rover
Melissa Sevigny
A couple of kids look out the window of NASA's prototype moon rover

The star of the simulated moon missions is a pressurized rover the size of an RV. Astronauts with NASA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency teamed up to test its capabilities; living in pairs in three day stretches in the crowded cabin, which contains two fold-down beds and a toilet. The 10,000-lb rover trundles the lava-scape at a slow crawl, spinning its 12 wheels to navigate rocks.

Local space historian Kevin Schindler says NASA drove moon buggies around Flagstaff for Apollo, too. “And so to see that what they did 50 years isn’t just a historic footnote but the foundation for what’s happening today—and in just a couple years, we’re going back,” he says.

It’s the goal of Artemis not just to explore the moon but put down roots there, with a permanent base camp that can be used to launch future missions to Mars or beyond.

“We learned so much by going to space, learned so much about the solar system and our place in it,” he says. “And we also learned about ourselves. We’re humans. We’re explorers at heart.”

This November, NASA plans to launch the first test voyage of the Artemis program, an uncrewed spacecraft that will orbit the moon on a nearly month-long flight.

Artemis rover from inside
Melissa Sevigny
The view from inside NASA's prototype moon rover, with the San Francisco Peaks in the distance.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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