- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2008

MOSES LAKE, Wash. | Two NASA astronauts in spacesuits drove their lunar truck up a steep sand dune in a barren, wind-swept landscape so forbidding it was reminiscent of the surface of the moon.

Space agency officials certainly think so. NASA scientists and contractors recently spent two weeks here field-testing some of the vehicles and robots that will be used when humans return to the moon later this century.

“Believe it or not, this place has a lot in common with the moon,” Robert Ambrose, deputy division chief for NASA, said of the unusual sand dunes in central Washington.

The key element is the soft, powdery soil that is mixed with volcanic ash and similar to lunar dust, he said. The soil forms high, slippery dunes similar to the lunar hills the vehicles will have to climb.

“Mainly we’ve got slopes, soft soils and wide open spaces,” Mr. Ambrose said. “That’s what we needed to test our machines.”

The big drawback? Moses Lake has normal gravity, while the moon has about one-sixth of Earth’s gravity, he said.

Moses Lake is a town of about 17,000 located 170 miles east of Seattle along Interstate 90 in the arid Columbia Basin. Many french fries served at restaurants nationwide are grown and processed here, but Moses Lake is otherwise a synonym in much of Washington for the middle of nowhere.

NASA is no stranger here, said Bill Bluethmann of the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The giant runways at a closed B-52 base serve as an emergency alternative landing site for the space shuttle.

And Moses Lake was considered as a home for the planned X-33 spaceplane that was supposed to replace the space shuttle, but NASA canceled that program, he said.

The space agency has been tasked to return to the moon by 2020, and the tests in Moses Lake brought together numerous prototypes from laboratories nationwide to see how they worked in the field and how they worked together.

The tests started in late May in the Moses Lake Sand Dunes, a 3,000-acre off-road vehicle park.

NASA intends to collect buckets of the powdery soil, much of it blown here from volcanic eruptions in the nearby Cascade Range, so astronauts who have already walked on the moon can determine how closely the soil resembles lunar dust, said Lucien Junkin, director of the lunar truck project.

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