More than 50 years after astronauts trained on Central Oregon’s volcanic terrain for the first moon landing, NASA returned to the region to test new spacesuit technology.

Scientists and engineers spent 12 days in August in areas outside of Bend as part of NASA’s Artemis Program, which aims to send the first woman and next man to the moon by the end of this decade.

Dr. Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist with the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute, and director of the NASA Haughton-Mars Project, said he was impressed by the diversity of the landscape in Central Oregon, which includes lava flows, caves and steep hills.

“What is extraordinary about Oregon is the combination of things you can find in a relatively limited range,” Lee said. “Going to Oregon is a package deal.”

Lee and about nine others involved in the testing visited the original NASA training locations at Lava Butte, Big Obsidian Lava Flow, Fort Rock, Hole in the Ground and Yapoah Lava Flow at McKenzie Pass.

The same locations were used in the mid-1960s prior to the first lunar landing on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle on the moon.

Armstrong and Aldrin were among the astronauts who trained in Central Oregon.

“You can see why they chose it,” Lee said. “In some sense, it looks exactly the way it looked during the Apollo program.”

Last month, the testing was focused on new technology from Collins Aerospace, a company that has created space suits for NASA since the Apollo missions.

The new technology puts electronics inside spacesuits to allow astronauts to check their heart rate and location. Previously most data was kept in a spiral binder tied to the spacesuit, Lee said.

“If you are exploring the moon and roving around, you are going to need more than the spiral binder,” Lee said.

NASA has been hesitant to add electronics to spacesuits, since electronics can catch fire or start overheating and fill the suit with smoke. But technology has advanced in recent years, making the built-in electronics more viable, Lee said.

“Now we are getting to a point where we have had decades of stability,” Lee said. “Time has come to start integrating.”

In addition to the original training sites, the research team tested the new technology on rugged terrain at Crater Lake National Park and the Painted Hills at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

The new locations are mountainous like the South Pole of the moon, where NASA plans to focus its latest mission. The Oregon landscape also featured caves and steep hills that astronauts will eventually face during future missions to Mars, Lee said.

“We want to explore the caves on the moon to get ready to explore them on Mars,” Lee said.

Lee said he usually tests equipment at a crater on an island in the Arctic, which scientists consider Mars on Earth. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, his team was unable to make the Arctic trip the past two years.

When those plans fell through, Lee was thrilled to have another option in Central Oregon.

“There are so many things that can be understood better by just being in the field and doing the real thing,” Lee said. “It’s worth it.”

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