NASA Gives Innovation Award To Bureau For Astronaut Training

SOCORRO, N.M. July 1, 2010 – A team of scientists at tehe Bureau of Geology recently won the annual Johnson Space Center Director’s Innovation Team Award from NASA, thanks to a training program for international astronaut candidates.

Johnson Space Center Director Michael Coats (far right) presents the 2010 Innovation Award to Dr. Patricia Dickerson, Dr. Paul Bauer, and Duane Ross (far left), NASA manager of astronaut selection and training. NASA Photo
Dr. Cathy Snelson (right), New Mexico Tech geophysics professor demonstrates seismic data collection in Arroyo Hondo. Using Tech’s trailer-mounted vibroseis unit, Snelson showed astronauts shallow seismic exploration techniques. New Mexico Tech photo
Astronauts Jim Irwin (left) and Dave Scott train for the Apollo 15 mission on the rim of the Rio Grande gorge near Taos in March 1971. Irwin and Scott learned soil sampling techniques and practiced driving NASA’s first lunar vehicle. The two astronauts later became the first men to drive on the moon when they piloted the Lunar Rover 17.5 miles. They also collected more than 170 pounds of lunar rocks. NASA photo.

The award was based on an ongoing hydrogeology study conducted by geoscientists at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources at New Mexico Tech, and follow-up work done in conjunction with NASA's Astronaut Training Program. This annual award recognizes those who have developed or implemented positive changes in the operations or the programs of NASA or the Johnson Space Center.

Center director Michael Coats – himself a former space explorer – presented the award at the annual Honor Awards Ceremony on May 20, 2010, at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Dr. Paul Bauer, principal geologist and associate director at Bureau of Geology, attended the ceremony. 

“I was totally surprised and delighted to hear that we were receiving the Innovation Award,” Bauer said. “On the other side, it’s absolutely a delight to work with these astronaut candidates. They are truly the best students I can imagine.”

Since 1999, Dr. Bauer has worked with NASA on training astronaut candidates in applied techniques of planetary exploration. The team has provided geophysical training exercises to all of the 76 astronauts that have joined NASA since 1998, including astronauts from Canada, Japan, Italy, Germany and Brazil. Many of the team’s early students have since flown on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station.

The 14 members of the astronaut candidate class of 2009 are participating in the training exercise later this summer near Taos. The prospective astronauts are provided with "hands-on" training on properly conducting geophysical field surveys, garnering knowledge and skills which may eventually have practical applications in other-worldly locales, such as finding water below the surface of Mars.

“In the course of the program, we run the astronauts through various exercises,” Bauer said. “They collect geophysical data and then radio the results back to ‘Mars Base,’ which is actually the patio of a nearby home. Geologists at ‘Mars Base’ enter the data into their laptop computers and then process the gravity and magnetic data that very day.”

The next morning, the astronauts and the geoscientists discuss the results of their research during their daily breakfast briefing at a Taos hotel.

The majestic landscapes of the Taos area have long provided fertile training grounds for NASA, Bauer said. Astronauts and geologists have teamed up along the Rio Grande gorge as far back as the Apollo missions in the late-1960s. However, with the current debate over the fate of the nation’s manned space program, the future of astronaut training in northern New Mexico is uncertain.

Bauer and Dr. Patricia Dickerson of the University of Texas designed a program that develops a culture of planetary exploration at NASA and provides new hydrogeologic information for the state of New Mexico.Utilizing ongoing geologic and hydrogeologic studies in the Taos region, Bauer organized a team of scientists from the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and the U.S. Geological Survey.

In early 2009, the Bureau of Geology published a report titled “Hydrogeologic Investigation of the Arroyo Hondo Area, Taos County, New Mexico” which included a conceptual model of the buried geology and groundwater in the area. This summer, the astronaut candidates are collecting gravity and magnetic data in the Arroyo Hondo study area along traverses that may contain buried faults. The researchers will then apply the findings to their hydrogeologic models.

This is the second award the Bureau of Geology team has received for contributing to NASA’s human exploration program. In 2000, the Bureau was awarded NASA’s Johnson Space Center Group Achievement Award during a surprise visit to Socorro by geologist-astronaut Jim Reilly.

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