SOCORRO, N.M., May 23, 2000 -- A field study of the Taos area conducted by geoscientists from the New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources (NMBMMR) and New Mexico Tech, and done in conjunction with NASA's Astronaut Training Program, has resulted in the research group being named a recipient of the space agency's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center Group Achievement Award.
Last summer, New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Tech researchers worked alongside NASA astronaut candidates, using gravity measurements to map geologic structures that exist far below Taos city streets and extend miles beneath the expanses of the Taos mesa.
Subsurface data gathered in the joint research and training program has allowed researchers to better understand how the specific locations of buried fractures in the Earth's crust, or "faults," correlate with the extent and placement of the area's limited groundwater resources.
At the same time, 31 prospective astronauts were provided with valuable "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.
"The program provided us with geophysical data that should be useful in evaluating groundwater availability in the Taos area," says Paul W. Bauer, assistant director and senior geologist at the NMBMMR. "And, at the same time, we also got the highest-quality field assistance that anyone could possibly hope for."
Patricia Dickerson, a NASA geoscientist who supervised the astronaut candidate exercise, initially approached Bauer with a mutually beneficial proposal to have astronauts-in-training work with Bureau geologists on the state agency's ongoing mapping and geohydrologic study of areas along the Rio Grande.
It was an offer which neither Bauer nor the New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources could resist.
The Taos area's majestic landscape has long provided textbook examples of various landforms for geologists to study, and as such, has also served well as a backdrop for astronaut training exercises led by Bill Muehlberger of the University of Texas at Austin, going as far back as NASA's Apollo missions in the late-1960s.
However, last summer's NASA astronaut training program--with its 25 Americans and six international candidates--was the first collaborative project conducted with geoscientists from the
NMBMMR and New Mexico Tech.
"In the course of the program, we ran the astronauts through various exercises," Bauer says. "They collected geophysical data and then would radio the data back to a 'Mars base,' which was actually a pickup truck. Geologists at 'Mars base' would enter the data into their laptop and then process the gravity data that very day."
The astronauts and the geoscientists were then able to see the results of their labor the next day, during their daily breakfast briefing in Taos.
NASA's astronaut training program runs on a two-year cycle, so it won't be until the Summer of 2001 that an entirely new batch of astronaut candidates will step onto the Taos Plateau.
"Whether or not this program continues is largely dependent on the response of the participating astronauts," Bauer points out. "And since they all raved about it, the program is likely to continue, although we'll probably expand it by adding additional exploration techniques into the curriculum."
And since the NMBMMR was chosen to receive this year's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center Group Achievement Award for providing the training, another such collaborative program is probably a near certainty.
Bauer and his fellow researchers were "greatly surprised" to receive the award from astronaut/geologist Jim Reilly at the recently held New Mexico Geological Society conference, but the Bureau of Mines researcher maintains that the honor wasn't the greatest reward for last summer's work: "The real reward for all of us was to meet and work alongside these immensely talented people--these astronaut candidates," he says.