On July 7, NASA awarded a $1.24 million grant to San Antonio’s WEX Foundation to implement an education program where underserved students build technology useful for human colonization on the moon.
The WEX Foundation partnered with the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Pre-freshman Engineering Program (SA PREP) to create Lunar Caves Analog Test Sites (LCATS) which will replicate conditions on the moon. Students can then deploy remote sensing, robotics, and eventually space-specific architecture to test out the effectiveness of different strategies.
More than 16,000 junior high and high school students have completed at least one summer component at SA PREP. The program was established in 1979 and is intended to prepare students for a career in the sciences through lectures and experiential learning.
SA PREP specializes in enticing minority, female, and economically disadvantaged students to enter studies in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields. By working with undergraduate and professional scientists, students begin a trajectory that is proven to increase the likelihood of entering a science career.
SA PREP offers students condensed courses at UTSA, Northwest Vista College, Palo Alto College, San Antonio College, Incarnate Word University, St. Philip’s College, and Texas A&M-San Antonio. The LCATS program will be a long-term program that’s spread out over five years. The hope is that students will elect to stay in the LCATS program for several years.
In the first year, students will focus on remote sensing technologies like high-altitude weather balloons and soil samples. They’ll design and implement experiments in San Antonio with the intent of gaining mission experience that would work on the moon.
In the second year, students will work using robotics to survey and begin to build out colony infrastructure. In the third year, they’ll design human colony architecture. Potentially, the same students designing these structures in LCATS could wind up living in them on the moon in decades to come.
NASA has a long history of direct investment in STEM programming. Their latest budget allocates $67.1 million of their $19.3 billion total budget to STEM education, which is about .45% of the total federal budget.
The return on NASA’s investment comes in the form of a more qualified workforce that can build and deploy better aerospace technologies and companies. Certain initiatives – like its investment in LCATS – also can provide a testing ground to gather data from particular experiments and, thus, help develop new technologies.
The caves, which are former lava tube structures on the surface of the moon, are still the center of a great deal of speculation. They may be the perfect place for humans to build long-term settlements because their shelter can help protect colonists from dangerous, high-energy radiation and micrometeorites.
One feature in particular, the Marius Hills Skylight, is thought to be the opening to a large lava tube that could be ideal for this form of research. Local Texas caves like the Robber Baron Cave provide a similar enough environment for students to perform their reconnaissance, robotics, and architecture experiments in to simulate real mission operations.
“We are encouraged by the level of community support we have received for implementing our LCATS program,” said Sam Ximenes, principal investigator and board chair of the WEX Foundation. “We were one of nine proposals selected from 73 applications through a peer-reviewed process.”
Ximenes gave a TEDxSanAntonio talk on the potential of this project in 2013. In it, he described the relationship between community-based STEM education and space exploration.
“There’s a lot of technology that comes with putting a colony up there. Where does that technology come from? The community that sponsored it,” Ximenes said in his talk. “We can use the context of a lunar base to develop new companies, new technologies, starting right here. We’re going to educate our workforce as a part of a way to begin that process.”
The initial cohort of students will begin in fall 2017. A variety of partnerships and community involvement will enhance the strength of the programming. SAC’s Scobee Planetarium will be the group’s mission control and scientists from Southwest Research Institute will act as subject matter experts.
Students who wish to apply for the SA Prep programs, including LCATS, can find application information here. Community members seeking to support the programming can directly fund the education and experimental research through the WEX Foundation.
“NASA is starting to pay attention to what we’re doing here in San Antonio,” Ximenes said. “I can’t wait to see what the students develop and what those developments become.”