Houston is a city of big industries (just like everything in Texas, right?): oil and gas, health care, and aerospace dominate the landscape. While it may seem on the surface that a driller has little in common with an astronaut–or a surgeon, for that matter–it turns out that technology from each of these fields has surprising applicability in the others.
Take NASA’s Lunar Electric Rover, a 10-foot tall manned vehicle with 12 wheels, a pressurized interior, and two hatches at the back of the cabin called “suitports,” which let astronauts dress to go outside and leave the vehicle in just 15 minutes.
Seems pretty unique to space travel. But the Rover concept, intended for manned missions to the moon, actually has applications outside of the space industry, according to Bill Bluethmann, the leader of the Rover’s chassis development team.
“We weren’t focused on it, but we thought all along that much of what we do in space has benefits back on Earth,” he says. “One of our charters at the space agency is to think about how technology we developed can benefit the rest of folks here on Earth.”
The Lunar Electric Rover in particular has applications in oil and gas development, where drillers face harsh conditions that are sometimes comparable to the moon. As part of Pumps & Pipes, an initiative that brings together Houston’s “Big Three” industries to share crossover technology, NASA is looking at how the Rover’s features can be used in hazardous terrestrial conditions.
In any sort of nasty terrain, the Rover would be invaluable.The suitport system could, for example, make it easy for workers to quickly don hazmat suits (in the case of a chemical spill at a drilling site) and get outside without compromising the safety of the vehicle. “If there are any leaks [in the vehicle], all the bad stuff will go out, because pressure will flow from high to low,” explains Bluethmann.
And if toxic dust happens to enter the suitport, it can stay there. “If you pick up dust, you keep that in the [suitport] cabin,” says Bluethmann.
All of these ideas are still in the concept phase–NASA is looking for partners to take the Rover technology and develop it for terrestrial applications. In the meantime, there are other Pumps & Pipes partnerships in the works, including the adaptation of NASA’s X-1 Exoskeleton (a real-life Iron Man suit) for paraplegics and a heart beat simulator developed from technology used in the oil and gas industry.