Lunar rover airlift in the High Arctic

  • Published
  • By Technical Sgt. Erik Gudmundson and Senior Master Sgt. Mark Moss
  • 133rd Airlfit Wing
Forty years after mankind first stepped on the Moon, the 133rd Airlift Wing from St. Paul, Minnesota, supports research efforts in the High Arctic by transporting a modified HUMVEE called Moon-1 to a research station at Resolute Bay in May, 2009. According to mission commander and command pilot, Lt. Col. Andy Burda, "It is one of the more interesting missions I've flown, and it is always special to support NASA." Lt. Col. Burda, the commander of the 133rd Operation Support Flight, calls it "bigger than our normal mission," but something the "Hercules" and crew are very well-equipped to accomplish.

The mission called for the six-person aircrew to fly their C-130H military cargo aircraft from the Minneapolis, St. Paul international airport with vital supplies for the Haughton-Mars Project (HMP) to Cambridge Bay, which is about 300 kilometers, or about 200 miles, north of the Arctic Circle. At Cambridge Bay, the supplies were unloaded and work immediately began on loading the vehicle into the belly of the Hercules. The next day the crew flew to Resolute, with all takeoff and landings on hard-packed gravel.

The Minnesota Air National Guard sent two loadmasters on this trip since it was to a remote location and the cargo was not exactly standard. As it turns out, the Moon-1 rover is essentially a military specification HUMVEE on special tracks which are used for driving across the arctic ice and snow. Technicians from HMP exchanged the tracks for standard wheels and the vehicle fit inside with plenty of clearance, according to Staff Sgt. Marcus Allen, loadmaster with the 109th Airlift Squadron. Staff Sgt. Allen and Senior Airman Corey Drabelis, the other loadmaster from the 109th AS worked with the HMP staff, the rest of the Minnesota crew, and other professionals at the Cambridge Bay airport to get the vehicle in and secured. They loaded what they could for supporting equipment and other vehicles for the trip across the tundra and ice.

The HMP called for support because the Moon-1 rover needed to complete a journey that was planned for a trek across the frozen Arctic Ocean all the way to Devon Island. Stretches of open water late in the spring required the C-130 airlift. John Klatte, a technician with AM General, and Jesse Weaver, HMP field technician, said they really appreciated the help from the Minnesota Air National Guard. According to Klatte, the research made possible from this mission contributes directly to ongoing efforts by NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and other partners as they seek to discover important procedures for sending people back into to the Moon and eventually on to Mars. During the short Arctic summer, the rover is involved in lunar exploration research at the Houghton Crater on Devon Island. According to HMP, the location is a close representation of the type of terrain on the Moon or Mars and the research can be followed on their website, with regular updates available through other social media outlets.

Other members of the Minnesota crew found the experience to be one of the most interesting of their careers. Capt. Jon Deck, a pilot with the 109th AS, calls it a once in a lifetime opportunity. "The arctic is a very interesting environment to fly over. Even though you know it would be barren, it is more barren than you expect," according to Capt. Deck.

The conditions faced by the C-130 and crew included severe cold, rough runways, and flying near the magnetic north pole. "The far north is someplace I've always wanted to fly," says Lt. Col. Kirk Jensen, 109th AS navigator. "Magnetic compasses are unreliable above 65 degrees latitude and we are far above that," he says.

Other challenges include being in an austere location far from home, and yet, according to Senior Master Sgt. Scott Sperling, 109th AS flight engineer, "the terrain is flat and frozen like Minnesota. I wanted to come because it in such a remote part of the world."