MOSES LAKE -- Generations of people have looked up at the moon from Moses Lake since long before the town was ever called Moses Lake.
Little did they realize just how moonlike their hometown was.
"Stuff's interesting. That's all I can say," Ben Warren, a junior at Moses Lake High School, said Tuesday after a day of watching lunar rovers and scientists dig around in the sand dunes south of town.
"You happen to live in the closest place to the moon in the United States, and NASA just happens to come out here and test new equipment. It's just interesting."
NASA has been at the dunes for two weeks testing new robotic vehicles that have been developed at laboratories across the country. The equipment is intended to be used in decades to come when the space agency returns to the moon and eventually puts humans on Mars.
Hundreds of community spectators have been watching the demonstrations involving five robotic vehicles -- a six-wheeled lunar truck, a six-legged all-terrain vehicle that can carry payloads or astronaut habitats, an autonomous drilling rover, a mapping robot and a crane that can stand on its head to load itself onto a transport.
The demonstrations were to see how well the robots, developed since late 2005, function interactively.
In some ways, the vehicles resembled children's remote-controlled toys in a giant sandbox. In other ways, the NASA logos, the white astronaut suits and the other-worldly engineering could have lulled those attending to imagine they were witnessing extraterrestrial scenes -- if not for the distant rooftops spoiling the illusion.
NASA chose the dunes for the demonstrations because the sand, mixed with ash from Mount St. Helens, is a suitable replica of lunar soil, called regolith.
Although returning to the moon will be a step toward Mars exploration, the technology developed for the recent unmanned missions to Mars also has provided stepping stones for getting back to the moon, said Julie Townsend of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasedena, Calif.
For example, her center designed, built and operated the Mars rovers, and now it is leading development of the six-legged vehicle called the All-Terrain Hex-Legged Extra-Terrestrial Explorer, or ATHLETE.
"So we have a lot of experience driving vehicles on other planets already," said Townsend, ATHLETE test lead.
The current moon goal also is being influenced by previous lunar missions. For instance, one of the peskiest problems of the Apollo missions was dust collecting on the equipment. So this time, engineers are developing ways to control it, said Lucien Junkin, the chief engineer for the Chariot lunar truck.
It was Harrison Schmitt, the last astronaut to walk on the moon, who best described to Junkin what regolith is like, he said.
"He said when you kick the soil, it scatters like powdered snow," Junkin recalled.
The lunar truck has cost roughly $5 million to develop. Traveling at 10 mph, it will provide ground transportation to astronauts on the moon, and it also will be operated remotely from the earth before people return to the moon in 2021, Junkin said.
The lunar truck will be able to level surfaces for roads, dig trenches to bury habitats and build berms around landing pads, for blast protection from the landers.
The lack of an atmosphere on the moon allows regolith to be cast great distances when a lander's jets fire for takeoff. During the Apollo era, that wasn't a concern because no one was left behind when the astronauts left the moon.
But when man returns to the moon, astronauts will stay behind just as people have remained on the International Space Station between shuttle missions.
Fred Horz, a geologist for NASA in Houston, said it has been too long since the United States last was committed to lunar trips.
A planetary scientist for NASA since the Apollo missions, Horz has stayed busy over the decades studying samples of materials from comets, meteorites, Mars -- even cosmic dust in the earth's stratosphere.
But lunar exploration excites him in a different way, he said.
"You betcha. You're always in love with your first love, you know?" he said with a laugh.