Making Future Moon Rovers Good Enough to Eat?

Someday humans will almost surely return to the moon and race across its bleak landscape in sophisticated lunar rovers. But what will they do with those expensive vehicles when they're through?

If Walter Smith has his way, they'll probably eat them.

Future space expeditions could be enhanced, he says, if we could make at least some of the stuff we'll need to get us there and back out of edible materials.

Dashboards out of Fiber One breakfast cereal? Tires out of chocolate? Rocket fuel out of beans?

He's kidding, of course. Up to a point.

Smith is a professor at Ball State University in Indiana who specializes in teaching future teachers about science. For several years now he has been involved in international projects designed to get children, and educators, to think out of the box. Really out.

Leaving Less Behind

Now he's working on an "edible lunar vehicle," with help from his college students at Ball State, and elementary students in Australia. The students are building small models of lunar excursion vehicles, and chances are they're going to pay close attention to just what goes into them. When it's all over, they've got to eat them.

"It's a whole lot of fun," says Smith, and the idea may not be quite as wild as it seems. It's a long ways to the moon, and it takes a lot of energy to carry even small payloads that far, so any waste that can be eliminated is a step in the right direction.

"If instead of leaving our space junk behind we could consume it before we left, hey, that takes care of a lot of problems," he says.

Houston, We Have a Meltdown

But for now, he's thinking small. Sixth-grade students in Sandy Davey's class at Toowong State School near Brisbane, Queensland, are already building model rovers out of edible materials. Smith's students are also working on models. All the participants will get together on a video conference in a few days.

"The working model will probably be made from fruit or a breakfast cereal, while the wheels will be made from lollipops," Smith says.

But according to an e-mail from Davey, the kids in Australia have already run into a few problems. It's summer Down Under, and it's getting hot enough to melt jelly beans. It's not clear what the jelly beans were for, but Smith thinks they may have been hubcaps.

The models have to be less than a foot long, and everything has to be edible with the single exception of toothpicks (a bone tossed into the mix by future structural engineers, no doubt).

So far, NASA hasn't come knocking at Smith's door, but he has had a couple of inquiries from individuals in the space agency, including one who is involved in the design of the real lunar rover. No word yet on whether he expects to eat it.

The Practical Side of Science

All of this, of course, has a purpose that has little in common with exploring the surface of the moon. Smith is into something called "design technology," which he says is a really big deal in Australian schools, but "barely on the radar screen" in the United States.

He says it's the practical side of science, or how to design the tools we will need to cope with an ever-changing world.

He says the short-term solution to helping people recover from hurricanes and earthquakes, for example, is to get them the supplies they need to survive. But beyond that, science should play a major role in developing new technologies that will help people cope with future disasters, or possibly even avoid them entirely.

Training for that should begin very early, and Smith thinks it's important for kids to explore very different perspectives. So a few years ago he launched his moon project. Today, seven universities on three continents, as well as numerous grade school children, are involved.

Global Moon Chats

The kids observe the moon, and then get together via today's wonderful communications networks, and compare notes. And guess what? The moon doesn't look the same to everyone.

"When you are standing in the Southern Hemisphere, you are standing upside down relative to the Northern Hemisphere so the moon looks different, not that the moon's doing anything different, it's just that it looks different because you are standing upside down," Smith says.

About six weeks ago Smith returned from a trip to Australia and settled into his Internet chat room, open every other Wednesday, to talk with colleagues around the world about the moon. He told them of a new project he was about to launch. Students would be building an edible vehicle.

"At that point, one of the professors here piped up and said, 'It's going to be a vehicle for exploring the moon,'" Smith says.

"I said it wasn't, but it is now."

So that's how the whole thing got started, and today all over the world, kids and college students are creating strange vehicles that are beginning to look a lot like lunch.

They've even named one at Ball State. It's called the "Choo Choo Chew."

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.