LACEY, Wash. — When you arrive at Off Planet Research's facility in a converted warehouse, the first thing you see is a blue tarp walling off most of the room. They seem to be hiding something. And in fact, they are. Try asking Founder Vince Roux what's back there. "Back where?" is his playful reply.
He and co-owner Melissa Roth, along with Roux's daughter Lauren, will show you what they make back there. They form the three-person team that formulates and manufactures moon dust simulants right there in Lacey. "We simulate extra-terrestrial environments for testing space-based technology," says Roth.
Roux's dad worked on the Boeing lunar rover. He remembers watching an Apollo mission as a 10-year-old. "I remember watching that going, 'I'm gonna be that guy.'" Now they hope to help the next guy return to the moon.
If you need moon dust, they say they're the only commercial source...on earth. "If you're gonna be spending huge amounts of money to get your technology to the moon or to deeper space, you wanna make sure it's gonna work," says Roth.
The only way to begin to know is to test the next lunar rover, for example, on dust that most closely resembles the dust found on the surface of the moon. They source their rocks from quarries in Arizona and the Arctic Region in Northern Canada. The rocks are made of the same materials found on the moon, 240,000 miles away.
They then use a proprietary process to grind the rocks into the fine powder that they say is akin to cake flour with jagged edges. "It really likes to coat it and stick to the sides," says Roth.
And they are the only choice that offers a choice. "The conversation with us is, 'Hey we need simulant.' And our first question is what kind? And the answer comes back usually of, 'What do you mean, I got a choice?'" says Roux.
He says that's important, depending on where you want to explore. "There's the light portions and dark portions of the moon? The light portions are the anorthosite, which is really fascinating stuff. And the darker portions are the basalts."
And even if we were allowed to see what's goin' on behind the blue, it'd take a rocket scientist to copy. "It involves everything. It involves physics. Thermodynamics. Chemistry. Geology. Engineering and some just hands-on, what-the-heck-happened situation. And it does take all the brains turned on. And focused and working," Roux says.
Though they are small, they hope their little moon dust factory will propel us to the next giant leap. "The moon is hard. So I think it's gonna take a united effort to get back there to stay," says Roth.
Off Planet Research also offers kids a "Beans on the Moon" kit. Each contains starter pots, lunar simulant and bean seeds to see what it's like, and if it's possible, to grow beans on the moon. Kits are available at The Museum of Flight (Tukwila) and Village Books (Bellingham) in addition to Captain Little (Lacey) and on spacetravelergifts.com.