A team of scientists is testing the Small Pressurized Rover Concept vehicle -- which resembles a small, futuristic recreational vehicle mounted on six wheels -- in trials in a rocky, barren corner of northern Arizona, selected for its similarities to the surface of the moon.
"This is the next generation of lunar exploration," said Doug Craig, NASA program's manager, as an astronaut took the vehicle for a spin over a broad lava field framed by craggy mountains.
The battery powered rover travels at speeds of up to 6 mph (10 kph). It is part of a range of systems and equipment being developed by the space agency for its planned return to the moon over the next decade.
NASA hopes to build a permanent manned base on the moon's surface as a prelude to subsequent exploration missions to Mars.
The new pressurized rover follows on from vehicles used by the Apollo series of moon shots in the early 1970s, when astronauts in spacesuits used rovers that looked like stripped-down jeeps to make short forays to gather rocks.
The new prototype has a pressurized cab and is fitted out with leather seats and bunks. It would allow a crew of two astronauts to take extended exploration trips for up to two weeks at a time, covering distances of up to 625 miles (1,000 km), Craig said.
The crew would not wear spacesuits while in the vehicle, which is fitted with large windows offering extensive views of the terrain, but to step outside, they would slip into spacesuits mounted on the outside of the vehicle through special hatches in the rover, officials said.
"You are only in a spacesuit when you need to be on the surface picking up rocks," said astronaut Mike Gernhardt, a veteran of four shuttle missions and a pioneering spacewalk, as he took reporters for a spin in the rover.
"So all the time that you are doing observations ... you can be inside the pressurized environment in a comfortable warm shirt-sleeve environment instead of in a spacesuit," he added.
Aside from its increased range, Gernhardt said the vehicle is much safer and more comfortable than earlier rovers taken to the moon with the Apollo series.
"It really enables much more exploration, much more productivity, and frankly (it's) a lot safer than we had when we went on the Apollo program." he said. "This is the future."