Named for the Greek god of dreams, Project Morpheus is a project for people who dream big.
Engineers at Johnson Space Center began work in July of 2010 on the Morpheus lander – a testbed for new technologies that a vehicle intended to land on the moon, an asteroid or even Mars would need. It's scheduled to take flight untethered for the first time in May, and will be the first prototype spacecraft to fly at Johnson since before man walked on the moon.
"Projects like Morpheus are invigorating and infectious," said Steve Altemus, director of Johnson's Engineering Directorate. "And they help us find better and cheaper ways to do things. To challenge our existing processes. To innovate."
Altemus and the Morpheus team have used what they call "lean development" in their work on Morpheus. It calls for starting small, and building up fast – understanding that it's better to do hands-on tests of a design in the early stages, so that it can fail and the failures can drive improvements before the team makes more expensive progress. That's not an entirely new concept, but for many NASA engineers who have spent their entire careers to this point working on established programs where any change has the potential to introduce life-threatening problems into the system, it represents a culture change.
Lean development also calls for the engineers to find ways to save money by leveraging resources already in existence – whether that be through Innovative Partnerships with commercial companies, facilities with free space or integration of work already going on – and very little money.
"Today, human spaceflight exists in a very highly constrained fiscal environment, which is presenting significant challenges to all of us at the human spaceflight centers," Altemus said. "However, with challenge and adversity comes opportunity. We've built a functioning spacecraft in less than a year by making good use of commercial partnerships and resources that we already had on hand."
In this case, the functioning spacecraft brings together two key developing technologies that Johnson Space Center had previously been working on separately: an engine fueled by "green" propellants and an automated system for avoiding obstacles on whatever surface the vehicle might be landing on.
The green propellants are liquid oxygen and methane, called LOX/methane for short. They offer a safer alternative to traditional spacecraft fuels, and are at the same time not only 10 to 20 times less expensive, but also lighter. The weight of the fuel becomes very important when every pound of weight carried into space will require an additional 15 pounds of fuel to get it there.
And as an added bonus, the fuels may be available locally in some of NASA's future exploration destinations. Engineers with NASA's In-Situ Resource Utilization program are already testing methods of extracting oxygen from lunar dust, and methane exists in the Martian atmosphere.
But before a lander can take advantage of those resources, it has to get to the ground safely, which is where the Automated Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology – or ALHAT – comes in.
No matter what surface a spacecraft is landing on, it will need to be able to dodge craters, boulders and any other obstacle that it finds there. During the first moon landing on Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin almost used up their fuel trying to find a safe place to land. On Apollo 14, Allan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell landed on a slope, about a meter away from a hole. David Scott and Jim Irwin landed with one leg in a crater, off the ground, on Apollo 15.
And that was with carefully chosen landing sites. NASA aims to be more nimble in its future exploration, able to land anywhere. ALHAT is being developed to make that possible. It will be able to take laser images of the surface of a planet or asteroid as it flies over and descends, defining hazards in real time on spots where the lander will be touching down within five seconds.
"Both of these – ALHAT and LOX/methane – would be relevant on any vehicle," said Matt Ondler, Project Morpheus manager. "It doesn't matter where you're going."
Both technologies were already in work at Johnson before Project Morpheus. But integrated onto a single vehicle, engineers will have an opportunity to test the systems' performance in the real world, gathering information on how they work together that isn't likely to be found testing the pieces individually in a laboratory.
"There are a lot of interfaces that you don't get and can't learn until you put a system on a vehicle," Ondler said. "The avionics folks can develop an avionics system and test it in a lab and learn a lot from doing that. But they learn a lot more from trying to plug it into a vehicle and integrate it with a propulsion system."
Besides, while working in a laboratory can have its share of excitement, there's nothing quite like seeing technology – and a dream – literally take flight.