NASA People

Center Snapshot: John Dorsey
John Dorsey. Image above: John Dorsey works with the Lunar Surface Manipulation System, an ever-evolving key to NASA's future exploration of the moon. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

The certificate on the wall calls him "The Realist," a nickname bestowed on John Dorsey by people planning the architecture and habitat astronauts will use on the moon in 2020.

Those planners are a creative lot.

"I work with the habitat team, and we support the architectures team, and my reputation is to ask a lot of questions," said Dorsey, who works in Structural Mechanics and Concepts Branch. " 'How would you design it? How would you build it? Manufacture it? Think beyond the initial kernel of an idea to the whole life cycle of the device. What are you missing?' It takes time and investigation to do that.

"I've learned that there are a million good ideas out there, but out of that million, only a few are worth pursuing. But you don't know which are worth pursuing until you get into it a bit. Sometimes you have to get into it pretty far to find out there's a fatal flaw there somewhere."

It's the voice of "The Realist," and he left out a question he has become intimately involved in answering: How would you lift it from the vehicle that lands on the moon?

Dorsey leads a group that has designed and produced the first version of the Lunar Surface Manipulation System, which has come to be called "the crane," a term that is partially accurate but entirely too limiting. It's a device designed to move around 30 times its weight on the moon.

Its evolution is ongoing. Dorsey describes the process: "The first use was, 'well, we've got to unload the lander.' Traditional. Then we were looking at options that said, 'we're looking at stuff not only on top of the lander, but also on the sides. How are we going to get those out?' "

From that the manipulator was called upon to morph from crane into a forklift.

"If people want to call it a crane, that's fine," Dorsey said. "But cranes can't do the kinds of things our device does. You'll just never see a crane do this. Forklift mode, what the heck is that? It's cool."

And there's more.

With talk of nuclear power on the moon, there's a reactor and thermal radiators to be deployed. Are astronauts just going to walk past an unshielded nuclear reactor? Not hardly.

Dorsey draws a diagram of a reactor with a gap between it and a wall around it.

"If we can fill this cavity with lunar dirt, that's a good natural shield and it's a weight we don't have to take with us," he said. "We need the LSMS to scoop up dirt and dump it in this hole. So now we are building a shovel."

And so it goes with a machine that continues to evolve to meet the technical needs of the next generation of space explorers.

A gripper is in the works. So is a way to make the LSMS take itself off a lander and set itself up to unload its traveling partners, as well as those that will come on future landers, all while in control of an operator on Earth.

The one now is run by a $30 controller taken from a video game. Dorsey asks the questions, even contributes ideas to develop it, but don't ask him to operate the LSMS.

"I don't do that," Dorsey said. "I don't even know how to play computer games."

Two sons probably do. One is a designer at Northrop Grumman Newport News, the other a senior at Kecoughtan High School with a legal career ahead.

When Dorsey isn't planning something else for the LSMS or asking a question of the lunar habitat architects, he's often in the gym or running, or he's playing a guitar. They abound in his house.

"I've got two electrics, an acoustic and a classical," he said. "I started taking lessons a year and a half ago and learned how to read music. I started getting into classical and diversifying, so I had to get more guitars, which is OK. I'm stimulating the economy by buying guitars."

He's in his 28th year at NASA Langley, which was the end of a round trip that went from Kecoughtan High to MIT and six long, cold, windy winters in Cambridge, Mass.

Perhaps typically, that trip from beginning to Langley end was the result of a long list of answered questions.

"From a young age, it seems like I was always reading science fiction," Dorsey said. "I grew up on 'Star Trek,' read Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clark, '2001, A Space Odyssey.' It was just like 'this is so cool, inventing stuff, going out to space, discovering. It's exciting. Fun.

" 'How do you get involved in that? Who does that stuff? NASA. Who works at NASA? Engineers. What kind of engineers? Mechanical, aerospace. Well, I like rockets. Aerospace. Where can you go for that? Well, MIT' "

And the answers keep coming.

"This is pretty cool," Dorsey said of the Lunar Surface Manipulation System. "It's one of the more fun things I've done here. When you get to work on hardware, new designs and kind of far-out futuristic things, it's fun."

It's his kind of reality.