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NASA EDGE: Innovative Technologies
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NASA EDGE: Innovative Technologies

Innovative Technology
- Eric Reiners
- Nathan Fraser-Chanpong
- Neil Cheatwood
- Steve Hughes
- Bobby Braun

Robotics! Inflatables! Twins! No, we're not talking about the Co-Host's 5th birthday party at Chuck-E-Cheese. We're talking about innovative technologies currently being developed and evaluated by NASA and their partners. And not only do we look at interesting technologies and future challenges for NASA, but NASA's Chief Technology Officer, Bobby Braun stops by the studio and explains how we evaluate the progress of these technologies for future use. Oh, and congrats to Franklin. The twins reference was for him.

[Intro music]

CHRIS: Hey welcome to NASA EDGE.

JACKY: An inside and outside look…

FRANKLIN: at all things NASA.

BLAIR: Oh, that’s going to leave a mark.

CHRIS: Welcome to NASA EDGE.

BLAIR: An inside and outside look…

FRANKLIN: An inside and outside look…

BLAIR: Great to have you in the studio Franklin.

FRANKLIN: Glad to be back in the studio after all this time out in the field. It’s so hot out there I didn’t want to take my hat off.

BLAIR: It’s nice to be in climate control.

CHRIS: Oh yeah, plus he’s about to have twins.

BLAIR: Ah, that’s true.


BLAIR: Which means you’ll be living in the studio.

CHRIS: We’ll see you in a couple of months after that happens from my experience last year.

FRANKLIN: Yeah, but you know having twins is kind of like working with you guys.


CHRIS: Okay, on today’s show were focusing on technology. It’s a really good show. We have a treat.


CHRIS: At the end of the show, we’re going to have Bobby Braun, who is the director for the Office of Chief Technologist at NASA Headquarters.

BLAIR: And if we play our cards right, maybe he brought some technology we can beta test in the studio. But before we talk too much about technology, if we’re going to have a decent timeline on some of these breakthroughs, we need partnerships.

CHRIS: That’s right. In fact, we actually went down to NASA Johnson Space Center to talk to the robotics division. They have a pretty cool partnership with Caterpillar.

BLAIR: And that’s a cool partnership unlike some of the less successful partnerships like Cyberdine, Strategic Air Command and NORAD. That was a bad partnership. We don’t want that. We want good partnerships.

CHRIS: So let’s check out the segment with Caterpillar.

ERIC: The multi-train loader is a piece of equipment that’s used in the construction industry. Its purpose is a highly versatile machine. With this coupler here you can attach to a wide variety of tools. There are a large number of applications that are required in the construction industry can be accomplished with this platform. It’s one of the smaller machines that we have, and more comparable with some of the machines that NASA is using and it’s all electronically controlled which sets the stage for it to be fully operated. Some of the sensors you can see here, like the two GPS units up top…

CHRIS: Right.

ERIC: …the cameras across the front here and the cylinders are instrumented so we know their extension or their length at any given time. We can determine where the tool is relative to the machine.

BLAIR: You can tell Caterpillar is really cool but NASA does some cool stuff. What are we actually gaining from this relationship?

NATHAN: One of the things we can benefit from is knowing how to minimize the amount of energy we need to expend for a construction tasks. For a planetary mission, if we were going to the moon or we were going to Mars or even perhaps on an asteroid, if we’re using technology at Caterpillar that’s already been developed, we can minimize the amount of energy needed to perform a certain task.

CHRIS: Eric, what does Caterpillar hope to get from this NASA/Caterpillar partnership?

ERIC: Development of some of those key technologies needed to remotely control these machines and to make them more autonomous so we can remove the man from the machine when it’s operating in hazardous environments. In environments where it’s very remote and very harsh, that we can more centrally locate those operators, so they don’t have to be out in those environments and conditions.

NATHAN: The partnership was first conceived in 2006. We formally began in 2007 and since then we’ve accomplished a remote control with the machine. We’ve built a control station for the MTL. We’ve controlled the machines in between Illinois and Texas over the Internet. There are also other things going on with our partnership with Caterpillar such as perception tests that can be useful on a variety of different platforms, including in space.

BLAIR: What’s an example of a perception task?

NATHAN: Say you wanted to determine the orientation of an object floating in space. You could do that using depth mapping technology that NASA has been working on and Caterpillar has also been working on. Caterpillar has been working on detecting a lot of different objects in their construction environment, other machines, and people. The other thing is robotics as an industry is developing fairly rapidly right now. Caterpillar has money and energy to investigate different technology then NASA would choose. So, although we have parallel efforts as far as perception is concerned, they might have tested one sensor that we haven’t test and we can instantly gain knowledge of some technology that’s already out there.

CHRIS: Eric, tell me about education public outreach aspect of Caterpillar.

ERIC: Specifically with robotics and information we’re heavily involved with first robotics as NASA is as well. We sponsor teams not only in the US but around the world and also we are involved in the Lunabotics Mining Competition at Kennedy Space Center. We’re very excited about that as well and the fact that’s growing and becoming international as well. Because Caterpillar is a global company, many of the international teams are coming for a location where we’re expanding and we need to recruit from, like India. We view that very positively and we’re very excited about that.

BLAIR: Speaking of sharing, is there any opportunity for me to pick up one of these in excess. When you’re done with the partnership, the co-host, NASA EDGE, could just take over a MTL for our own partnership opportunities in the future?

NATHAN: I think we’ve got a waiting list already but we can put you on it.

BLAIR: You heard it here first. NASA EDGE is on the list.

CHRIS: Before we go, I have one question. Can we give Spooner a ride in the MTL?

ERIC: Sure, absolutely.

CHRIS: Let’s see what happens. Cool.

[machine operating noises]

CHRIS: Yeah, that multi-terrain loader is pretty cool.

FRANKLIN: How did it handle?

CHRIS: Handled pretty well, like I said I almost tipped it over but recovered very well. I actually had a chance to drive it for a few minutes.

BLAIR: E-Stop, very effective piece of technology…

CHRIS: Oh, you better believe it.

BLAIR: Sidebar of the whole NASA Caterpillar partnership.

CHRIS: I didn’t realize it worked on you too.

BLAIR: Yeah, well, I’ve rebooted. I’m feeling pretty good.

CHRIS: We’re doing this promo for Caterpillar with E-Stop.

BLAIR: He says I’ve got the fall that I’m going to do. I’m not going to show it to you till we actually shoot.

BLAIR: The reason I didn’t want to reveal the fall is because I didn’t want to have to do it a lot. Mentally, I had it in mind.

CHRIS: So he comes on in…

RON: Action, rehearsal.

BLAIR: Everybody’s at lunch, time for a little experimental joy ride.

CHRIS: What are you talking about?

BLAIR: Turn and burn.

CHRIS: And he does what seems like a 360. His legs go flying through the camera and hit the ground pretty hard. Everybody just starts busting out laughing. I’m looking at him asking, “Is that the fall?” Is that it?

BLAIR: No. He was disappointed. I’m sitting there checking my pulse and all my vitals and he’s wondering if that’s the fall.

CHRIS: Please tell me you got that on film. But I have to give you credit. You did a pretty good job on the promo.

BLAIR: Yeah, I have a whole new set of stretching exercises I have to do everyday but apart from that.

CHRIS: Let’s go ahead and take a break. Franklin.

FRANKLIN: When we get back, we’re going to talk a little bit about space breaks.

CHRIS: You’re watching NASA EDGE.

BLAIR: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

CHRIS: Did he say space brakes?

FRANKLIN: Space brakes.

BLAIR: Space brakes.

FRANKLIN: Hey guys, I recently had the opportunity to talk to researchers and engineers over at HIAD, which stands for Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, or what I like to call space brakes. It’s very interesting technology. It is something that I would have never thought of having an inflatable structure in space to slow down spacecraft.

CHRIS: Inflatable structures, in the general sense, is becoming very popular.

BLAIR: I understand it a little more in the HAB because we do have decelerators. Now we use parachutes. Are we still using parachutes? Is this a different thing?

FRANKLIN: Well, we’re using inflatable structures in addition to parachutes because what happens is the size of the spacecraft can only get so big. After it gets larger, you need a decelerator that is going to slow it down.

CHRIS: So with the inflatables, that structure can go beyond that.

FRANKLIN: Yes, exactly.

BLAIR: And I’m just assuming and I’m sure we’ll find out in the story that the inflatables weigh less.

FRANKLIN: That’s the big thing. That’s the big difference.

BLAIR: Are they partnering with those inflatable moonwalk things that kids use as a technology partnership?

[Chris laughing]

FRANKLIN: Oh, are you talking about Moon Bounces?

BLAIR: Moon Bounces, yeah.

FRANKLIN: Nah. I doubt it.

CHRIS: Okay, I’ll tell you let’s go check out the segment on HIAD.

BLAIR: Just checking.

FRANKLIN: I’m here with Neil Cheatwood, Principal Investigator for HIAD. Exactly, what is HIAD?

NEIL: HIAD stands for Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator. Let me break that down for you. When we go to other worlds, we have to launch from Earth, then we have to decelerate. We can do that either propulsively like we did at the moon with the Lunar Module and use just engines to slow us down. But, if it’s a world with an atmosphere then it makes sense to make use of that atmosphere and the atmospheric drag. What we do is wrap our payload, what we’re taking to the surface of the planet, we wrap that in what we call an aeroshell. We’re currently limited to size of aeroshell that we can do based on the rocket size. So, our aeroshell has to fit inside that rocket shroud. The idea is if we can deploy a larger aeroshell out of a given rocket then we could take down more mass and get more payload to the surface of Mars, Venus or wherever. What we’re working on here is a hypersonic version of that where we deploy outside the atmosphere but then we have to handle that heat pulse, that high deceleration pulse that we see when we go into the atmosphere. So, that is a Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator.

FRANKLIN: One of the big parts of HIAD is the inflatable structure. Tell us a little bit about how it is constructed.

STEVE: Okay. What we have here is a stacked torus. The way you make a torus is you braid a tube and then that tube has a silicone liner inside it and you inflate the tube and it becomes the torus. If you stack the tori together so the intersect or interfere with each other, they become a pretty rigid structure which you can see over here. We have to protect the structure from the heat of reentry so we apply a thermal protection blanket. The outside is a Nextel fabric, which we’ve quilted together. I’ll take this ring off and show you the way it’s constructed. The fabric itself keeps the integrity of the outer structure, then we have an insulator ply, which you can see is this powdery yellow surface in here. That takes the outer surface heat and knocks it down to a temperature that the bladder can tolerate. We have these gas barriers beneath it that prevents inflow of the hot gases. Hot gases on the outside are wanting to drive to the low pressure. Behind, in the wake region of the shell is an area of low pressure. So the pressure on the front wants to drive through so we have to put a gas barrier behind it. This is a test sample for running in the 8-foot high temperature tunnel. We’ve instrumented it with some thermal couples so we can see what the various temperatures are in between the layers. Then we can match that up to the models that we’ve done for predictions to see well the TPS performs.

FRANKLIN: Could you explain a little bit more about why you would use an inflatable reentry system versus the old, rigid thermal heat shield?

NEIL: We’ve been to Mars as an example. The first time we went was in 1976 with Project Viking. That was a big technology development program for Project Viking. They developed a TPS material called SLA-561V, which is a super lightweight ablator; 561V for Viking. We’ve actually used that on every successful Mars mission since then and here we are in 2011. We’ve been using all that technology all those years but we’ve been sending more and more stuff each time. The payloads are getting bigger. In actuality, our next mission to Mars is the biggest payload we’ve sent there, the Mars Science Laboratory. We had to switch our TPS materials because it was getting so heavy. And even with that we can only land at what was below sea level on Mars because we’re coming in too fast and too heavy. The idea is to make a larger drag device so that we can land that same mass at a higher altitude or take more mass to the surface. It’s all about size. Size does matter.

FRANKLIN: Your next test coming up is IRVE 3. Tell me a little bit about that.

STEVE: IRVE 3 is another suborbital flight. We had IRVE 2, which was our first successful demonstrator. IRVE 3 we’ve increased the mass of the payload so we can get about twice the heating applied to the aeroshell. This time we’re going to require a TPS. The last time we just had the fabric to show how well it stowed and whether it would survive the rigors of packing. This time we need to demonstrate that we can pack it with the insulator. The insulator is a fairly low-density material so we need to make sure we can pack it down very tightly. It’s also a fairly delicate material, so we need to make sure it doesn’t fall apart when we package it and later deploy it.

FRANKLIN: Neil, tell me about where we might be able to use this technology.

NEIL: We can use aeroshells where we have a sensible atmosphere. When I say sensible atmosphere it has to be enough that it really means anything. The moon does not have a sensible atmosphere. That’s why we landed using retropropulsion. Mars has what I would call a poor excuse of an atmosphere. It’s very thin. It’s the most challenging destination for us because it’s too thick an atmosphere to ignore. We don’t just want to take rockets and land on the surface. It’s not very efficient. But, it’s so thin. It’s like 100,000 feet here at Earth. It’s very challenging. But we can use this technology on Mars. We can us it for Earth return. We can bring stuff back from Space Station. We could bring stuff back from the moon. We can use it at other atmospheres like Venus, the gas giants, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. Titan, which is the larger moon around Saturn, has a very thick atmosphere. It can be used at any of those locations.

STEVE: We’ve done some studies and demonstrated that these are enabling technologies for way out there, doing a manned Mars mission. They’re talking about landing 40 metric tons of payload on Mars. Right now, there’s absolutely no way to do that. These aeroshells are potentially technology that will allow us to do that once we figure out how to get 40 metric tons to Mars’ orbit. That’s another challenge.

FRANKLIN: That’s a big challenge.

STEVE: That is a big challenge.

FRANKLIN: But you’re up to the challenge.

STEVE: Oh yeah, we’re on it.

FRANKLIN: So now you know why I call them space brakes.

BLAIR: I was wondering. Do you think they’ll come up with an anti-lock version of the space brakes?

[phone vibrates]

CHRIS: Anit-lock space brakes, that’s not a bad idea.

BLAIR: Well, you know it’s all a part of my partnership.

CHRIS: Oh, he’s on the phone. Is it time? Oh, it’s time. Hey have a good one.

BLAIR: Don’t smoke the cigars till you get them home.

CHRIS: Let us know. Twins are on the way. You heard it first on NASA EDGE. Twins are on the way.

BLAIR: An inside and outside look at all things deliverable here shortly.

CHRIS: When we come back, we still have a show to do.

BLAIR: Oh, that’s right. We still have a show.

CHRIS: Bobby Braun is in studio. We’ve seen him down the hallway. He’s going to be right here talking about the future of space technologies.

BLAIR: And maybe Bobby Braun will hand Franklin some new technology on the way out the door.

CHRIS: Franklin, get out of here. Let’s go.

BOBBY: Welcome back to NASA EDGE.

BLAIR: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

CHRIS: Hey Bobbie. Thanks for joining us today.

BOBBY: Thanks for having me here.

CHRIS: We’re looking at space technology. The theme of this show is technology but you’re the guru of space technology.

BLAIR: Apparently, if there’s technology happening at NASA, you’re the guy to talk to.

BOBBY: Well, there’s technology happening all over NASA. That’s been the case since the formation of the agency. I’m just trying to emphasize it and get it out into the open, share it with the public more.

CHRIS: Now that the shuttle is going to be retiring, what’s the direction for space technology?

BOBBY: Since you mentioned the shuttle, let’s talk a little bit about human space flight. NASA has a vibrant plan for human space flight. You’ve probably heard about our use of the Space Station. You’ve probably heard about how we’re building some of the first building blocks of the deep space exploration capability with the heavy-lift launch vehicle and the multi-purpose crew vehicle.

CHRIS: Right.

BOBBY: But when we send humans into deep space, they need many more things then just those two systems. We need to be able to move about efficiently in space. We need to be able to communicate large amounts of data on these human missions in space. We need to keep our crews safe on long duration missions when they’re out in deep space. So, from a technology standpoint those are some of the things we’re looking at. Propulsion, structures, high-band width communications, health advances to keep our astronauts safe and particularly radiation protection.

CHRIS: I noticed you list these grand challenges of technology. Is that pretty much what you just listed?

BOBBY: A subset of what I just discussed in the grand challenges. The grand challenges is NASA’s approach to lay out a vision of the kinds of things, the kinds of missions, the kinds of enterprises that the agency may be pursuing ten, twenty years in the future. Far enough out in the future that we can still dream about them, we can still plan for them but not so far that they’re out of someone’s lifetime.

CHRIS: Right.

BOBBY: I could still imagine these things happening in my lifetime.

CHRIS: Are these technologies that are integrated together? They’re not just stand alone technologies.

BOBBY: NASA has no intention of just going off and playing in the technology sandbox if you will. We’re making technology investments today to enable our future missions, to enable our future science missions, those that are called out in the decadal surveys, and to enable our future plans for human exploration out in deep space. We have road maps, if you will, that play out these future missions. You can back up from those missions to figure out the technologies that you need to make them possible, and therefore you can figure out what investments we need to make today to get us on the path to have those capabilities and have those missions in the future. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.

CHRIS: We get some questions from our audience about these TRLs, technology readiness levels. What’s that all about?

BOBBY: Technology readiness level is a scale that allows engineers, and others to rate the maturity of a given technology. If you were in the shower this morning and you had a brilliant idea, it would be a low TRL, a low technology readiness level because it’s just a concept.

CHRIS: .1?

BOBBY: They’re in intergers, so 1. In your case, it might be a 0. Generally speaking we start at TRL 1.

CHRIS: Okay, gotcha.

BOBBY: Okay. And as you go from concept studies to ground based and laboratory testing to flight demonstration and to real missions the TRL goes up. It goes from 1 to 9. The missions that NASA is flying, they tend to be a TRL of 9. Ground based testing, laboratory testing is in the range of TRL 3, 4, that kind of range. When we do sounding rocket tests or when we do a technology demonstration in space, that’s a TRL of 6 or 7.

CHRIS: So when you look at Desert RATS out there doing their analog field test, that’s sort of a technology level of 3,4 or 5.

BOBBY: Yeah, I’d say it’s probably a 4 or 5. It depends a little bit on the specifics of the technology we’re talking about. There are technologies, like a microprocessor. A microprocessor we could probably test in a relevant environment right on the ground. So, it could be as high as a TRL of 6. But there are certain optics, certain sensors that do require going all the way up into space to be in the right environment for that testing to get to that same technology readiness level.

BLAIR: And of course, even at analogs, we’ve seen iterations of the SEV, for example, over the years obviously moving higher and higher up that list as things are added.

BOBBY: So the TRL scale is just a way of us stating our status. Communicating to people where a given technology is in its maturity and what we need to do still to advance that technology so it can be ready for flight in a future mission.

CHRIS: As we look past low-earth orbit and where we want to go to that near earth object, such as an asteroid, what are some of the technologies that we’ll need to successfully complete a mission sending humans to an asteroid?

BOBBY: Besides the systems we’re already working towards today, the heavy lift vehicle and the multi-purpose crew vehicle, we’ll need ways to move about efficiently in space. We’ll need efficient in space propulsion, in space transportation systems. These could be low-thrust systems or these could be more efficient high-thrust systems than we have today. We’ll need higher efficiency power systems, higher bandwidth communications. We’ll need to be able to land, obviously, on the asteroid, or one day on another body like Mars. There are a whole host of technologies that we need. They depend a little bit on the mission that we’re going to go out and do but today there is a set of technologies that we need across a broad range of destinations. We need in-space propulsion for example regardless of our next destination. So, we’re focused on that today because that’s a building block, a capability that we know we need. I’m particularly fascinated with some of the things that are going on in the science mission directorate. For instance, the surge for Earth-like planets. If you think about the technologies that make those missions possible, it was just a few years ago that when you looked up in the night sky you might have thought there’s got to be another Earth out there but we had no data. We had no evidence. Here today, we know there are hundreds of earth-like planets. Those detectors or technology are growing at an exponential rate. I think in my lifetime we will know with certainty how many earth-like planets there are out there. I think the definition of an earth-like planet will get more and more refined. It won’t just be that it’s a solid body about the right distance from the sun. We’ll know about the atmosphere. We’ll know about trace gases in that atmosphere as we get better and better technology.

CHRIS: It’s a scary thought sometimes. There may be another bizarre world that has another medianaut on another planet, like Blair.

BLAIR: He probably rules the planet. He’s probably a genius.

BOBBY: I doubt he’d be exactly like Blair. He’s pretty unique.

CHRIS: I’m really looking forward to this next generation especially in space technology. Just imagine the past 20 years the technology that has been developed.

BLAIR: And just imagine if Bobby lives 60 more years how much we’ll develop.

BOBBY: That’s not a bad goal.

CHRIS: That’s right.

BLAIR: It’s a great goal! You’ve got a lot of goals out there. You need to meet them all.

BOBBY: There’s no doubt that we are living off the past work that has been done in technology development. We’re living today off the advances that were made in the 60s, the 70s, and the 80s. You see that across the board at NASA. You see that in some of our human space flight systems. You see that even in the science missions. The way we land things on Mars today, for example, is based exclusively in technologies that were developed in the 60s & 70s. We really need to make continued investments in technology to enable that next set of earth science observations, the next set of planetary exploration missions, and certainly our deep space human exploration future.

CHRIS: Bobby, thank you very much. We’ve run out of time. We have to go.

BOBBY: I just want to say how disappointed I am that Franklin is not here. He’s a dear friend. I miss him. I really would have liked to have seen him and say hi. But, I brought something along for you to give to him. Maybe give to his twins. I think he could probably use these. I really like the Grover images on this one.

CHRIS: Oh, Elmo. You’ve got it all. You’ve heard it from Bobby Braun. Franklin, if you’re watching, check it out.

BLAIR: Is that TL 1 or TL 2?

BOBBY: No, these are TRL 9. These are ready for use.

CHRIS: Very good. You’re watching NASA EDGE.

BLAIR: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

CHRIS: That’s pretty cool. Thanks a lot.

BOBBY: Take care.

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