NASA Podcasts

NASA X: Game Changing Technologies
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NASA X -- Game Changing Technologies

Jennifer Pulley -- host
Steve Gaddis -- NASA LaRC
Dr. Bob Hodson -- NASA LaRC
Tibor Balint -- NASA JPL
Shelley Rea -- NASA JSC
Roger Rovekamp -- NASA JSC
John Vickers -- NASA MSFC
John Fikes -- NASA MSFC

Pulley: Ask any group of people what organization is most responsible for revolutionary advances in space technology, and there is little doubt their answer would be NASA. Clearly, over its long history, NASA has been one of the most innovative and exciting change agents the world has ever seen, proving that we can accomplish great things if only given a goal and the opportunity. That feeling has been firmly imprinted on the NASA DNA and continues to motivate all those who push the envelope of technology. But rather than just rest on its laurels, NASA is moving to expand its role as a change agent in new and exciting ways. In order to do this, the NASA culture will need some minor tweaking first. Today's generation of NASA researchers are working to alter some outmoded practices of how technologies are developed and implemented at NASA. If these ideas take root, they have the potential to revolutionize NASA from the inside out.

Pulley: Coming up on this episode of NASA X, we will follow members of Space Technology's Game Changing Development Program office as they work to revolutionize and mature new technologies within NASA. We will feature a few of the many technologies managed by the GCDP to see how these innovate ideas are advancing the missions of today and missions of the future as well.

Pulley: NASA has a long and storied past. In its short history, the agency has accomplished truly breathtaking achievements, forever changing how humans view themselves in the universe. The NASA of today is no different than the one of the past, of course. It is still the world leader in space technology and is still accomplishing truly unbelievable feats, but many in the NASA community have seen the pace of technological breakthroughs slow in recent years. That was not always the case. In NASA's early years, it seemed like many of its projects were stuck in fast-forward, none more so that the Apollo program. President Kennedy made his famous "Man on the Moon" speech at Rice University in 1962, and by July of 1969, Neil Armstrong was stepping out of the lander onto the surface of the moon.

Pulley: One reason we got there so quickly was because NASA made the decision early on to let the engineers lead the charge toward the moon, rather than the norm, which was to have a more bureaucratic structure. That is not to say that there was not structure; there was just an understanding that more risk must be taken in order to complete the mission in the given timeline.

Pulley: But as the Apollo program retired and the shuttle came online, a shift began. The culture within NASA became much more risk-averse and, rightly, more focused on safety and successful missions. But with this new posture, less focus went into the development of transformative technologies. This mind-set permeated throughout NASA, and eventually, in the words of one NASA official, NASA became more evolutionary and less revolutionary. NASA never stopped innovating, but researchers developing new technologies often found substantial hurdles in their way.

Pulley: To better understand this, let's look at what NASA calls TRLs, or Technology Readiness Levels. The nine TRLs measure the maturity of evolving technologies and order them from 1, which is the lowest, to 9, which is a technology that is fully developed. An example from history of how the TRL system works can be seen in the late 1950s, when the famed NASA engineer Max Faget came up with idea for the Mercury spacecraft. Dr. Faget was sitting in the cafeteria at NASA Langley drawing on a napkin when he came up with the idea for the basic shape of the Mercury capsule. He fleshed out the details with his team, and soon they had the beginnings of the craft, which put them at Technology Readiness Level 1 for the Mercury project. He and his team then began moving through the other levels, testing and building models, and, after a few years, arrived at TRL 9, which culminated with the first manned flight of the vehicle on May 5, 1961.

Pulley: The same basic concept is still used today. Researchers come up with concepts and ideas and hope to move them through the early TRL stages all the way to full maturity. This system is the framework from which NASA engineers develop technologies, so it goes without saying that the TRLs are very important within NASA. But in the last few decades, many researchers have come up with great ideas only to find themselves stuck in the lower TRL stages.

Pulley: But in the early 2000s, pushback began happening within the NASA research community. It was widely agreed that there needed to be a way to push important concepts to the front of the line and move them more quickly through the Technology Readiness Level stages. To do this, a sea change needed to happen within NASA which would completely alter the current culture and get us back to our leaner, engineer-leads-the-way mentality. That sea change happened when NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate created the GCDP, or the Game Changing Development Program office. Space Technology developed the GCDP with the idea that new, exciting, disruptive technologies would be rapidly infused and given the chance to prove themselves more quickly.

Balint: If you look at the Space Technology program, especially if you look at the Game Changing program within, our projects are about two years long with an option to extend them for a third year. So basically we are carrying on, executing our existing-- our portfolio, and by the end of the year, you have developed dozens of new technologies that we can make available to other programs within Space Technology, other stakeholders, such as Human Explorations under the AES project, or maybe we can pass on technologies to science mission directorate as well.

Hodson: The idea here is to take some more risks and to do some things, instead of incrementally, but in a transformative or disruptive way. Let's look outside of the box. Let's look for completely different ways of doing technology, and so the idea is that we can afford to take risks and target technologies that will hopefully have orders of magnitude improvement that can do things that we've never been able to do before.

Pulley: With this idea firmly established, the team needed to begin looking throughout NASA to determine which projects would be first on the list.

Gaddis: Somebody might have a great idea, a new way of doing navigation or communication, and they'll come, and they'll pitch that idea to a PI. If the PI believes it's a good fit within our portfolio, that it meets Game Changing metrics, that it's aligned well with agency priorities, then they'll develop what we call a new start proposal. And they'll bring that to our program board. So they have to be a TRL 3, and that's-- they've gone through the proof of concept. It's not basic research. It's not a scientist in the lab, but it's someone who's taken it and said, "Look, I've checked it out in a small way, a small scale," and it's proven itself. "I need to get it from TRL 3 to TRL 5," through the Valley of Death, we call it.

Pulley: This term, "Valley of Death," is apropos, because this is where so many promising technology ideas falter. Generally an idea in the TRL range of 1 to 3 are proof of concept ideas. But once they get into TRL 3 range, more often than not, excess funding and time needs to be spent on them to move them forward. This level is where so many technologies of the past fizzled out, but one of Game Changing's central goals is to grab the hand of some of these ideas and lead them through this Valley of Death and onto actual missions.

Hodson: What we are doing here in Game Changing is, we're taking a bunch of technologies in this 3 to 6 range, and we're rapidly advancing them. We can take selective ones, the best ones that we can find. We can advance them for a two-to-three-year period. We can mature them from this lower TRL to where they could be used by projects and missions, and then we can go on to the next one and do it again and again and again.

Pulley: With the goal set, the team began the process of looking at some of the best ideas within NASA, choosing a wide-ranging set of technologies to help rapidly mature and begin this new approach for the Agency. The GCDP manages over 30 projects that focus on everything from nanotechnology and lightweight materials to nuclear systems and solar electric propulsion.

Pulley: The hope is that, with enough support, the GCDP-managed technologies will eventually be used to help create innovative new space technologies for our nation's exploration, science, and economic future. One of the first technologies they chose is from from NASA's Robotics and Autonomous Systems and is located in this lab at the NASA Johnson Space Center. Here a small team of highly motivated, young robotics engineers are working on an idea that has the potential to help astronauts on long-duration missions and may end up changing the lives of millions as well.

Pulley: One of the first Space Technologies GCDP projects we will explore is located in this lab at the NASA Johnson Space Center. Here a group of NASA researchers have come up with an exoskeleton that they call the X1. It has the potential to solve some major problems for astronauts on long-duration missions. This 60-pound assisted mobility device is worn on the legs of the wearer and is used to assist them in various ways. To understand why NASA is interested in a device like this, you have to understand a little about physics in space. A major problem faced by astronauts in space is bone loss and muscle atrophy due to a lack of use.

Pulley: Generally on shorter trips, the bone and muscle density problem can be easily managed, but longer-duration missions pose a much greater threat to crew health and performance. Here on Earth, we use our legs every day to walk around, but on orbit, the astronauts are in microgravity, so muscles and bones, especially those in the legs, aren't being used as they would be normally. Because of this, muscles weaken, and bones begin to lose their density. As a result, some astronauts come back to Earth with up to 30 percent less bone structure in their legs and with significantly weakened muscles. To combat this, NASA doctors prescribe a strict regimen of exercise on orbit, but there is only so much that can be done. Generally there is a treadmill and other bulky devices used to keep in shape, but these only provide limited success. The X1 may be able to change that.

Rea: I guess one of the biggest things for NASA and their astronauts is keeping their astronauts safe and keeping them fit and keeping them in good shape. We're looking at, in the next few years, we're gonna start sending astronauts to the Space Station for year-long missions instead of just six months, right? And so how do we keep them fit? How do we look at muscle density loss and bone density loss and muscle atrophy and things like that? If we look at a device like this, look how much-- you can see how much smaller and compact it is. And this is really gonna hopefully pave the way towards smaller technologies for countermeasures that we can use when we're in a smaller capsule and we want to go back to the moon and out to Mars. So the goal in Space Station, we're looking at two different things right now. We're looking at it for dynamometry applications, which is basically measuring muscle strength. And so we've been working with the Human Health and Performance group and saying, "Wouldn't it be great "if we had a device on Space Station "that we could use to measure muscle strength while they're up there?" Because they don't do that right now, so now what they-- what we're looking at this to do is, say, you know, you go use ARED. You go use the treadmill or the stationary bike, and then maybe once a month or once every two weeks, you use the X1 as a dynamometry application so we can measure your muscle strength, and we can really start to close the loop with the physicians on the ground and the prescriptions of exercise that they're giving the astronauts to see how effective they are. You know, at its core, it's a mobility assistance device, so you can imagine that, when we go to Mars, no matter how much you exercise along the way, you're gonna be very tired when you get there. And so now maybe we can use this not only for exercise, but you can use it for mobility assistance when you get there, 'cause you're gonna be weak. All of your joints that are actuated, you can use them to resist you, or you can use them to assist you.

Pulley: NASA is very interested in the X1 for use in space, and this same device could also be a game changer for anyone who needs rehabilitation, like stroke victims. X1 could be even more life-changing for paraplegics. Early on in its development, the team partnered with the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. This group has been working on a mobility device that could serve as the legs for wheelchair-bound patients.

Rea: At that time, they had their own exoskeleton that they had developed called Mina v0, and they were really focused on mobility assistance, helping persons with paraplegia get up out of the wheelchair, walking again. And at that same time, we had, you know, Robonaut, which we had just flown to Space Station. We worked on all this hardware. We developed all the actuators and all the mechanical and electrical assemblies for that. We developed all the safety systems in order to be able to send it to Space Station, and so we said, "Well, why don't we come together "and we take that knowledge that we have "about building these structures? "And we'll take the knowledge that you guys have "with assisted mobility and your high-level software, and we'll come together and build X1." And so X1 is really about improving life for people here on Earth and in space.

Pulley: The X1 has the potential to change the lives of anyone suffering from limited mobility. When asked, many paraplegics say just being able to stand, reach the top of a shelf, or have a conversation with another person at eye level can improve their quality of life significantly. Much work is going into the X1 to make it as accessible to as many people as possible. It is relatively lightweight and has been designed in a way where it can be adjusted to fit many different body types. And for persons who have lost their ability to walk, there is also a prerecorded walking gait that can be adjusted to help them learn to walk again. In this iteration of the X1, paraplegics must still use crutches to help them balance and walk, but the hope is that the technology will develop to where the device can be utilized without crutches.

Rea: You know, my mom has multiple sclerosis, and she is 80% kind of confined, and for a device like this to help her, that's something that she looks at saying, "I wish I could have that." But in ten years from now, people won't be saying that. I think people will be saying, "Oh, let me go get that out of my closet because I'm ready to go out and walk around."

Rovekamp: Sometimes technologies develop slowly and incrementally, and sometimes things happen all at once. There's a term, "the tipping point." I think with this type of technology, we've actually found a tipping point where the actuation technology is there, the computation technology, the applications for spaceflight, and the willingness and people's interest in this type of technology, and all of these things converging at once, I think that's what makes something-- that's how the game is changed. All these technologies happen at the same time, and people are grasping that opportunity to really-- to make a difference. So it's not only changing the lives of astronauts, improving their health, but it's also improving lives here on Earth. We feel that it's not just game-changing. It's actually life-changing.

Pulley: Spaceflight has many obstacles, one of which is weight. Any mission off this planet has a weight restriction. NASA has estimated roughly $10,000 per pound to get something into orbit, so weight reduction is a huge factor. If manufacturing costs could be brought down as well, millions of dollars could be saved on each launch. The challenge of creating low weight and less costly launch components is very attractive. The Game Changing office is taking this challenge very seriously and has created a Composite Cryotank to offset additional weight and possibly save money. Current propellant tanks are made from metals, like aluminum. As the name suggests, the Composite Cryotank is being made from a strong, lightweight composite material that have a huge upside when talking about saving weight and money.

Fikes: We started out the project looking at a 30% weight savings over traditional state-of-the-art aluminum or aluminum-lithium tanks, and we did a phase one activity with four contractors before we down-selected to Boeing for phase two, and out of that studies that we had, we were getting anywhere from, like, 35% to 40% weight savings. Every pound that you save in mass on a launch vehicle, you get that savings in payload, and it's-- depending on whether you're, you know, at the core stage or in upper stage, that ratios will vary, but you do get significant savings, so you get more performance. You get more capability, or you get increased payload.

Pulley: The process of building the Cryo tank is not only cost-effective. The weight reductions could ultimately save millions during a mission. Current composite materials are cured in large ovens called autoclaves. This process can be very expensive. But NASA's Composite Cryotank is being developed out of autoclave, making it much less expensive.

Gaddis: Saving the out-of-autoclave-- or the autoclave expense, meaning that normally you have this huge tank and it's a composite and it's got all these materials that are in it, and you have to cure it in a huge oven. You got to maintain the oven. You got to buy the oven. You got to procure the oven, so if you can find a way to manufacture with the same technical integrity as a tank that's gone through the autoclave outside the autoclave, you can cut development costs significantly. 30%, I think, is the number that they're saying, and not only development costs, but recurring costs. You make these tanks, it doesn't have to go into an oven.

Pulley: The way it works is, a fiber placement head on a robot is programmed to lay down the material exactly where it is needed. This new process reduces costs, time, and most importantly, produces a better product. Because all of this technology is relatively new, the NASA team is using a process called the building block approach. First they test small coupons, or pieces, of the material to make sure that it can measure up to expectations.

Pulley: It is then made into larger pieces and tested again. The project is currently at the point where a scale model 2.4-meter tank is being tested with the eventual goal to build to a full-scale tank to fit on a launch vehicle. The current 2.4-meter section is located here, in this silo in the west test area at the Marshall Space Flight Center under the shadow of test stands for the Apollo engines. Engineers have placed a foam coating over the tank and will then test it in a way that would be expected on a launch vehicle.

Vickers: We put the tank through the exact conditions that it would see in the launch vehicle, so we fill it with the cryogenic material. In this case, it's liquid hydrogen. And then, in the case of a launch vehicle, we may have to empty that. So we would fill and drain, pressurize, un-pressurize, all to determine how the tank reacts to those conditions and loads.

Pulley: With this test completed, engineers can look for problem areas, fix them, and then move on to building the larger tanks. And if successful, this Game Changing process can be adapted to other parts of a launch vehicle, making it more lightweight and less expensive. These are just a few of the ideas that are being worked on by the Game Changing Development Program office, but many more innovative ideas and technologies are being moved through the Game Changing lane each day. And with each new development, change is coming to NASA that is allowing the agency to rapidly infuse technology and make smarter decisions about how to move forward and create different approaches while changing the culture. Much of the credit for this positive change can be placed directly at the feet of Space Technology's Game Changing Development Program office.

Gaddis: Personally, I would love if, five years from now, somebody said, "They really changed the game. They made a difference for NASA." That's all I'd need to hear.

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