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Daniel Andrews Talks About Exploring The Moon With Robots

Season 1Nov 22, 2016

A conversation with Daniel Andrews, Project Manager for NASA’s Resource Prospector mission.

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A conversation with Daniel Andrews, Project Manager for NASA’s Resource Prospector mission. For more information, visit


Matthew C. Buffington (Host): Happy Thanksgiving and welcome to NASA in Silicon Valley, episode 18. Over the last week, you might have looked up into the night sky and noticed that the moon seemed a little bit larger and brighter. This isn’t your mind playing tricks on you, we just experienced the supermoon; which occurs when you have a full moon during the time when the moon is closest to the earth. The next supermoon, though not so super, will be on December 14. Mark your calendar because the next supermoon won’t happen until 2034. Speaking of the moon, our guest this week is Daniel Andrews who is working on a NASA mission to eventually mine the moon called Resource Prospector. We discuss the early phases of this mission and go into detail on his previous work on LCROSS, which confirmed hidden water ice on the moon. We talk about his love for robotics and how this all builds towards our journey to Mars. Without any delay, here is Daniel Andrews.


Host: First of all, Dan, welcome.

Dan Andrews: Thank you.

Host: How did you get to NASA in the first place, or how did you get to Silicon Valley, but also how did you join NASA?

Dan Andrews: So, I grew up in the Bay Area, I actually grew up out in Livermore. And then, I learned that I wanted to become an electrical engineer through the most bizarre way.

Host: As all kids do.

Dan Andrews: So, I’m in a class — I don’t remember what class it was, but it was some — probably a drafting class or something like that. And I noticed that there were some kids in the back of the lab snickering. They weren’t part of this class, they were just in the back. And what they were doing was, they were playing with a function generator and running the frequencies up super high above human hearing and getting the whole class to start becoming agitated. And I was watching the behavior of the whole class to go crazy, and I’m watching these guys snickering back there. And the power that was involved in what they were doing, I found fascinating.

Host: Okay, so how do you figure out how that’s even happening?

Dan Andrews:This electricity stuff’s pretty cool, I’ve got to look into this some more.

Host: That’s a completely different view of the cool kids in the back making everybody angry.

Dan Andrews:They were troublesome, but it was fantastic. And then, you add that to my natural tech interest.

Host: And being in the Bay Area.

Dan Andrews:And then basically growing up in the Bay Area, Silicon Valley, it all added up.

Host: Did you stay here for school? Did you get out a little bit?

Dan Andrews:Yeah, I went to San Jose State for my EE degree, and then later went for my mechanical engineering masters at Stanford. Love robotics, and so I did the crossover thing in order to be able to speak to both sides of the world.

Host: And you found the place with perfect weather, so why go anywhere else.

Dan Andrews:I don’t think I fully appreciated that at the time, but yes.

Host: You live on the East Coast and come back, you’ll appreciate it.

Dan Andrews:All my in-laws are back there.

Host: So, did you come straight from finishing grad school right into NASA? Was it an internship or anything like that, or did you go private for a little bit?

Dan Andrews:Actually, straight out of my bachelors degree, my EE degree, I came to NASA, and then after a couple years, I did fulltime graduate study through NASA.

Host: Okay, so at Ames the whole time?

Dan Andrews:Yeah, the whole time. I did a little stint at General Electric while I was getting my EE degree, in their nuclear energy business operations division. It’s all gone now, but it was basically the reactor people, and that was really great learning. Talk about some big power there.

Host: Yes, literally and figuratively.

Dan Andrews:Yes, exactly.

Host: So then, when you were at NASA, what kind of stuff did you work on as a student?

Dan Andrews:So, I wasn’t a student yet. I was done being a student.

Host: Okay, you were kind of going back and forth.

Dan Andrews:And so, I worked on some really interesting robotic devices. I had a wing-flipper that was called the CPRA, and it was this maybe foot-long wing that would sit between two glass discs, and we’d have to flip it from 0-60 degrees in milliseconds. This was crazy performance we had to put together. And the whole idea was, when you flip a wing that quickly, you actually develop this huge lift off of it, and if you could adapt that to large-scale aircraft, you might be able to save tons of fuel across an entire fleet.

Host: Okay, fuel efficiency.

Dan Andrews: So, it’s understanding the physics of that and then applying it to a large scale. And I remember when I first came here, I was doing something called an accelerated training program, and the idea is you give your fresh outs who just hire in, you give them something interesting to work on, and you have them talk about it, learning how to speak to technology and speak in front of others. And after I gave this presentation, this incredible model I’d come up with, the 26-order model, just crazy — the division chief looks over at the branch chief, both of them my bosses, and said I thought we only gave jobs that were possible to our new hires. And so I knew I had it right then, because if I failed it was already okay, but if I succeeded, I did the impossible.

Host: Even better, you knock it out of the park.

Dan Andrews: Yeah, it was fantastic.

Host: So then from that, where are you currently, what kind of stuff are you working on, how has that leveraged into where you are?

Dan Andrews: Yeah, so what happened — I think this is kind of natural through a technologist or engineer’s career — I was working on a bunch of different things. I worked on modernizing and automating facilities, some of the wind tunnels around here. That was a good nine-year chunk of my career. Then wanted to do something a little more fun, and so a mechanical engineering friend of mine and I, we built a three-axis robotic table for steadying microbial mats, which might be thought to be similar to how life on Venus might look. So, built this whole robotic table. The PSA, personal satellite assistant, did a bunch of work and led a team there for this floating ball a la Star Wars that could be an assistant for astronauts on long-term space travel or on ISS to provide information, to relay, to do sensing, all that type stuff.

Host: Is that the SPHERES program?

Dan Andrews: SPHERES was actually a competing program, and it has since adopted a bunch of the PSA technologies that were there. But it was great, it was fantastic.

Host: Forces combined.

Dan Andrews: Yes, exactly. And then eventually, I started moving up into group leadership type positions and so forth. And then, mostly recently in 2009 was the project manager of the LCROSS Mission which discovered water on the moon.

Host: You know, no big deal, water on the moon. All in a day, all in a day’s work.

Dan Andrews: It was unthinkable. We know the moon very well. It’s dry as heck. And yet, data from the early ’70s and then on forward into the ’90s in particular had indicated there’s some curious things on the poles of the moon, on the North Pole and the South Pole, like maybe there’s elevated hydrogen there, and how’s it bound up? Could it actually be water, ice? Is that possible? No, that’s unthinkable. But, we had to find out. And so, Clementine missions did some bi-static radar tests, and that kind of fed the community a little more, thinking this is curious. It sort of adds up, but that can’t be, right?

Host: Yeah, that’s crazy.

Dan Andrews: And then Lunar Prospector came along, and it was specifically trying to understand the nature of the hydrogen, and sure enough it confirmed there’s really elevated hydrogen signals on the North and South Pole of the moon. And in particular, in these areas where the sun never shines.

Host: Yeah, I was going to say, the moon having its face fixed at us, you probably never really see that point of view.

Dan Andrews: It gets really warm on the surface of the moon, the parts that happen to be facing at the sun, quite hot. But the polar regions, the sun’s shooting over the top of it. And so these craters that are formed from billions of years of impacts from asteroids and comets…

Host: The shadows protect.

Dan Andrews: Yeah, the shadows, they stay in permanent shadow, and so what’s going on? There’s this elevated hydrogen signal. So, the LCROSS Mission was specifically a very tactical mission to go understand if that elevated hydrogen signal could be water ice. And sure enough, we confirmed it was, which rewrote the books on the moon as a resource, and even the history of it, and so forth.

Host: Was that one the satellite that went around the moon?

Dan Andrews: It was a very interesting project in many different ways. It was also a super cost-effective project, so created a new paradigm there too. But the way it worked, think of a school bus, think of a VW Bug. Attach them.

Host: All right.

Dan Andrews: The school bus is the rocket that brought us to the moon. We emptied out all the propellant, we got it completely inert, as they say, nothing in it.

Host: It’s an empty school bus.

Dan Andrews: It’s a big, empty, aluminum can. And then, this VW Bug that’s attached to it, that’s our spacecraft. And it’s now in control. So, it drags it in actually an earth orbit, a polar earth orbit, meaning going over each of the poles, while the moon is circulating around the equator, in effect. And we time it such that our spacecraft that’s in this earth polar orbit comes up from underneath and smacks a crater of our choice at the south side of the moon. And so we did that, and as we’re coming in close, the school bus and the VW Bug separate. We slow down the VW Bug.

Host: Okay, while the bus is screaming at it.

Dan Andrews: While the school bus is just screaming in and accelerating, just because of lunar gravity. We didn’t shoot it at it, we literally just let go.

Host: Let nature take its course.

Dan Andrews: Physics did its thing. And when it impacted the VW Bug — shepherding spacecraft is what it’s really called — flew in right behind it, taking live measurements, and even flew through the plume of what was ejected up, firing back live, fire back, fire back.

Host: All this data.

Dan Andrews: Only to die itself inevitably.

Host: Inevitable death.

Dan Andrews: Down in the bottom of that crater, exactly. And after doing a bunch of post analysis and all that, found there’s significant amounts of water.

Host: The VW Bus is the real MVP.

Dan Andrews: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

Host: Took one for the team. That’s awesome.

Dan Andrews: So, that mission is fantastic, and one of the things that I think people who remember that mission to this day still don’t fully appreciate is that there was great expectation of a huge explosion. We hit the moon at 5,600 miles an hour. How is that not going to cause a huge explosion?

Host: Yeah, but still, the moon’s pretty big.

Dan Andrews: It’s pretty big, but you should be able to see this ejector disc coming off it. Telescopes and certainly LRO was looking at it as it was orbiting, when it was already in orbit. We of course launched to the moon with LRO. And so, that wasn’t seen, though. What happened? There was a lot of disappointed people, but what’s interesting is from a science point of view, it was a bookend of what could happen. On one end, it could be a light show — we hit a bunch of really large rocks, and all this light comes off from the explosion, ejector goes all over. The other end of the spectrum, though, which isn’t as attractive, isn’t as fun, is that it’s soft silt, just the downiest fluff down there. And sure enough when we hit, we didn’t see thermal signatures until a fraction of a second after it hit. At 5,600 miles an hour, you’re pretty deep before you’re starting to see heat coming out of it. It was an indication that in those permanent shadows, it could be completely fluffy, downy silt in there, and it’s potentially from all the energetics, the sun, cooking the soil all around the permanent shadow, and everything bouncing off and falling in there for a couple billion years. Completely alien, if you will, environment compared to what we might have thought was there. So, locally kind of disappointing, where’s the big show? But huge science came out of that.

Host: I was going to say, I have these ideas of all these astronauts, all these astronomers hanging around, popping bottles of champagne, ready for a show.

Dan Andrews: And of course, it’s the middle of the night, so people are very invested in seeing it.

Host: Yeah, everybody’s here, waiting for the show.

Dan Andrews: After the fact, not to the naked eye, but in the infrared and in other spectral signatures, you could see the plume and you could see the eject. And of course that’s what was measured both from earth but in particular from this shepherding spacecraft that flew behind and measured it directly.

Host: It may not have been a big light show, but man, the science you actually get from that. And, knowing what is there.

Dan Andrews: Re-wrote the books about that. And so, enter Resource Prospector.

Host: Okay, that’s what you’re working on now?

Dan Andrews: That’s what I’m working on now, exactly. We call it RP, Resource Prospector, and its whole function is okay, we know there’s water ice there — okay, good, answered, check, thank you LCROSS. But, what’s its nature? Is it something we can use? What’s its horizontal distribution, and even vertical distribution? How deep is it? Can we go somewhere relevant on either the North or South Pole with a rover-based system and actually sample what’s there, and do a bit of a mapping, sort of a prospecting mission? Hence the name of the mission. And even further, go beyond that, could we have a drill on that system that actually would excavate from as deep as a meter, and cook the soil right inside the rover and bake out whatever’s there, including water vapor if you go where there’s water ice?

Host: Good to know.

Dan Andrews: If you can show that it’s there, if you can demonstrate the relative distribution and quantity, that you can actually make it, actually volatilize it, capture it in a bottle, in a very simple way, you’ve now potentially opened up a whole new commercial marketplace for producing hydrogen, producing oxygen, producing water, maybe even other volatiles as a resource that say NASA in the future could buy it by the yard or buy it by the liter, so to speak, to enable other missions.

Host: It’s a pit stop on the journey to Mars.

Dan Andrews: You have a gas station.

Host: You have a gas station there.

Dan Andrews: And make no mistake. Since the moon is 1/6 the gravity of earth, the amount of propellant required to lift all those volatiles off of earth to go to say a Mars or other places, it’s incredibly costly. If you could actually gas up, I you will, at the moon, if you could create this whole environment in which resources like that are commercially available, it could completely rewrite what’s required to accomplish great feats from there. Use it as a starting point for the mission.

Host: Cool. So, what kind of stuff are you working on? Are you working on the design of this thing, or just kind of figuring out what kind of science you want to grab from it?

Dan Andrews: So, we’re in what’s called phase A, which is the formulation part of the mission. And what we’re trying to figure out is, how would you navigate in these very strange places on the moon? We’re going to land in a sunny day because it makes life much easier. It’s not 70 degrees Kelvin, which is something like -333 degrees Fahrenheit, super-duper cold. And we’re just laying out the whole mission — how long can we live there? Can we time it such that we have a little bit of sun, because we’d be a solar array-powered rover? But then, night will fall eventually, by the nature of the motion of the moon with time. And then, we’ll probably freeze. We’re not going to design the system to survive the lunar night.

Host: No battery packs.

Dan Andrews: We’ll have batteries to charge, but not a system to be able to survive the type of cold we’re talking about here. But we think we can answer the questions without needing that. And part of what this agency’s looking for from this mission is not just these fundamental questions, but to do some of those low-cost efficient approaches that we did on LCROSS, and kind of move them up to this bigger scale.

Host: Oh, wow. So, for somebody who has no clue on how NASA’s organized, put together, is this just like primarily a team that’s here? Is it spread out through other places in the agency, a great group of people, offices?

Dan Andrews: Yeah, exactly. I’ve been very happy to see that we’ve been able to draw some of the best and brightest from around the agency. So, for people who do know, a number of agencies, NASA Ames — or, a number of the centers — NASA Ames, NASA Kennedy, NASA Johnson, NASA Marshall, they’re all participating in this mission in areas in which they have expertise. So, Ames is leading the mission for the whole cost-effective approach and the demonstrated things we have on LCROSS and a number of the other things. But for example, the rover is being developed between Johnson and Ames. The payload system is being led out of NASA Kennedy with participation by NASA Johnson and Ames and others. It’s a really good mix. Makes it a little complicated to manage all that, but it’s a really great team.

Host:It’s like everybody kind of working together. I bet you’ve got to be over the moon.

Dan Andrews: Thank you very much, I was waiting for that.

Host:Yes. Just thinking of the journey to Mars, think of the SLS rocket. That’s got to be huge for you guys.

Dan Andrews: Yes, exactly. What this information could enable, the SLS-type missions, supportable missions, could potentially, yeah, it could be really very enabling from a standpoint of the portfolio. If this saves a fair amount of money, we could do more things for the same amount of money. It’s really quite exciting.

Host:Yeah, I’ve been thinking of, talking about efficiency and innovative ways of doing things, I sat talking with somebody about the small satellites and stuff like that, where they’re not the primary thing that’s on the rocket going up, but they like to hitch a ride. I’m guessing you’re thinking the same thing, of how can we work around and figure out how to…

Dan Andrews: Well, we’re planning a bunch of different options. One of the options is a standard ELV, which is an expendable launch vehicle — like a Falcon 9 rocket, although they’re demonstrating capabilities to be able to return parts back, so it’s not expendable so much anymore.

Host:Oh, very cool.

Dan Andrews: Yeah, so we’re designing it around that type of mission, a launch vehicle, but there’s a number of different options we’re exploring, and we’re in conversations within NASA about that right now.

Host:Obviously you have a really cool job working on really cool stuff. All right, so if you’re going to go to a different office, or let’s say you’re going to go somewhere else in NASA, or thinking of your colleagues, what are some of the things you’re like, that’s really cool? Like, you want to, or you’re a distant admirer of other things that are happening around here?

Dan Andrews: I really am a fan of robotics in general. Despite all the really interesting stuff I’ve had the fortune to work with, I still find the idea of robotics and human interaction, like the personal satellite assistant robot, that could actually be everything from your clock radio that wakes you up in the morning to a relay where you could see your family back on earth while you’re on mission to a safety bot which actually goes while you the astronaut are sleeping to sniff the environment, sniff any gases that might be leaking out of a line, or a fire, that kind of thing. A design system that does all that for you, I just find that…

Host:A nice little buddy that hangs out with you and is protecting you, watching your back.

Dan Andrews: You’ve got to be careful, though, because when we were testing that thing, we built a really cool facility here, and we actually could fly it in the facility. It actually allowed the robot to behave like it was in zero-G, which is a whole fascinating thing in and of itself.

Host:I know, I’m just trying to think, how does that happen?

Dan Andrews: But the ball, the rover — the rover? The robot that we were building, in order to fit all the electronics into it, had to be kind of big, because you couldn’t fit it down into our ideal goal of a six or eight-inch sphere. So, this thing was like a beach ball, and it had all these motor fans in it to be able to fly through this environment in one-G here on earth, inside the interesting crane thing we had built. We called it the micro-gravity test facility. But the problem was those fans were screaming, and it sounded like a bunch of angry cats. And so, we have a thing the size of a beach ball that weighs probably 20 pounds screaming like cats coming right at you. And we were thinking, we’re never going to be able to test this in a real environment, because it’ll just be terrifying to anyone who’s around it. But the whole idea is, that’s how you start with technology, right? You don’t solve the packaging problem right away. You learn from your early stuff, and then shrink it.

Host:I guess in a vacuum you wouldn’t hear it, though.

Dan Andrews: But remember, it’s inside an environment with a human, so there’s plenty of air. But you’re right, like Spheres, like you brought up earlier, if that’s outside the crewed area, when it’s out in space or assisting, yeah, you’re in the vacuum of space. So obviously, fans aren’t going to work either. So, you need to have compressed gas of some sort or something in order to move around.

Host:And for folks who are confused on what SPHERES is, you can search that, look at the International Space Station. You’ll see these cool little balls that are floating around in space. So, for anybody who wants to figure out or learn a little bit more about what you’re working on, where’s the best place to go?

Dan Andrews: If you just search, you can Google search for Resource Prospector NASA. We have a whole website there that’ll take you right to…

Host:Good old

Dan Andrews: Yeah, exactly. And we have a number of videos out there. This year, we’ve been doing testing of a kind of miracle project that we did last year in 2015. I challenged the team at the beginning of the year that, can we build — design, build, and actually test a rover system like what we’d fly to the moon in a single year? From idea, requirements, all the way through, procurement, all that stuff.

Host: Get it all done?

Dan Andrews: And we did. We did it in like nine to 10 months, depending on when you declare finished. And then, by the end of the year, we had actually flown it like we would fly — I’m doing air quotes here — like we would fly on the moon, except it was located in Houston, the rover and the payload that’s inside it, the drill and all that stuff I was describing, is in Houston. Ames Research Center is where the principal mission operations are. Payload was controlled out of Kennedy. And this is how we would do it on the real mission. We were communicating with it over wireless. So, instead of the deep space network, which is what we would use for the moon, that’s okay, we used something else. But our behavior, our procedure — very impressive, this little rover that could. It was very exciting, running it around relevant environments, doing drilling, sampling and so forth. So, there’s videos of that. And then, most recently, we’ve been running it through some tough testing.

Host:You kind of beating it up a little bit?

Dan Andrews: Beating it up a little bit, because that’s how you learn. So, we’ve put it in vacuum chambers, where it’s having to work without any air to help cool things, and then chilling it down too. So now, all the lubricants and things in the moving joints are struggling. It’s just really beating it up, but frankly beating it up in a way that it’ll have to survive on the moon, so we should learn about that now.

Host:As they say, space is hard.

Dan Andrews: Space is really hard.

Host:And so, you got to be a little bit rough to it to make sure that it can take it.

Dan Andrews: Especially what we’re doing. I mean, 70 degrees Kelvin is really cold. Even the way metal moves around is very complicated.

Host:Yeah, even your materials, everything just, you have to anticipate all that.

Dan Andrews: Cabling, how insulation works, what a braiding does, where you’re rubbing two wires next to each other because they’re attached to a wheel that is moving. It’s all very unknown, and you have to test for all that.

Host:Not only does it have to function, it has to be able to survive the vibration of a rocket launch. It has to get out there, survive our conditions, prove that it works, and then all the modified, the different conditions it’s in. Wow.

Dan Andrews: Well, in fact, what usually happens with these missions is the violence of launch, the launch vehicle itself, can many times be the most defining capability of the system. To just survive launch, meaning after you’ve launched and you’re an orbital spacecraft, or even…

Host:Smooth sailing.

Dan Andrews: It’s less than what you’ve had to endure to just survive.

Host:A little cold, but whatever.

Dan Andrews: Yeah, exactly. So yeah, the launch vehicle part we were talking about earlier is very important to understand how it performs, and every one has its own characteristics. And your system has to survive that, otherwise you just spent all these years working on it, and then when you go to deploy it or go to land on the surface, fail. So, we do a lot of testing like this, including vibration tests. That’s something we’ve just recently done, we put the rover up on a vibration table, and you could see all of its panels shaking, and standing waves where you could just see a sinusoidal shape, an S-shape going through the panels. And we’re looking to see stuff fall off. We’re looking to see — in some cases we were actually operating equipment while it was going through vibe, and seeing if bearings held up, seeing anything that could go wrong, just trying to get smarter about it now. And it’s been fantastic, because we’ve learned about materials changes we have to make, just getting smarter, smarter.

Host:Awesome. So, for anybody who’s listening who’s got questions, we are using #NASASilconValley, and on Twitter we’re @NASAAmes. Dan, this has been awesome.

Dan Andrews: Cool, it’s been fun to be here.