Exploring the great beyond — from home

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Its people might be working from home. But NASA’s work like that of all agencies continues. For a review of NASA’s top technology priorities and how it’s getting them done through the pandemic, Chief Technologist Douglas Terrier spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Terrier, good to have you on.

Douglas Terrier: Hey, good morning, Tom. It’s a pleasure to be with you this morning.

Tom Temin: So is it safe to say that those that can are teleworking at NASA?

Douglas Terrier: Well, NASA, of course, our number one priority is the safety of all of our teammates and employees across the nation. We are very fortunate in the fact that we’re probably ahead of the curve on the use of a lot of telework technologies. And so we have pretty much our entire staff is up and working and productive. There are a few people who need to be in the office who are you know, working on some of the spacecraft like the Perseverance rover that’s about to launch. Some of our spaceflight missions that are ready to go that have to be hands on they’re taking extra precautions and safely working. But the vast majority our teams are able to continue their work very effectively by telling telepresence and all the technologies that we’ve come to know and love.

Tom Temin: And one of the questions I’ve been curious about, and it seems obvious, but when you think about it, it’s not. And that is, where does NASA science leave off and technology begin? What kind of an interface is there?

Douglas Terrier: Yeah, that’s a really great question. And we tend to make a distinction between those two things. But in fact, there’s a lot more overlap than there is a hard line between them. But generally, we can think of science as the concern of asking the big questions of how things work in the universe. And what’s out there and how we’re going to go investigate a planetary surface or investigating a situation on earth and its climate. And the technology side of the house is really responsible for enabling the engineering solutions that allow us to answer those questions, developing the spacecraft, the sensors, the technologies that enable us to conduct those missions and answer those very hard questions.

Tom Temin: Because the chief technologists that regular agencies are concerned with the technology needed to keep the agency going, which usually means Information Technology. They don’t really have any other technology. NASA is all about technology, you know, applied science. And so do you have both the interior and the exterior view in that sense?

Douglas Terrier: That’s a great question. And you’re absolutely right. Many agencies, many companies use that term “chief technologist” to refer to IT – information technology. But my role is really to help the leadership team in pursuing and developing all the advanced technologies across a broad range from as I said, scientific sensors, imaging, to propulsion technology for our rockets to new materials that we may need to operate in certain environments, new power systems, solar power, clean energy, those across the entire range that were needed to execute our mission successfully. And I might say one of the cool things about the job, which I happen to think I have the best job in the world, but one of the coolest parts of it is we at NASA are keen to learn not just internally for the solution, but to look externally across crowdsourcing across citizen scientists across the world, in academia, with other federal agencies and private sector companies. So I really tried to be in contact with and in collaboration with scientists all around the world in all fields, to both keep up with technologies that we need inside NASA and fund and promote technologies and innovation within NASA, but also to keep touch with, collaborate with, and really foster technology and innovation outside NASA and the broader community as well.

Tom Temin: And how does this all work functionally? Because you’ve got the launch centers, and you’ve got the different mission directorates, I mean, it’s a complicated piece of apparatus bureaucratically NASA, and each one of them has the technologies endemic to what it’s trying to do. So how do you arrange all this programmatically?

Douglas Terrier: That’s exactly right. And it is, in fact very complicated or rather distributed system of independent and brilliant scientists across 10 field centers around the country. There’s some of them concerned with human spaceflights, at the flight centers in Houston and Kennedy and Marshall, for example, some concerned with primarily with Earth science, such as our scientists that Goddard Space Flight Center, for example, in Maryland. Some concerned with planetary and looking at rovers on Mars, as you’re familiar with the JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in California. And really, my goal is to ensure that we have both the specific expertise needed at each of those centers that is really aligned with the missions that they’re primarily concerned with, but more importantly, to look for those cross-cutting technologies and investments that we can make that really covered the entire suite of capabilities that we operate. And as I said, again, in cooperation with academia, other government agencies and private sector to both promote and fund where we see advanced technologies that could have use for NASA to bring into our ecosystem of innovation, but also really to help promote innovation broadly across other sectors that can be useful in other sectors of the economy and generally promote better quality of living across our lives here on Earth.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Douglas Terrier. He is the chief technologist at NASA. And how do you know when some sort of disruptive technology might come along that could change something that was a given? I’ll just make up one. You think of spacecraft is made of metal, and they have to go very far. And there, there’s talk about going to Mars for a couple of years back and forth each way. In the aircraft industry, everything is moving to composites. So how do you know what’s the mechanism by which NASA may discover, hey, this is a disruptive technology for us, but one that could really help the mission?

Douglas Terrier: So we actually have our technology portfolio which I helped to administer. We have it divided into, you know, several kind of stages, if you will, looking from very early stage advanced research on to development activities, and then of course, the infusion and actual building of spacecraft where we’re actually taking technology and infusing it into hardware. And our investments and grants that we provide are distributed kinda into those three buckets with a lot of the, as you might imagine, a lot of the third stage, the advanced stage technology work being done in our aerospace company partners and at NASA itself, building spacecraft, building new sensors and so on. But we have a significant amount of investment that’s done in what we call early stage innovation, where we look for actively seek out and have mechanisms for academia. A lot of graduate students are supported through that, a lot of graduate studies throughout the nation, and internationally, where we look for those those nuggets of technology, where we see like, as you said, for example, advanced materials, advanced propulsion systems. Quantum computing, for example, would be another example artificial intelligence, where we look for those emerging technologies but within the NASA community, and throughout the technology sector, and other industries as well, and we actively seed and foster cultivate those efforts to try to bring them along and security where they’re ready to then move on to the next stage for application. And that’s done through a very rigorous process where we partnered with the National Academy of Sciences, among other bodies to help to comb through that broad network of innovators around the world. And we increasingly are using in addition to, you know, the typical grant announcements that we may do with universities for example, and data calls through various science proposal calls. We increasingly are using tools like crowdsourcing or reach out to citizen scientists and the public in general, often from other fields, where we find solutions coming into our world from outside of, even outside of aerospace.

Tom Temin: Sure, and I guess you and NASA as an organization has to have a mechanism for knowing when something is moving beyond that stage of grant exploration, other transaction authority for prototyping or crowdsourcing to when it is commercialized and you can get it through a contract.

Douglas Terrier: That’s right, you know, that actually can take two forms. One of them is we have among our many mission directorates, so we have four basic mission directorates. Think of those as operating companies. One being the human spaceflight, which is concerned with building of course, the Human Exploration Systems, one being our our Science Mission Directorate concerned with a lot of our robotic exploration of both the universe around us as well as Earth science, the third being aeronautics with aircraft and flight within atmosphere. But we have a fourth called a space technology mission directorate. That’s primarily concerned with funding, those generalized technology evaluations that then feed those three other missions that I just mentioned. And we have a pretty rigorous system of determining what we call TRL technology. Readiness level – determining when you move from that early stage – 1,2,3 – to early technology development into the mid levels and – you know, 4,5 – and then onto when we move all the way up this the ladder to those things that are ready for application. And generally they move into different funding mechanisms as you kind of graduate up that scale of technology readiness.

Tom Temin: And do you have a certain number that just never pan out? Maybe someone came with a promising phosgene-powered jet engine, but it just never worked out?

Douglas Terrier: Yeah. So as you can imagine, that’s one of the most, you know, one of the most difficult balances to strike and a lot of my job, and I might add, I have at each of the field centers, the 10 field centers I mentioned around the country, we have a local chief technologist that supports my office working with the scientists and engineers in that, not just that those centers but in that region, including the universities and companies in that region. And what we tend to do as you might imagine, is try to look for those diamonds in the rough. One of the features of that kind of investigation is that you would expect in the early stage that you often, you might invest in things that look promising. And a substantial number of those don’t turn out to be successful, which is just part of the process where if you were to always be 100% sure that you had a winner, you might miss some really neat gems that you just didn’t expect. So we do see and do tolerate and do expect and encourage a bit of trial and error early, where it’s safe. We’re talking about laboratory experiments, research experiments. And as you move up the ladder, we then tend to narrow that down to more and more proven solutions. By the time you get to application certainly to large missions or human spaceflight, for example. You’ve got a technology that’s very well understood, very safe and very proven.

Tom Temin: And with respect to the Mars mission, which is controversial and expensive, but what are the top technology challenges in that whole effort?

Douglas Terrier: Many people don’t realize this. When we say we’re going to Mars I think people generally think of the moon and Mars and planets as sort of being just beyond our atmosphere. But just to give a sense of scale, the moon is about 240,000 miles away. Mars over 200 million miles away, so it’s 1,000 times further. So needless to say, having spacecrafts survive that environment for up to nine months, typically, transit time each way, is in itself a challenge because we are outside the Earth’s atmosphere outside what’s called a Van Allen (belt), outside the protected magnetosphere of the Earth that protects us from a lot of radiation. So we’re in a fairly high radiation environment, that the you know, all the electronics and the systems on the spacecraft have to survive. That’s one challenge. A second challenge is frankly, just entry into the Mars atmosphere is a very, very difficult environment, a very fairly thin atmosphere. We enter with very, very high velocities, high energies, typically generating temperatures that do destroy any known materials. So, you know, creating the, the, the materials to withstand that and the process to enable us to withstand that entry condition. And then just the navigation of, A) reaching the exact entry corridor on Mars and then reaching the exact landing spot because we do target specific interests of, regions of scientific interest for landing. And keep in mind all that navigation is occurring out in open space, millions of miles away from Earth. We don’t have GPS, we don’t have traditional landmarks to navigate by so a lot of autonomy, a lot of artificial intelligence, machine intelligence is on board the spacecraft allowed to do a lot of that autonomous navigation. And then when we take things further, beyond those obvious sort of mechanical requirements, which are true of all spacecraft, we’re now thinking of humans return to the moon by 2024, and then go on to Mars for that very long, up to nine months or so mission each way. It could be a turnaround time of up to two years. Having not just the mechanical systems, but the human systems survive, remain healthy and productive and not … I would say is among the most difficult challenges that we have.

Tom Temin: Yeah. And so what about learnings from say the I mean, you have put objects on Mars. So we know that the rovers and so forth can go there. So we know it’s possible. But it sounds like the scale is different.

Douglas Terrier: Yeah, that is a great question. And I think it’s important to point out that, you know, one of the ways to think about, I mentioned the different mission directorates before. Aas you said, we’ve got a series of rovers already on the surface of Mars, we have orbiters that are circling the planet, and those do, in fact, help us with both targeting sites surveying the surface, we have very good high resolution imagery, sub one meter, resolution imagery of the surface. Those – the spacecraft, if you will, are doing sort of the prospecting and the scouting work in advance of human landings. And it’s very important to think of it in that sense. I think it’s I always tell folks that it’s useful to think of NASA’s sort of, you know, the progression of our exploration. If you think of the great big space observatory, the telescopes looking far out into space, learning what’s out there. We follow that then with robotic precursors, avatars, if you will, that do the prospecting, the scouting work, as we have been doing on Mars. And in fact, over the last six decades, we have surveyed and in one way or another with robotic missions, every planet in our solar system, and now, some going beyond. But those do kind of the groundwork, finding where the scientifically interesting areas are, and then understanding where resources are and other things we may need when we get there, in preparation for the human missions to go. The largest, probably the biggest discriminator is that in addition to all the challenges that we have, mechanically that I mentioned before, we now have in the human missions, first of all, a much larger, generally much larger spacecraft. So the requirements for entering large payloads up to 20 tonnes on the surface are incredibly demanding, versus the 1 ton class payload that we typically have on a robotic mission. And then we also have to then find ways to create in situ, a lot of the consumables that we need to survive. It’s pretty prohibitive to take everything you need with you, on a two-year mission – if you can imagine doing a two-year camping mission, packing everything. Tremendous amount of power on math. So we are – the additional challenge with human missions then is learning to really how to live off the land and create a lot of those consumables, whether it’s oxygen fuels, so on, in situ or from the materials we find there.

Tom Temin: Do you feel it’s solvable in reality?

Douglas Terrier: Yeah, absolutely it’s solvable. And you know that we are working in a very methodical step using exactly sort of this TRL progression, the technology readiness level moving up the ladder. We’ve done tremendous amount of experiments in the laboratory. We’ve then been able to do a lot of the work that we need and proving out, for example, how to recycle water, recycle air, create the breathable oxygen we need on platforms like the International Space Station where we’ve had for over two decades now we’ve had crews living and working in space in a contained, austere environment where a lot of those technologies can be tested out in a relatively near-to-the-Earth safe environment. And in addition, many of our – increasingly we’re putting on our rovers. Basically, technology demonstration. In fact, this next Mars 2020 mission that’ll launch this year, we’ll have on board what we call in situ – ISRU – in situ resource utilization experiments that we’ll be able to try out how we can probe the soil, extract water from Martian surface, use that water to make oxygen, use that water to make hydrogen for fuel and do a lot of the processes that we’ll eventually need for a human mission.

Tom Temin: And even though it is mired in a lot of political wrangling and oversight difficulties, do you think that maybe the Mars aim is galvanizing NASA as people understood it 50 years ago?

Douglas Terrier: I think we like to refer to this new endeavor which is to return to the moon by 2024 with humans and I might add, the first woman on a crew to the moon, and then to go on from there using it as a stepping stone and the demonstration platform to go onto Mars. We call that the Artemis generation, that the name of the program is Artemis, which happens to be the twin sister of Apollo, if you follow Greek mythology. And we believe this is in fact, just as exciting, in fact in some cases more exciting for a whole new generation. Just as those in my generation were inspired by the Apollo efforts in the 60s, we are on the road to have an even more exciting set of exploration events in front of us.

Tom Temin: Douglas Terrier is chief technologist at NASA. Thanks so much for joining me.

Douglas Terrier: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you so much, Tom.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at www.FederalNewsNetwork.com/Federal Drive. Launch the Federal Drive on your schedule. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.