It was a sunny, Fall afternoon in a parking lot at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. I was riding in the passenger's seat of a small, two-seater, electric convertible. Beside me was Lucien Junkin, a robotics engineer who had his left hand on the steering wheel and his right hand on a joystick in the center console. All four of the car's wheels were turned 90 degrees to the right, and we were driving sideways.
I was at Johnson with my Planetary Society colleague, Casey Dreier, to see how the NASA center was preparing for America's future in human spaceflight. Junkin had told us how the car—the Modular Robotic Vehicle, or MRV, to be more precise—applied to Mars rover technology, but I had forgotten, as I gripped the sides of my seat. With a flick of the wrist, Junkin straightened the car's wheels, and we sped past a pickup truck that had stopped to let us pass.
We made a sharp turn. Junkin's abrupt motion—which might have caused a regular car to skid—merely shifted the car's g-forces from my chest to my side as the vehicle started driving sideways again. It was disconcerting, but fun, and I laughed through clenched teeth.
The MRV was developed at Johnson in partnership with General Motors. NASA and GM previously teamed up to build Robonaut, a humanoid robot now aboard the International Space Station. After Robonaut, NASA wanted GM to help them build a next-generation astronaut rover for the moon or Mars. GM was more interested in building a futuristic city car. MRV was the compromise; it combines aspects of both.
"You have these two extremes," Junkin said. "What's the cheapest between the two? A city car. How about we build a city car with the technologies that want for the next-generation rover: battery technology, wheel module coolant, pump motors, things like that?"
Modular Robotic Vehicle (MRV) Video: NASA JSC Engineering
Junkin parked the MRV inside Johnson's Building 9, a cavernous, multi-purpose facility that has everything from a robotics workshop to a full-scale mockup of the International Space Station. Sitting near the car was the pressurized top half of a moon rover prototype originally built to carry astronauts on multi-day ventures across the lunar surface. The rover was part of the now-canceled Constellation program, which was introduced during the George W. Bush administration to return humans to the moon.
When Constellation was axed, NASA's human spaceflight destination shifted from the moon to Mars. But Mars landings are at least two decades away, and the space agency's current priority is getting its Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket ready to fly. Johnson won't be building a next-generation Mars rover anytime soon.
In the meantime, Junkin's goal is to "put blueprints in America's garage." He said his team uses what little funding they have to combine the lessons learned from the Constellation rovers with new technologies like those used in MRV, and get to a point where "we're within three years of building flight rovers," whenever a future NASA administrator asks.
"So you don't have funding to get these blueprints in America's garage, right?" he said. "You have a team that's just a world-class, phenomenal team, and you want to keep them together. So to keep them together, you go out looking for other business."
That "other business" includes things like MRV. It also includes Resource Prospector, a small rover expected to launch to the moon in 2020 to mine for hydrogen, oxygen and water. A Resource Prospector prototype sits in Building 9, constructed using technologies that can be incorporated into future human rovers.
It's a strange, new world on the campus best known for its ubiquitous call sign, "Houston." As NASA kicks off a multi-decadal effort to send humans to Mars, the agency's traditional human spaceflight centers have had to adapt to new challenges—often more programmatic than technical. At places like Kennedy Space Center, moving on from the space shuttle era means stripping facilities to the bone and rebuilding around Orion and SLS. But JSC must, by necessity, must keep one foot in the past. Its primary duty is operating Mission Control, which continues to oversee the International Space Station and its inhabitants. The lights have been on continuously here for more than 15 years, and they will stay on through at least 2024. JSC has both the honor and burden of supporting a multi-billion-dollar program that started at the beginning of the millennium.
Mission Control is located in JSC's Building 30. From here, NASA has monitored every U.S. human spaceflight since the Gemini program in the 1960s. Inside the iconic ISS control room, dozens of consoles face a large wall of viewscreens showing the station's current position, live camera views, and the flow of computer commands sent from ground controllers.
Rick LaBrode, an ISS flight director, started here in the 1980s during the shuttle program. Back then, missions were managed out of the same control room used during the Apollo era. That room is now a national historic landmark, and has been converted back to its 1960s look and feel. Large, green instrument panels are filled with aging indicator lights. Pneumatic, bank teller-style tube-and-cylinder messaging was used to shuttle paperwork in and out of the room.
LaBrode is the lead flight director for Exploration Mission 1, Orion's debut mission atop the Space Launch System, scheduled for 2018. He shows us the white and blue FCRs (each pronounced "ficker," an acronym for Flight Control Room), two, small-size versions of Mission Control that received their color designations from bygone flight directors. EM-1 will fly out of the smaller, blue FCR. "For EM-1, there's no CAPCOM, no crew surgeon, and no biomedical engineer," LaBrode said. "So we fit in the footprint of the blue FCR."
Crewed Orion missions, along with flights of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, will be controlled from the white FCR. NASA's commercial crew program has contracted with Boeing and SpaceX for future astronaut taxi flights to the ISS. In an odd reversal of roles, NASA will also act as a subcontractor to Boeing, operating the Starliner from JSC. (SpaceX has its own control center in Hawthorne, California.)
All of this, combined with the continued operation of the ISS, will bring Building 30 back to a level of activity it hasn't seen in a long time. "It's going to be a scheduling nightmare," LaBrode said, of the multipurpose white FCR. "And when the CST-100 is not using it, and I'm not using it, my assistant is using it for training. So we have some significant challenges."
Back in Building 9, just a short walk from Lucien Junkin's moon rovers, sits a full-scale Orion capsule. It's a "medium-fidelity" mockup—close enough to the real thing for astronauts to sit inside and take the flight software out for a virtual spin. We peer through the hatch, and the contrast with the space shuttle's button-and-switch-filled flight deck is astonishing. Just a few touch screens hang from the top of the craft; there are hardly any physical controls.
Stuart McClung has been with the Orion project since its inception in 2006. He has watched the spacecraft go through a couple major redesigns. When Orion was first conceived, NASA wanted it to ferry crews to the International Space Station. Now it's headed for deep space.
"Every time Orion's use changed, the capsule had to change," McClung said. "There was a different thermal protection system in place for ISS, because there's more debris in low-Earth orbit." Orion also used to be equipped with a communications system built specifically to talk with the ISS, he said.
The capsule spent eight years in development before embarking on its inaugural mission, Exploration Flight Test 1, last year. In addition to providing engineers with actual flight data, EFT-1 gave NASA and Orion's manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, a chance to test out the assembly and integration process.
"EFT-1 was a huge step, really," McClung said. "I spent nine months at the Cape while we were building the vehicle, so I'm a little biased. I think it was important as much as going through and testing it as it was to gathering all the flight data."
The Orion project receives more than $1 billion per year, and has a $6.77 billion budget from fiscal year 2016 through EM-2. Those levels have been roughly consistent since the program's inception. "One of the interesting things that Orion does, is, we've operated at a very flat budget. And we're really in a development phase with a flat budget. And that's tough. It makes us start tweaking and rethinking and changing your willingness to overlap [development tasks]."
At JSC, astronauts and flight controllers with real-world experience provide feedback to Orion engineers as the design matures. "They see us coming, and they think, 'Oh God, another one of those ops guys, gonna cost me money and schedule,'" Rick LaBrode said. "But we're here to be part of the team; we want to help."
LaBrode recalled a recent design debate over the vehicle's service module, which is being built by the European Space Agency. The module's design is based on the Automated Transfer Vehicle, an uncrewed ISS cargo ship. LaBrode said the vehicle's propulsion system is interconnected in a way that makes it impossible to isolate one set of propellant tanks in the event of a leak—which made future astronauts uneasy.
"From an ops-crew perspective, it's totally unacceptable," LaBrode said. "So they're having an all-day, nine-hour control board meeting." Ultimately, the design may be left as-is for uncrewed EM-1, but changed after that.
Operations personnel also discovered a potential problem after a set of pressure equalization valves on Orion's hatch were removed. Engineers originally thought the valves wouldn't be needed until later missions, when Orion docks with a crew habitat. But if the capsule flips upside-down during splashdown—a position known as stable 2—the equalization valves may be needed in order for the crew to exit. Said LaBrode: "They're going to need those things in order to get out."
On the day we visited Building 9, part of the International Space Station mockup was in use for training. As we stood inside ISS Node 2, also known as Harmony, a sealed hatch prevented us from entering the U.S. laboratory module, Destiny. Peering through the hatch's porthole, I didn't recognize any astronauts in the group of trainees inside Destiny. Our sole astronaut encounter turned out to be a life-size cardboard cutout of Scott Kelly standing outside one of the station modules.
Our ISS guide was Skip Hatfield. Like most of the other civil servants we met at JSC, Hatfield is a NASA veteran. He was Orion's first program manager before Mark Geyer took over in 2007, and now heads up the ISS development projects office. One of his recent jobs was working on the station's new International Docking Standard, which spells out hardware guidelines ensuring any country can dock with another country's vehicle. (Getting the world's space agencies to agree on a docking standard is "a lot harder than you think," he said.)
NASA's Mars plans begin with the International Space Station, where the agency is testing technologies that will be required for long-duration spaceflight. In the 2020s, NASA wants to start applying its ISS expertise on missions to the "proving ground"—the region of space around the moon. A proving ground capstone, Hatfield said, could be a crewed, 300-day trip to a variety of lunar orbits using solar electric propulsion, which NASA has proposed using to push crew and cargo to Mars.
"We'd like to be able to have the in-space propulsion that goes along with that, and then go to some physical targets," Hatfield said. "Not just sit in space in a can for 300 days."
When the International Space Station began operating more than 15 years ago, NASA discovered the environmental systems it tested so thoroughly on the ground behaved differently in microgravity. But in low-Earth orbit, if something breaks, spare parts are just a cargo flight away. And the ISS is also stocked with surplus equipment.
On Mars missions, "mass is a big constraint, so you have to minimize spares," Hatfield said. "So you have to figure out how to have more reliable systems." By necessity of keeping the station running, NASA continues to get extra runtime on the technology needed to support astronauts in deep space.
On the way out of Johnson Space Center, we stopped at Rocket Park. There, stretched on its side within a long, rectangular building, sits one of the last remaining Saturn V rockets built to carry astronauts to the moon. At more than 110 meters tall, it remains the most powerful rocket ever constructed. The rocket's massive lower stages dwarf the tiny Apollo command module sitting at the top.
The Space Launch System—in its block 2 variant, if the rocket design progresses that far—will be even taller, and more powerful. And like Apollo, Orion will comprise but a fraction of the rocket's total volume.
The Saturn and Apollo flew to the moon at a time when NASA's budget was roughly double what it is today. Now, the agency is trying to achieve even more—with less. But if NASA astronauts do end up making bootprints on the Martian surface, the first people to hear the good news will be here in Mission Control Houston—flat budgets and "other business" be damned.
That's at least three presidential administrations from now. What if the plan changes? "We're a service organization to the president and congress," said Hatfield, with a smile. "They set the policy; we figure out ways to implement it. That's what they pay us to do."