Planetary Radio host Mat Kaplan interviewed NIAC Fellows about their revolutionary projects as part of the 2021 virtual symposium. You’ll hear highlights including how we might grow structures on the Moon and Mars from fungi, and solar sails that will pass excruciatingly close to the Sun before they zoom out of our solar system. We’ll also check in with Society chief scientist Bruce Betts for another What’s Up.
- NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts
- Complete list of the NIAC fellows and studies
- Could future homes on the Moon and Mars be made of fungi?
- Planetary Radio at the 2019 NIAC Symposium
- The Downlink
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The contest is taking a break this week! We’ll announce the two most recent contest winners in our Nov. 3, 2021 episode.
Mat Kaplan: Is it a glimpse of our future in space? The 2021 NIAC Symposium this week on Planetary Radio.
Mat Kaplan: Welcome, I'm Mat Kaplan of The Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our Solar System and beyond. A special episode this week, in spite of the fact that I'm on vacation. Though we had hoped to gather in person over three days in September, the Annual Symposium of NIAC Fellows forged ahead in the virtual world. It was my honor to once again host several of the fellows and other participants during nine breaks in the action. You'll hear highlights of those conversations today.
Mat Kaplan: NIAC is the NASA Innovative Advance Concepts program and I think you'll agree that it lives up to its name. We'll follow this dive into the leading or bleeding edge of space tech with yet another What's Up update from Bruce Betts.
Mat Kaplan: I can't share headlines from the downlink with you because I produced this episode days ago but that doesn't prevent you from visiting Planetary.org/downlink to see the latest edition of The Planetary Society's Newsletter, there's a new one every Friday. You can also have it conveniently delivered to your inbox, as I do, and it's always free.
Mat Kaplan: We'll start our NIAC visit with an overview from the person who leads the program. Jason Derleth is the NIAC Program Executive at NASA Headquarters. He was the opening speaker at this year's symposium. I began by reminding Jason of how he said new NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy had described NIAC.
Mat Kaplan: She called NIAC the seed core for NASA, which I felt was a very apt metaphor.
Jason Derleth: Yeah, that's kind of how I think of NIAC. I think of us as the venture capitalists of NASA. We get a little bit of money and we try and invest it in what the future could be and, hopefully, some of these things will come through and really strike it rich. But obviously, we're not earning money as venture capitalists, what we're doing is we're investing in humanity's future for space. And so striking it rich might mean enabling somebody to go out and mine asteroids and sell the water so somebody else might actually be making lots of money but what it will do is enable the human race to go deeper and farther into space and to help us explore, which is what it's all about.
Mat Kaplan: And you just mentioned several of the things, projects the fellows have proposed that we'll be hearing about over the next few days. You also mentioned that most of the projects that are funded through the NIAC program may never turn into anything practical or real, but that even some of those have rippling effects. And I don't know if you can see it in your picture, but here on my space tie, there's Ingenuity which is still now and then flying above the surface of Mars, and didn't you say that Ingenuity was sort of inspired by a NIAC project?
Jason Derleth: Yes, the PI of Ingenuity actually mentioned it in an article and we contacted him and he confirmed, yes, that he got the idea from watching a presentation. Kind of like what we're doing today, going out to the world, live, without really knowing what people are going to be saying. This is a conference in only the sort of structure. What it really is it's a working meeting where the various projects are reporting their progress out to the program office and we are evaluating their project reports, essentially. But like I said, we bring everybody together so that it becomes this fellowship of ingenuity, of a fellowship creativity and advance concepts thinkers that are helping each other. Instead of just pursuing their own careers, they're helping everybody else pursue careers as well, but helping to explore.
Mat Kaplan: You made another great point as you were talking about exactly this in your opening presentation and that was the interdisciplinary nature that is so key to NIAC and another reason why it's so important to bring everybody together. I only wish we were all in one big room in Tucson, which of course was the plan before the pandemic got in the way, the Delta variant. I have seen the synergy taking place after presentations, where one fellow will walk up to another say, "Hey, we need to talk." You must see that a lot.
Jason Derleth: My favorite story is when I was sitting at breakfast one morning in the hotel restaurant and I had a very disheveled fellow come up to me and say, "Thank you for having this meeting. I was up until three o'clock last night talking with another fellow and we're going to put in a proposal for the next solicitation together, as a team." And that does happen, probably once every couple of years, we get proposals from teams that met each other during the symposium and partnered. So it's just fantastic.
Mat Kaplan: That really is. Could you take us through sort of an elevator speech version of how NIAC does its work, how proposals are made, how they're evaluated, and how they get funded?
Jason Derleth: Yes, absolutely. We are open to anyone who is legally able to work in the United States to propose to, and so we get generally about 300 proposals every year. The program office goes through those 300 proposals for phase one studies, which I already mentioned is a nine month study for a $125,00 last year, now we're up to $175,000 this year in the open solicitation now. And we look through those 300 and we eliminate anyone who's out of scope for the program, which is a large percentage of them. For prospective proposers, I can just say, read the solicitation, maybe even every day when you're writing your proposal. If you're out of scope for the program we can't select you, no matter how good your idea is.
Jason Derleth: And so we select about a 110 of them to go forward to full panel reviews. I should have said that those first proposals are only three page white papers that describe the idea and how it will be used in the future, if it is a successful technology development. The full eight page proposal comes to a panel review, where we hire experts in the fields, the various fields, and that means that we have to have multiple fields sitting at the table almost every time for each review. But we make sure that we have at least one or two experts in the actual field of each proposal that's being reviewed and then we have a technical panel review where these experts talk about each of the proposals and rank them and provide us with a ranked list.
Jason Derleth: We take that list, the best ones out of that list and we check to make sure that no other place in NASA is funding similar work and we check with our own mission directorate, the higher up technology development folks and the other technology folks within the other mission directorates at NASA, like the science mission directorate, which I put the technologists there to see if there is any special interest or special disinterest from those groups. And then we take the entire set of information that we've gleaned in a small package to the source selection official who then chooses the... about 16 winners each year.
Jason Derleth: And like I said, anyone who is eligible to work legally in the United States is eligible to propose to NIAC, and so we have had graduate students propose and win. We've had an undergraduate student propose and win a NIAC award. We've had garage inventors. Quite literally, one of our fellows had an optics bench in his garage that he was working from. We've had physical therapists proposing how to do artificial gravity in a new way that's never been thought of before. Normally, you rotate a spacecraft and the astronauts stick to the inside. He came up with an interesting way of doing it linearly with a sled. So we've had these really creative folks from medium sized businesses, small businesses, and even NASA propose new ideas. And while it might sound a little bit like insider pool there when NASA can propose to a NASA program, there are a lot of folks who have really challenging ideas that the status quo can't always accept.
Jason Derleth: A great example of that might be the Apollo program had the earth orbit rendezvous and the lunar orbit rendezvous where the rocket launched and then they turned the capsule around and pulled out the LEM and then they took that whole set to the moon, and they separated. The LEM went to the surface and then the astronauts came back up and docked again with the command module and then came home. That was not the preferred solution and there was one engineer at Langley Research Center who said, "That's the right way to do it and I can prove it mathematically," and he had to keep arguing and keep arguing and keep arguing, and eventually people said, "That might be the only way we can do it. Let's do that."
Jason Derleth: We get folks like that, but have said, "Hey, there might be a better way, folks," and we are one of the few places that they can go and get a little bit of money to do a real study to show that their idea might be the best way to do it, or maybe even the only way.
Mat Kaplan: So how then do phase one fellows make it up to phase two and then to that ultimate level of phase three?
Jason Derleth: Phase three, I like to say, doesn't exist. As a proposer to the program, I think it's the best strategy to always be done, to be ready, to seize an opportunity that shows up. Even if you've just finished a phase one proposal maybe you can find funding from an implementation organization right then and that's the best way to go. NIAC has only a very small number of dollars and only a very small number of studies. So what we do is we have the phase ones that have completed their studies, but not won a phase two yet, and yes, that means that people who have won studies in the past, but haven't won a phase two can re-propose. They make a longer proposal, 20 or 25 pages, depending on the year, for a $500,000 study that lasts two years. And we look at the proposals and have a technical panel with experts in the fields give us a rating and a ranking and then we take it to the source selection official after checking to make sure there' still no duplication of funding anywhere else. Very similar to phase ones.
Jason Derleth: And for the phase threes, we do a very similar process, but without a technical panel, because the NIAC Program Office has been shepherding these folks for four years. We feel that we are the experts as far as those are concerned and then we get input from the mission directorates especially, because phase three is the one that we get each year. We only get one, and that's why I say, especially for phase twos, "Don't count on the phase three being your source of funding. Try and find an implementer that wants your technology instead." But for those that just have too much risk to move forward with an implementer, a phase three might be a way of doing it. If they can win the one for the year, the NIAC Program Office down selects and then runs this, runs each one by implementors in the agency, so the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Director or the Science Mission Director.
Jason Derleth: Now we haven't had one yet for aeronautics, but we would go to aeronautics mission directorate if we had an aero proposal for phase three. And then we'd bring that to the source selection official. And the source selection official chooses, finally, makes the final decision.
Mat Kaplan: Say something about the NIAC External Council, because it is such a collection of all stars.
Jason Derleth: So the original NIAC program had an external council to help guide it towards the edge of what's possible and we implemented that when we started the new program up again in 201, 2011. And what the External Council is meant to do is to keep us from having that sort of slow creep towards the mere, if you will, a mere additional government program.
Jason Derleth: Government programs tend to shy away from risk over time. They choose things that are certain, instead of things that are uncertain, because that's how you have successes and successes are everything for individual careers. The NIAC program doesn't want that to happen and so we have a whole bunch of... A whole bunch is nine, eight, eight experts from the field, the different fields to help us understand how well we did. They are not involved in the selection process at all, but they do give us feedback each year on what we selected and tell us, "Hey, this one was a little bit over the line towards science fiction and these other ones seemed too implementable, too easy for the NIAC program, so you need to think about that."
Jason Derleth: And we really appreciate their time and their input at the program. They're absolutely vital to keep this program on the cutting edge and I really thank each and every one of them for coming each year and attending these meetings and asking questions, because they help make the fellows and the studies better with those questions.
Mat Kaplan: NIAC Program Executive Jason Derleth.
Mat Kaplan: By the way, I want to thank all the great people at NIAC for their support. They pulled off a miracle, when it became clear that the Delta variant would make an in person symposium unwise. All of the presentations are available on demand at the NIAC Symposium website. We'll have that link on this week's episode page at Planetary.org/radio.
Mat Kaplan: I also want to thank the University of Arizona. The school was looking forward to taking us on tours of its Mirror Lab and other facilities. They still contributed an impressive panel discussion that made me even keener to visit Tucson someday soon.
Mat Kaplan: Let's hear from the first of nine NIAC fellows I spoke with across the symposium. Lynn Rothschild of NASA's Ames Research Center has joined us before. Lynn is a 2021 Phase Two NIAC Fellow. She reported on her amazing work with fungi that may one day literally give people living on the moon a home. Here's how the break began.
Mat Kaplan: It has been absolutely delightful hearing these presentations so far. The typical diversity, variety of amazing solutions, many of which may not see the light of day. Speaking of not seeing the light of day, that seems well suited for mushrooms and fungi, I would say. Lynn Rothschild is here with us.
Mat Kaplan: Lynn, great to see you again, also wonderful to see again that mycelial network stool with someone sitting on it.
Lynn Rothschild: Yeah, that was just great. I have a group of what you call IGEM students in International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, and they were working on this project and, without me knowing it actually, they turned around and in two weeks made this absolutely fantastic little stool. As I always say, it's human rated, because they all sat on it and it's currently in my office, so I know that I can sit on it, too. So it's even adult old lady rated and I think that that is a fabulous demonstration of the power of being able to build things with fungal Mycotecture.
Mat Kaplan: And build them more rapidly than I might have expected. It seems to be a good omen for what we heard about in this latest presentation from you, Mycotecture Off Planet. You are of course now a 2021 Phase Two Fellow, so you've made it to that advanced level. There was something on one of your first slides. You had a list of some of the benefits of using fungi to help construct the structures that we will need as humanity expands, at least as far as the moon and maybe beyond. It mentioned the psychological properties or advantages of making stuff out of fungi. What did you have in mind?
Lynn Rothschild: Well, what's interesting is when you're building with fungi, you can use that as a material in itself. And in fact, there are a few people like Bill Ross who have used fungi, the mycelium in particular, and then squished them down and made imitation leather for high end handbags. So you could just use the mycelia by themselves. But you can also use this it as a binding agent. People have, including my wonderful colleague Chris Maurer who's an Architect at Redhouse Studios, who's been working on this very, very serious way. You can use this to agglutinate something like wood chips or lawn clippings. Obviously, we're not going to have either of those on Mars, but when you do wood chips, you end up with something that you would swear is particle board.
Lynn Rothschild: And in fact, telling a story out of school, I brought an example of that to NASA Headquarters and said, "What do you think of this?" And they smelled it and said, "It's particle board but it kind of smells like a mushroom." I said, "Well, yes, because it is." And so you have the potential to build things that are warm and cozy and more familiar to us. You could paint, you could make them different colors. And it seems to me that there would be huge psychological benefits to using that kind of approach, something that we're much more comfortable with on planet earth, than just simply staring at steel walls, living in a large tin can.
Mat Kaplan: When I read the description of your project on the NIAC website, I saw this reference to sort of building in bacteria, cyanobacteria, into these structures. Then there was also a very intriguing mention of building in bacteria that release oxygen. Is that also something that might be practical?
Lynn Rothschild: Yes, I hope it's practical. I think it's a great idea. So for a long time now, I've been pushing the idea that on Planet Earth, we use... Well, we use... Earth has evolved organisms that take advantage of the raw materials on the planet: water, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, minerals, and so on, and convert those into sugars and proteins and nucleic acids and so on, things that other organisms like us can eat. And this is actually how the world has run for literally billions of years. So to me, we should be taking advantage of exactly the same approach off planet, particularly if you're dealing with some place like Mars that has the CO2 and the water. Why not use a photosynthetic organism such as the cyanobacterium.
Lynn Rothschild: They can take the water, split it open, spit out the oxygen as its waste product, but something obviously that is extremely important for us, and again provide that interface between the raw materials on the planet and the things that other organisms such as ourselves would need to eat. Rather than bringing up a machine that does it for you, why not take advantage of these exquisitely evolved machines called life? And so I believe that that's going to be the key interface, and that's why we actually recently completed a satellite mission testing some of these concepts totally outside the NIAC program, but we've also incorporated that into this particular project with the fungal Mycotecture.
Mat Kaplan: I was also intrigued by the mention, both on the NIAC website and in your presentation of terrestrial applications of this technology, which would be a lovely sort of spinoff to see and even the interest from a Master Chef. Can you expand on that a little bit? I mean, would this be something that you could see as helping to create structures, particularly in the disadvantaged areas, third world nations?
Lynn Rothschild: Absolutely, and again, my wonderful colleague Chris Maurer already has a project going in Namibia on this and we certainly imagined being able to make quick structures that you could use as sort of a garage or as a shelter for refugees. But beyond thinking about Mycotecture for full habitats, you could also use it to replace a lot of things. I'm looking at you right now, sitting in your room and it looks like you have a wooden or wooden imitation desk and behind you maybe a dresser and bookshelves and so on, filing cabinet. There is no reason every one of these things couldn't be made with fungal Mycotecture and to go out a little bit on a limb, I bet you we could make your hat and shirt and tie out of it, if we're not binding anything, if we're just using that so that you would have sort of an imitation leather Mycotecture. I'm not sure if we could do your glasses or your computer quite yet, but we could build you a very nice computer case.
Mat Kaplan: I look forward to shopping at your new online site, The Myco Market. Please forgive this dyed in the wool Trekkie. Maybe I should say dyed in the fungi Trekkie. Have you ever seen Star Trek Discovery? One of those new series that you have to get streaming. There's a mycelial network that stretches across the universe in Star Trek Discovery... pure Science Fiction, of course, till we discover it... which apparently outdoes warp drive. So perhaps you are going to help us travel between the stars, the work that you're doing today might someday turn into that, at least in the Star Trek universe, Lynn.
Lynn Rothschild: That's my next NIAC.
Mat Kaplan: Lynn Rothschild of NASA Ames. Next up is a conversation with two NIAC fellows. Chris Morrison is with a company called Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation or USNC. His 2021 Phase One NIAC study is called Extra Solar Object Interceptor and sample return enabled by compact ultra power dense radio isotope batteries. Whew. Joe Nemanick is with the Aerospace Corporation. He had presented about his 2021 Phase One study titled, Atomic Planar Power for Lightweight Exploration or APPLE.
Mat Kaplan: Gentlemen, it seems that both of you were trying to address a refrain that I hear from mission scientists and engineers all the time, which could be summarized as, "Give us more power," and you both have ways of doing that.
Mat Kaplan: Chris, yours is maybe a bit more revolutionary rather than evolutionary. Could you, for those who may have missed it, give us... I've been asking people for their 60 second elevator speech about what you hope to do and in particular the CAB, this Chargeable Atomic Battery?
Chris Morrison: Yeah, thanks for the introduction. So this is a technology that uses alternative radio isotopes to Plutonium 238, which has been the stalwart of the NASA program. And if you look back in the '60s, NASA actually looked at a lot of different radio isotopes, but they chose that one because it is the best. With the exception of in some cases you don't need an 87 year half life. If you're going to Pluto, save the Plutonium for Pluto, but for this sample return mission that I want to do, it's about a 15 year mission. So picking an isotope with a shorter half life and a high power density is something that is kind of enabled for this mission. The technology that I'm working on works not only for this particular isotope, but the idea is that someone can come to me and say, "I have this mission. It's this long and this power. What technology options do you have for me," and I can find the right one for them. Generally, Plutonium is extremely good, but there are niche areas where alternative radio isotopes can be quite good.
Mat Kaplan: And you're talking about use of Cobalt 60, which I think you said has something like 30 times the energy that we could get out of a Plutonium powered system and RTG.
Chris Morrison: Yeah, it's 30 times the power, so in terms of the energy stored inside, it's about the same, but the difference is is one is emitting that energy over a period of about 100 years and the other one's emitting that energy over a period of about five years. So the power density, because of the short half life is incredibly high.
Mat Kaplan: Joe, as I said, your project may be a little bit more evolutionary, since you're still talking about using Plutonium, but still fascinating work and you're shooting for, I think you said, roughly double the, I guess, the watts per gram that we get from the RTGs that have powered so many NASA missions up until now. Tell us a little bit about APPLE.
Joe Nemanick: Yeah, so the concept behind APPLE is to take the monolithic and large MMRTG design, which you would have to build your entire spacecraft around due to how big it is and how much energy it puts out and making a smaller compact, in this case, a flat design, which allows you to then do your mission design by saying, "Here's how much power we need," and I can say, "Okay, you need X number of PALS, you need 16 PALS, or 12 PALS to meet your mission power needs." We chose Plutonium primarily because less to the half life, that we really found we needed an [inaudible 00:26:03] better.
Joe Nemanick: We originally were doing studies on ones like [inaudible 00:26:07] 90 and [inaudible 00:26:08] but we found the penetration depth of things like beta and gamma rays were so large that we were having difficulty merging a flat tile. We don't have a lot of space for radiation protection and shielding in this. So instead we wanted something that's an [inaudible 00:26:26]. So at that point, the Plutonium itself actually does most of the shielding from the Alpha particles. The Alpha particles are caught and transformed into thermal energy within the actual isotope itself for the most part.
Mat Kaplan: Joe, when I looked at your diagrams of these relatively tiny devices, I kept thinking of integrated circuits. I mean it looked like this was something that would come out of a fad, but I know that's a little bit off, but is it in any way a decent comparison?
Joe Nemanick: It's actually a fairly good comparison because what we found was the mass of the Plutonium, the mass of the battery, the mass of the radiator, none of those are really significant contributors to the overall mass of the tile. What's really driving it is the mass of the thermal electrics. These are semi-conductor materials that are going to be made in a similar way to the FAB. I'm looking at our next steps on how to build actually this new flat design. We're going to be taking on our lessons from the semiconductor manufacturing area to get this plainer design of the thermal electrics and then surround them with our different types of insulation to really get that heat flow going only from hot shoe to cold shoe, to our radiator.
Mat Kaplan: Chris, I'm going to come back to you because I'm so intrigued by the fact that you have extra solar object right there in the name of this project. Was it inspired by our recent encounters with Oumuamua and the Borisov Comet or was it just accelerated by the thought that this might be a way to reach the next one of these visitors from interstellar space?
Chris Morrison: So I've been proposing NIACs for quite a few years throughout grad school and even the last two years and my go to mission has traditionally been the solar gravitational lens. That kind of seemed to be the long duration, long distance type of goal. But when I saw Oumuamua, I thought, "Hey, this is really cool, because it's not a problem of distance, it's a problem of velocity and that changes the equation." If it's a problem of distance, you have to wait a certain amount of time to arrive at your destination and it can take quite a long time. So if you have an isotope that's decaying and short lived, it won't work for that mission. You want to use longer lived radio isotopes. But for these particular missions, where these objects are coming into the inner solar system, it's all about getting that speed up quickly and that is where I think this innovation came in.
Chris Morrison: It was like a light switch that popped out of my head, because I've been evaluating radio isotopes and fusion systems...I'd love to learn more about fusion systems, too, I think those are really cool, but my background is more on radio isotope and fission. And I just saw this and kind of a light bulb turned on. I have a feeling it's going to be more of a common theme in a lot of the future NIACs of catching up with Oumuamua or going out to some of these extra solar objects because it just presents such a really interesting science opportunity, something that's never been done before.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah, I wouldn't be surprised if you don't turn out to be right about that. Joe, what's next for APPLE, for your little tiles?
Joe Nemanick: So for APPLE what's next is looking for manufacturing and testing of the thermoelectrics design. We believe that we can nail down the thermal isolation concepts in the phase one, but no one's really done in plane thermoelectric, heat to electricity conversion. And so that's a big thing we're going to need to demonstrate in the next step to show that we can sort of build these thermoelectrics in a different way, and still get the efficiencies that we're calculating.
Mat Kaplan: Excellent, thank you, gentlemen. I wonder, in one sentence, can you tell us, each of you, how important getting this support from NIAC has been to your work? Chris?
Chris Morrison: It's increased the visibility and interest and I think it's already influenced people, at least in the United States, to look at a lot of these cool concepts. So the visibility is extremely important.
Mat Kaplan: Joe, you had a few extra seconds to think about this, thanks to Chris. What would you add?
Joe Nemanick: We've found that the community of fellows that NIAC supplied has really given us a lot of great connections to people who can answer the tough questions. Each of us on this team were experts in our field, but there are so many fields that need to be brought together to collaborative fashion to make a technology like this work. And NIAC has been instrumental in affecting that.
Mat Kaplan: Joe Nemanick of the Aerospace Corporation and Chris Morrison of the Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation.
Mat Kaplan: Sigrid Close is also a 2021 Phase One NIAC Fellow, while she was able to record her presentation for Day One of the symposium, she wasn't available to talk with me live during a break. Her colleague, Nicholas Lee stepped in to discuss a study called SCATTER, that's Sustained ChipSat, CubeSat Activity Through Transmitted Electromagnetic Radiation. Their dream is to send a powerful mothership to a destination like Uranus.
Mat Kaplan: You also have onboard this mothership, I think you said, 20 to a 100 of these tiny spacecraft, which would be sent out to explore further, do I have that right?
Nicholas Lee: Yup, that's correct. The idea is to allow distributed measurements, without flying a full fledged second mothership that has its own nuclear power and everything that comes with it, all of the cost that goes into the large scale spacecraft designs.
Mat Kaplan: I'm from The Planetary Society, so you know that I'm going to point out, it was exciting to see that you are relying on essentially light sail technologies that these tiny craft are not just powered by a laser on the mothership, but they actually get propulsion and attitude control and communication via that laser.
Nicholas Lee: The concept has evolved over time. This is, I think, the third time we actually proposed a form of this project to NIAC. Initially, we had a graduate student, Sean Young, who just graduated and is now at Johns Hopkins APL. He was looking at harvesting energy from the space environment itself. So that would be things like spacecraft charging or looking at impacts of meteroids or rain particles on a spacecraft harvesting either the acoustic energy or the RF energy that comes off of that or trying to develop sort of a tether system that can pull energy out of the plasma or out of the magnetospheres.
Nicholas Lee: A lot of those numbers are pretty low unless you really stretch the space [inaudible 00:33:09] design, so what if we brought our power with us. So we have these deployable probes and they're going to be powered through some harvesting system, but what if that system harvested power that we have control over. So that's where we brought either laser or RF energy beamed from a mothership. As we worked through those numbers, the RF didn't really seem feasible at all, so we focused primarily on the laser. Once we have the laser there, with all of this work that, as some people are saying in chat, many other people have studied with Breakthrough Starshot, with Light Sails.
Nicholas Lee: My PhD initially started looking at Solar sails or for CubeChats and all of this technology can sort of be wrapped into the smaller the spacecraft the more agile it gets within this laser. And what we didn't really have an understanding of, at the start of this whole project was how small could we make the spacecraft, how small could we make the laser and still fly within it. That's where we're trying to converge those numbers now.
Mat Kaplan: I'm going to guess that a lot of lay people out there, and I count myself one of them, might look at your plan that calls for a 25 watt laser... and they think of a 25 watt light bulb. Actually a 25 watt laser, especially with the kind of collimated beam that you're proposing can deliver quite a bit of energy, can't it?
Nicholas Lee: Yeah, so one of the nice things about lasers is that they're generally monochromatic, and so they operate on a single wavelength. So when we look at building solar cells, [inaudible 00:34:39] lasers, we're focused on a single wavelength of light that we're shining and that means we can do a lot more with much simpler cells. Like a single junction cell should be able to convert a much larger fraction of the energy. And recent publications from other research groups have shown up to 58% efficiency.
Mat Kaplan: I like your description of these small Sats, ChipSats, CubeSats, beginning at least at a very, very small size as being disposable or expendable and you compared this to when Captain Picard on the Enterprise sent out a probe, he didn't really expect to get it back. What is the explanation, I mean, why can't a large flagship style spacecraft do the work on its own? What's the real advantage in having other instruments on these tiny craft that are sent out from the mothership?
Nicholas Lee: So one of the things we're really focused on is the concept of distributive measurements and that's been something that's been deployed around Earth, the [inaudible 00:35:41] Mission, the Artemis Mission. A number of spacecraft have been flown around the Earth system. Swarm is another one, where by flying multiple sensors, making the same measurement over some distance, what you're getting is a decoupling of how the measurements are changing with time, versus how they're changing with space.
Mat Kaplan: Very interesting, we just had on Planetary Radio, the PI for a newly approved mission to Mars, which has two CubeSats, working with the Magnetosphere of Mars, measuring it, for the same reason, to give them both temporal and spatial data which it sounds like that you're after, as well.
Mat Kaplan: One of the members of the audience, wants to talk with you about self-centering Light Sails. It struck me that this is exactly the kind of synergy that really warms the hearts of everybody at NIAC. Sounds like something that you, I'll bet you want to follow up on.
Nicholas Lee: There's definitely [inaudible 00:36:41] conversations that we have with different NIAC projects and how they synergize with each other.
Mat Kaplan: Nicholas Lee, speaking on behalf of NIAC fellow Sigrid Close from Stanford University.
Mat Kaplan: Several more NIAC fellows want to tell us about their fascinating concepts, and there's my conversation with a special keynote speaker at the 2021 NIAC Symposium. All that and Bruce Betts are moments away.
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Mat Kaplan: We're back with more highlights from the 2021 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Symposium. Ron Polidan is a Texas based 2021 NIAC Phase One Fellow and Ron is from Luna Resources Incorporated but long history before that, was an Astro Physicist. He was Chief Technologist at the fabled Goddard Space Flight Center for many years and Chief Architect for Civil Systems at Northrop Grumman. And now does a lot of different stuff, but one of those is about Luna Resources, this relatively small company.
Mat Kaplan: Ron, welcome.
Ron Polidan: Oh, thank you now. Be happy to be here. Glad you invited me.
Mat Kaplan: Oh, absolutely, we're very glad to have you on board, and congratulations, of course, on becoming a NIAC Fellow and being able to pursue this project, which you call Far View, an institute manufactured Lunar Far Side Radio Observatory. It's not the only presentation we're hearing at the NIAC Symposium about building a big telescope on the far side of the moon. I remember one in the last couple of days that had an image from, I think, it was from the 1970s of a very, very speculative antenna there on Far Side. So this is something people have been thinking about for a long time. You addressed it in your presentation, but remind us, why will it be so useful to have this kind of facility out there on what is not the dark side of the moon, but the Far Side?
Ron Polidan: One of the aspects of science in general is that we always, as we learn, we open new windows. We realize that there's something we can't see or do from the Earth and so we look for ways to do that. In the '60s that started with Ultra Violet telescopes, and X-Ray telescopes and as we've learned more and more, we have realized that the Earth is indeed constraining in many ways. And for Cosmology in particular, there is an era of formation in the universe, the first spaces when the universe went from neutral hydrogen everywhere to a little bit of helium to stars and galaxies. We would love to study that.
Ron Polidan: The problem is that information is [inaudible 00:39:44] shifted into low frequency radio, and so this 21 centimeter line of hydrogen now appears in the tens of megahertz areas, depending on where you're at. Unfortunately, both Earth, natural phenomenon and natural pathogenic phenomenon generate a lot of noise, so while you in principle can observe at least down to the ionosphere [inaudible 00:40:07], like you really don't get a good picture. And so where could you go to do this? If you're in space, you still see the earth, so it's still going to be noisy. The sun is noisy. But if you go to the Lunar Far Side, the moon's a really nice blocking filter and so it blocks out all the noise from the Earth and as long as the sun's on the other side, you have as pristine of data as you could possibly get and so that's the reason everybody is looking to put things on the Far Side.
Mat Kaplan: I'm reminded of that silence that I think all of the Apollo Command Module Pilots enjoyed when for a brief time they became the furthest humans from Earth that... Still have ever been part of our species. There are proposals for single giant antennas, dishes generally for Far Side. Yours is something different. It reminds me of something like ALMA down in the Atacama in Chile or the Allen Array that the SETI Institute operates. Are those fair comparisons?
Ron Polidan: Yes, the one big difference between us and the Lunar Equator [inaudible 00:41:08] Telescope is that we're in interferometer and so that interferometer gives us much more leverage. It does a variety of things. We can actually map out the distributions and get the power spectrum, far better than we can with a single dish. We also are able to image the entire sky every few minutes, and so we gather ancillary data. Things, our transient sources such as magnetic fields on the planets of the Solar System, we probably can see magnetic fields around stars and hopefully some actual planets out from a short distance. And so this is the big advantage of [inaudible 00:41:48] interferometer and so this was the focus of the [inaudible 00:41:51], is how could we build a large interferometer on the Lunar Far Side?
Ron Polidan: The problem is it has to be large. It can't be 10 Dipoles, it has to be a lot of Dipoles because the signal's faint. The key thing with us is that we're building this institute and there is no pre-designed constraints. So literally, if we get up there and let's say we do a prototype mission and we build 10 Dipoles and we discover that, "Well, we really need to make them 20% longer," we just make them 20% longer. It's a very different way of perceiving how you would build something and that's the big power of this. And so it's really the extraction of materials and the ability to manufacture it directly without any pre-plan that gives us, things so much, leverage.
Mat Kaplan: Have you read Andy Weir's book Artemis?
Ron Polidan: Yes.
Mat Kaplan: In that book, they build things out of aluminum and with this smelter on the moon, using [inaudible 00:42:50] resources. I mean that must have struck a note with you?
Ron Polidan: Oh, yes. No, that... and the funny thing is I read that before I joined Lunar Resources.
Mat Kaplan: Ah.
Ron Polidan: So it was like, "I don't know about this." And so, yeah, and so it's been an interesting learning experience for me. I came from a different era, learning about institutes and how to work this. You've got to think of different ways to do things. The one big leverage that Far View has is we're not modifying a previous build. We are actually coming at this completely orthogonally, we're carrying as little stuff with us as we can and seeing what we can manufacture. And whenever we encounter something where we need to bring this from earth, we spin off, "All right, how do we not bring this from earth?"
Ron Polidan: The whole goal is to land only the tools we need to build and then use the moon for all of our resources, and that's going to make this much cheaper. The wilder advantage is if things break, we just fix them. Though there's not a problem of "What do you do with, if the thermal cycling breaks an antenna?" "Well, we go patch it together again." It means that we can invest in this and have a 50 year observatory if we want. Current design's probably something like a metric ton to land, but it can generate tens of metric tons per year of resources for something large, for habitat or anything else, we can generate more than enough material in a year to really keep everybody happy.
Mat Kaplan: Sounds like after all these years, you're still having a pretty good time.
Ron Polidan: Yes, oh, I'm having more fun these last few years than I have in a long time.
Mat Kaplan: NIAC Fellow Ron Polidan of Lunar Resources.
Mat Kaplan: WE're about to hear from 2020 Phase Two Fellow, Masa Hiro Ono of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. The title of Hiro's study speaks for itself, Enceladus Vent Explorer.
Mat Kaplan: Welcome, Hiro. We have a couple of minutes here to talk.
Hiro Ono: Thank you, thanks, Mat, for having me.
Mat Kaplan: Of course, you're a 2020 NIAC Phase Two recipient and the project of course is the Enceladus Vent Explorer, because you and others on your team... and I will mention Morgan Cable, your colleague at JPL who delivered the presentation yesterday with you and was our guest on Planetary Radio, making the case for Enceladus. You don't just want to fly through those plumes that rise up out of the Tiger's Stripes at the South Pole of Enceladus. You want to visit them. You want to drop spacecraft or our little rovers down inside them. Is that a fair description of what you hope to do?
Hiro Ono: Yeah, you want to see, right? When I was younger than... I used to travel around the world. We have some fundamental desire to see, right, the places. And we now know that fantastic place is there with that [inaudible 00:45:45] life, encountering with extraterrestrial life, that is going to answer one of our fundamental question of mankind. It's there, the door is open, why not?
Mat Kaplan: Absolutely. Yeah, that question being, are we alone. And maybe the other question that our boss Bill Nye likes to ask, "Where do we come from?" Which, because this might help to answer that as well.
Hiro Ono: Exactly.
Mat Kaplan: It's certainly possible. I was so pleased to see the progress that is being made, including that simulator, that cryojet facility that you've put together. I think it was at JPL where you are... Am I right, actually beginning to simulate these geysers?
Hiro Ono: Yes, yes, of course, we cannot seem like a full scale geyser [inaudible 00:46:29]. What we are making is miniaturalized version of it. But still, you can learn a lot, you can test the hard wares to retire the major risks.
Mat Kaplan: Doing it in a vacuum and at those incredibly frigid temperatures, right?
Hiro Ono: That's right.
Mat Kaplan: Morgan, she talked about the questions that remain to be answered. If we do a full exploration of these plumes at Enceladus and that they cross over many, many disciplines, is this represented in the people who are looking into this at JPL and elsewhere, from different disciplines? I mean, biological, geological and so on?
Hiro Ono: Oh, yeah, of course, we have a very diverse team. Myself, actually, my background, are [inaudible 00:47:13] spacecrafts, I am a software guy. But of course, we have to work with hard ware people, system engineers, and scientists with many domains. Actually, we had a workshop to create an HTM with 21 [inaudible 00:47:24] scientists, so that's one aspect of NIAC, right, what NIAC is truly is. I really enjoy the interaction with different people.
Mat Kaplan: That's another reason it's a shame we're not all together in Tucson right now. How important has the support of NIAC been to the progress of this work?
Hiro Ono: Oh, it's instrumental, because without it, we only had... if you know, cartoon, and ideas in my head. But with NIAC support, first, we did the first iteration. Also, most importantly, because of that, we could convince JPL to invest its own funding for protag in a robot. So, it's not just a dollar value that you provided, it has a [inaudible 00:48:04] effect.
Mat Kaplan: So NIAC was able to provide some leverage, it sounds like, with management. [crosstalk 00:48:10]...
Hiro Ono: Absolutely, yeah.
Mat Kaplan: That's great. What comes next, I mean, obviously, we're talking about if there is an Enceladus lander someday, it's quite a ways off. I know that Morgan Cable is looking forward anxiously to the release of the next Planetary Science Decadal and Astrobiology, I should say, Decadal survey which may come in spring of next year.
Hiro Ono: Of course, what comes out from Decadal is out of our control but nonetheless, our plan is to complete the system trade study in this NIAC and make a prototype robot and bring it to [inaudible 00:48:45] Glacier probably in Canada to test it and of course, our dream is to bring it to Enceladus, right? Personally, the reason that I came to this, the world of space exploration is because of Voyager II, [inaudible 00:48:59] went to Neptune when I was six years old. And I've been following that dream since then and I want to be a part of those big discoveries in the future. So I really, really hope this going to happen, maybe not in my lifetime, perhaps my daughter's lifetime.
Mat Kaplan: You are putting us on the path Hiro. Thank you so much to you and others like you and thanks for joining us during this break today as well.
Hiro Ono: Thank you so much, Mat.
Mat Kaplan: Hiro Ono of JPL.
Mat Kaplan: Artur Davoyan of UCLA is yet another Phase Two Fellow with a title like Extreme Solar Sailing for Breakthrough Space Exploration, you can probably guess why I wanted to talk to him. I started that session with a look back at other presentations symposium attendees had just watched.
Mat Kaplan: Absolutely, amazing presentations. We heard about sample return rockets from Titan that create their own propellants in [inaudible 00:49:54], giant space structures that unfold from itty bitty payloads at the top of a Falcon Nine, swarms of one kilogram Venus gliders largely built with off the shelf components. To me, this is what NIAC is all about. There was a fourth of those presentations in this last session, but we've saved that one to talk to the PI, the fellow who is in charge of the project. He's here with us now.
Mat Kaplan: Welcome, Artur Davoyan, fascinating presentation that you titled Extreme Solar Sailing for Breakthrough Space Exploration. Welcome, again.
Artur Davoyan: Thank you, Mat. Nice seeing you, a pleasure being here.
Mat Kaplan: Great to see you as well. I'm with Planetary Society, we know that solar sails are hot but I'm not sure that all of us really had in mind the kind of heat that you're talking about putting your sails through. Did I get it correctly, that you're talking about going within, what? Four or five radii of the sun?
Artur Davoyan: So as close as we can get. So our hope is to get about maybe two to three solar radii from the surface of the sun. If we can push further, that would be even nicer. Perhaps, we can land there, I don't know.
Mat Kaplan: Okay, I've been dropping Star Trek references in here and there during some of the other breaks. So Star Trek people know that if you're under warp and you go too close to the sun, that sends you into the past. It sounds like what you want to do in the real world is accelerate us into the future, reaching unheard of distances using the slingshot effect around the sun, right, using the sun as a launching pad, is that fair?
Artur Davoyan: That's absolutely right. So the vision that we have is that it has been 60 years of fantastic space exploration. We saw missions going to all the planets and so on, but if you look closely, then you'll see that outer planets, beyond Saturn have been visited only once and only two probes have left the solar system so far, I mean the helio calls itself, it's not even solar system and kind reach interstellar boundary, the interstellar space. So it's not really scalable the way things are done today and we want to change it and we think that we can turn the sun into a launchpad and then mass produce this low cost system, send them to the sun, toward the sun, very close and then shoot and slingshot into different directions. That's our kind of hope and vision.
Mat Kaplan: You're a Phase Two NIAC Fellow, so you had a Phase One grant as well to get some work done. Are you now confident that the materials exist that could actually perform this kind of mission which, my goodness, will have extremes that has to survive, unlike probably anything we've sent into space before.
Artur Davoyan: Yes, we're getting confident, so in Phase Two, we're going to try to demonstrate them, really measure and prove that this is the case. In Phase One, we did a comprehensive study and actually, we publicated some samples that are very promising samples. We didn't get the chance to measure them in detail, but we did some preliminary measurements of that. So we see that we have materials, now the question is how close can we get to the sun. We definitely can get as close as say five to seven solar radii away from the surface of the sun. So we're already closer than the Solar [inaudible 00:53:08] probe can get us there. What we want to try to do in the Phase Two, I want to prove that we can get to the ultimate limit which is two to three solar radii away from the surface of the sun. The materials are there, but now we are trying to push the limit.
Artur Davoyan: I didn't mention actually during my presentation, so one of the samples we sent it on the MES Mission, which is Materials Exploration Mission on the ISS board, so it will be tested out there. And this is special thanks to NASA Martial Folks that have helped us, so that's the synergy of cooperation that we see through the NIAC.
Mat Kaplan: My colleague at The Planetary Society, our Chief Scientist also, Light Sail Program Manager, Bruce Betts, apparently the two of you met at a Solar Sailing Meta Materials Workshop a couple of years back and he sends his regards, by the way. Is this what we're talking about? What are Meta Materials?
Artur Davoyan: Please send my regards to Bruce, too, it was a pleasure meeting him.
Mat Kaplan: Will do.
Artur Davoyan: Meta Materials actually is all, the conventional materials, they have certain properties that we all know. Like for example, glass is just glass, it's transparent, and we use it all the time. Meta Materials, they try to change the properties of the Meta Materials by creating some structure [inaudible 00:54:15]. So if I take regular glass and start structuring at very, very small dimensions, [inaudible 00:54:20] dimensions, then I can make my glass to be, for example, not transparent, but reflective and turn it into a sail material. That's one, we can optical property change. I can also control it's temperature or heat distribution and they also can control the mechanical properties of it. And our hope is to create a Meta Material that is made of some traditional materials, structure that is very small dimensions so that they can perform the functions that we really want. Like strong, they will comment on that, lightweight, surviving high temperatures, and making the propulsion work, so the [inaudible 00:54:54] pressure can really propel our sails.
Mat Kaplan: You have not one, but two missions in mind. You talked a bit about these in your presentation. One, that would go out really far across our solar system, but another, which I think you're calling Corona Net...
Artur Davoyan: That's correct.
Mat Kaplan: Which maybe you would help us to understand our sun better?
Artur Davoyan: Our goal and vision is to send them very fast, further away into the interstellar space. That's the ultimate kind of goal in there and research cloud and do the science on the way, outer planets, the heat of physics study, reaching the interstellar space, understand interstellar space, and so on. But obviously the first mission that is going to be out there, which is pretty much which is going to reach the sun and see what the materials that spacecraft can survive and can get to two to three solar radii away from the sun. Now that's going to be a technology demonstration mission and we have certain timeline that we think we can do it. But once we are there, that close to the sun, then basically, we also ask ourselves, what can we do? What is useful that we can do?
Artur Davoyan: And it turns out that the physics of the sun is not really well understood and so mission, technology demonstration mission and science mission that can be done along the way of before kind of the launching to the interstellar space, we can launch several of the spacecraft into orbits that are not possible with conventional spacecraft. Like, for example, polar orbits or some of this halo orbits. We can launch that configuration of the spacecraft and then try to map magnetic field, map the Corona, and physics of the sun is really one of the least understood and known. It's one of the major unsolved problems. We don't know what creates the magnetic field, why it switches every 11 years and why the Corona heats up to a million degrees and these are the questions that we can answer, and we want to answer.
Mat Kaplan: We only have about a minute left. I note also when you put up your slide with your team and collaborators, Slav Aturshef who is at JPL, a NIAC Phase Three Fellow and my old boss [inaudible 00:56:53] were there, so I bet that they and maybe others are talking, too, about using this kind of sail to achieve their dream of a solar gravitational lensing telescope.
Artur Davoyan: Correct, so they also, based on solar sails, their solar sail is a little bit different and we're working with them. So they're a little heavier because they need to carry a telescope. Ours is just a smaller and gets much closer to the sun. So these are the cost of the propulsion is the same, but the technology and the mission concept is very different behind this.
Mat Kaplan: We're not going to have time for me to ask you if you're also talking to those Breakthrough StarShot folks who want to laser propel tiny, tiny sails to Proxima Centauri if not beyond, but I bet they would be interested in talking about those Meta Materials as well. Artur, thank you so much for joining us during this break.
Artur Davoyan: Thank you, Mat.
Mat Kaplan: The last of my NIAC Symposium breaks allowed me to visit with two Phase Three Fellows. I began the break with an offbeat acknowledgement of two other fellows among the many who presented at the virtual symposium.
Mat Kaplan: I have some awards to give out. Best Name for a New Class of Spacecraft goes to Joshua, Josh Van Der Hook for his Data Mules on the Solar System Pony Express. But the Best Line of the Day Award judged by me alone goes to Charles Taylor for his We're more Edisonian than Tesla, which seems like a very NIAC sort of thing to say. Professor Nick Solomey, he is a Higher Energy Particle Physicist, Professor who has worked at Cerne and Fermilab and is talking to us from Wichita State University. Nick has literally written the book on Neutrinos. It's called The Elusive Neutrino and he's going to talk to us about his project, CubeSet Space Flight Test of a Neutrino Detector.
Mat Kaplan: Also on the screen is Red Whittaker, William "Red" Whittaker who is Founder's University Research Professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He's with the Robotics Institute where he has been for over 40 years.
Mat Kaplan: So welcome to both of you guys, but Nick, you're the new guy, with a 2021 Phase Three Project from NIAC. You have a spacecraft which is going to... You hope will someday, right, fly very close to the sun and very far away from the sun.
Nick Solomey: Right, we had this idea that we could dramatically increase the intensity of Neutrinos by going very close to the sun. We could get up to a factor of a thousand times higher intensity than you have here on earth, by going to [inaudible 00:59:31] currently going and it can go to three solar radiis where some people think we could go to, then we could get up to 10,000 times larger. And that'll allow us to do some science in helio physics that can't be done anywhere else.
Mat Kaplan: And then once you've gone to where the environment is just thick with Neutrinos, you go out to where they're a lot few of them, at least a lot fewer coming from the sun, right?
Nick Solomey: Right, so the advantage of Neutrinos is that they could penetrate anything. So we could get them directly out of the core of the sun very quickly but by going away from the sun, Neutrinos here on Earth are a large background for dark matter searches. So by going away from the sun, we could dramatically reduce the background in searching for dark matter. And that was the original Phase One concept, that we could do both of these things with this type of new technology. But we have to find a way in which we can actually detect Neutrinos in space, by taking with us only the shielding in vito rays that we could bring with us. And so we had to devise a whole new technique of how to detect Neutrinos in space that is very different than the way you detect Neutrinos here on the surface or on the Earth or very deep underground.
Mat Kaplan: Red, how is that cute little rover of yours coming along? Are we going to see it approaching those pits in the moon anytime soon?
William "Red" Whittaker: We certainly can. One distinction of this initiative, relative to so many is that in the course of the NIAC support, it's gone from idea to implementation and unique readiness for near term economic small mission deployment. It's come that far and, yes, we will see it in terrestrial land log in today's presentation.
Mat Kaplan: You probably should give us the little... I've been calling it the elevator speech description once again. You have one minute in the elevator with a NASA administrator to talk about what this little rover, the pit rover, which is now part of... I guess you're calling the project Skylight now... Of what it will be able to do for us at these intriguing holes in the moon.
William "Red" Whittaker: People dreamed of exploring, living under the moon for a century. The big challenge is that there's never been a way to access that immense underworld. So much has gone into how to explore caves, how do you even actually explore and access that would be the means to a cave? This solves that problem. It does so by negotiating the rim and then with vision that's slight corrected to look at the correct angles and into the dark, because the caverns will be dark. It is like the first human coming upon the Grand Canyon.
Mat Kaplan: I'm going to ask you something I haven't asked any of my other guests across this symposium and that is, as you listen to each other... I mean, here you are coming at fascinating challenges that don't have a whole lot of overlap. I'm just wondering what you think as you listen to your colleague, your fellow fellows as I've been saying.
Mat Kaplan: Red, as you listen to Nick is this as fascinating for you as it is for me?
William "Red" Whittaker: It is. My sense is that anyone who is out to transform belief has to first be a believer and to deliver in the inspiring way we just heard. Additionally, it matters so much to be believed in. That is what NIAC brings to the game. Those ingredients are the winning formula.
Mat Kaplan: Well, put. Nick, you get the last word. How does it feel to be among all these big thinkers and dreamers, whose projects may just result in amazing advances?
Nick Solomey: Well, it's an honor to be chosen and it's an exciting symposium because there was a lot of exciting things from how to explore Venus and how to tunnel into ocean crusts of other moons around Jupiter or Saturn. So there's a lot of excitement there that I just found thrilling and exciting.
Mat Kaplan: Nick Solomey of Wichita State University and William "Red" Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon, two of the four Phase Three Fellows who closed out the 2021 NIAC Symposium.
Mat Kaplan: A bonus conversation now with someone who is not a NIAC fellow. Dane Elliott-Lewis' keynote address opened the final day of the symposium. Dane is an Engineer, Entrepreneur, and Manager who has worked at GE Aviation for more than 20 years. Along the way, he has authored several Science Fiction stories. He also devotes a lot of time to the National Society of Black Engineers where he is on the board of the NSBE's Aerospace Special Interest Group. Dane's message of inspiration and vision included his admiration for Mae Jemison. He had heard the first black female Astronaut speak at Morehouse College while he was an undergraduate there.
Mat Kaplan: I told you before we started that I had a surprise for you.
Dane Elliott-Lewis: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mat Kaplan: You mentioned that Mae Jemison visited Morehouse when you were an undergrad there. Do you know that she's participating in NIAC right now?
Dane Elliott-Lewis: I did not know that.
Mat Kaplan: Not only that, but she is a member of the NIAC External Council and so I asked Mae, who's been on our show Planetary Radio, if she had a message she wanted me to pass along and she did. She passed along both a message and a question with her greetings. She says, "My visits to Morehouse were always very important to me, as was my work at Spelman College."
Dane Elliott-Lewis: Wow.
Mat Kaplan: She says, "I was a member at the start of NSBE, the National Society of Black Engineers as an Engineering undergrad at Stanford." There's your surprise.
Dane Elliott-Lewis: Wow, that is a cool surprise.
Mat Kaplan: So here's the question she had for you or has for you. She says to ask Dane about the best ways to engage students at historically black colleges and universities to enter Science and Engineering. What can NIAC do to get more faculty at HBCU and other minority serving institutions to submit applications? I'm sure she means to submit applications for NIAC projects, which can be done by anyone, can be submitted by anyone.
Dane Elliott-Lewis: Well, wow, I am blown away by this. I think communicating that these opportunities exist first and foremost, is I think the most important thing. At Morehouse College, my connection to NASA was purely because of the nature of my scholarship program. Everything else in NASA was a black box to me. And so if there are perhaps opportunities for professors to be brought to NASA Headquarters to get a in depth understanding through a symposium like this or just a briefing on what are the opportunities of this program, because I think that would unlock all types of creativity and interest in an opportunity for entrepreneurship or an opportunity to pursue aerospace in particular.
Dane Elliott-Lewis: Morehouse doesn't have an engineering department. What happens is you go there for three years and then you go off to an engineering school. I went to Georgia Tech. So I graduated from both universities with an Engineering Degree from Georgia Tech and a Bachelor of General Science from Morehouse. So I think it is having a presence locally. If it's through the physics professor at Morehouse or a department head who's focused on engineering but to introduce the concept of these proposals and these competitions are out there and you have nothing to lose by giving it a shot. Don't wait until you're an engineer and you feel like you've got years of experience behind you. Start thinking about this now. You plant the seed in the students today. Professors can weave this into some of their design projects and say, "Okay, my senior design project was designing an anti-sub warfare aircraft," but there are other people, "Hey, do you have a space related design project? See if you're not also going to be fulfilling the requirements of the NIAC proposals."
Mat Kaplan: I was touched by your story about how you went to space camp twice and never wanted to tell your friends about it because you were afraid exactly what did happen after your second visit would happen. That you would basically be belittled, that you'd be made fun of. Have you thought about how do we change things in this country from a kid like you having to hide that to a kid like you coming back a hero because he or she has been to space camp?
Dane Elliott-Lewis: Yeah, I think STEM careers are starting... They probably have greater... There's probably a greater respect for them today than when I was a child. I know my children are in middle school now and there are STEM forces. That's the first step. You need to have some sort of education that isn't just simply math or science but to say, "Look, these are careers. There's a whole field of opportunity out here." So you plant the seed in their schools. I like to tell my kids this, "That's an entirely open space." Like white space opportunity and if you think about the people who explored parts of the earth and went into places and said, "Okay, well, I can create something here," whether that's a home or that's a business opportunity, I think space is literally unexplored in that sense. Where there are going to be businesses created there, there's going to be careers made.
Dane Elliott-Lewis: There's going to be new ways of doing... hotels and everything that people have here, we're going to go up there and do the same thing, and we're going to do things that you can't even think of. In terms of creativity, what is better? In terms of leveraging your creative spirit than thinking about how a guy can apply that off world. And so I've been not having that discussion with my kids but talking about entrepreneurship. And I think entrepreneurship, the opportunity to literally control your fate, to leave a legacy that you can actually give to your children. I think that fits perfect in opening up space. Maybe that's a little bit of a capitalistic bent, but I would use that to also encourage kids to say, "Yeah, the stuff down here is fun, too, but it's really unlimited if you start looking up and you think about how I can take this education or take this experience and this creative mind and create something that no one's ever thought about."
Dane Elliott-Lewis: Again, going back to Mae Jemison, I needed to write it out. I needed to not just think in my head I'm going to do these things. I needed to put a plan together. I needed to define something. That is vision. Vision is, "I'm going to put some details behind just this..." In their completely unrelated thoughts and say, "This is what the future should look like," or "This is the future I want to create." And once you've laid it out, whether it's on paper or whether it's photographs or however that works for you, a timetable, you can start filling in the gaps as you work through it. But there needs to be something that you're working towards, there needs to be some concept of what that tomorrow or what that project or what that effort is going to realize.
Dane Elliott-Lewis: For me, I think that's in itself a motivating factor is what is this future that I'm building towards but also it's an... I think it helps organize, helps you plan. It helps you define what are the steps that I need to achieve that. How do I become like Mae Jemison? What are the things that I need to do? I need to at first visualize myself in the space lab, space lab module like the image of her. If I can see myself in that place, then I can start thinking about what does it take for me to get there. So I think vision is... you really don't get anywhere without some sort of vision driving you or helping to focus your energy.
Mat Kaplan: Engineer and Entrepreneur Dan Elliott-Lewis, the 2021 NASA Innovative Advance Concept Symposium offered so much more that we don't have time to even sample. Again you can hear and see all of the presentations on the Center's website. We've got the link at Planetary.org/radio.
Mat Kaplan: It's time for What's Up on Planetary Radio. A vacation period of What's Up on this regular segment in our show. My vacation, I don't know about you, I'm still joined though by the Chief Scientist of The Planetary Society. Here is Dr. Bruce Betts. Welcome to my vacation.
Bruce Betts: Thanks again for taking me on your vacation, Mat. I appreciate it.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah, you fit so well in that trunk.
Bruce Betts: Yeah, that part wasn't so relaxing.
Mat Kaplan: We'll let you out at some point here, when the view is right.
Bruce Betts: Thank you. Whooa...
Mat Kaplan: We are on vacation, which means that there will not be either a contest or an answer for the contest this week. But I have it from a reliable source that we still have some really great stuff for you. Bruce says, "I will be pleased." So go for it, please me. What's Up?
Bruce Betts: All right, well, let's start with the night sky which is always pleasing and really pleasing right now with the evening sky, with super bright Venus over in the East.
Mat Kaplan: No.
Bruce Betts: Just testing you. Super bright Venus over in the West, shortly after sunset and bright Jupiter in the East or South or North as we discussed here in the Southern Hemisphere and Saturn hanging out near it, looking yellowish, that'll get closer over the coming weeks. That whole gang.
Bruce Betts: In the pre-dawn sky, we've got Mercury on the 25th, that greatest Western elongation, and it reaches the highest point during its pre-dawn party for three or four weeks. But the point is you still have to look really low to the Eastern horizon in the pre-dawn Mercury's there and it's kind of neat if you can watch it over a few days, because we're seeing phases with Mercury like we see with the moon, and it actually brightens like a lot, over these coming week or so and so it actually, if you'll look carefully it should be noticeable. More coming up with Mercury, but we'll hold that off for next week, because it's going to be... it'll be tough. It's low down but worth it. It's a fun friend, but I digress.
Bruce Betts: Let us go to this week in space history. This is so cool, Mat. 2001, which last I checked is 20 years ago. Mars Odyssey, arrived at Mars, the last I checked, it's still working.
Bruce Betts: Happy 20th anniversary, Mars Odyssey and the awesome team that's been creating it and running it.
Mat Kaplan: Congratulations to all of you. We talk to some of those people every now and then on this show and what a performance it has put on and continues to put on. Yeah, I mean, that's how it got the name, right? It was in honor of Arthur C. Clarke's book and Stanley Cooper's movie.
Bruce Betts: Indeed.
Mat Kaplan: We're even well past now the sequel, the first sequel to 2001, which was 2010, which was the return to that strange object out there at... I can't remember if it was Jupiter or Saturn. Of course in the movie it was Jupiter but in the original book it was Saturn. But Kubrick decided it was just too difficult to make Saturn look realistic. There's a random movie space fact for you.
Bruce Betts: Wow, nice. Well played, Sir. But I'm going to go on to Random Space Fact.
Mat Kaplan: That was good, I like that jingle.
Bruce Betts: Maybe we'll use that one again. If only I could remember it. Okay, I think you'll like this. In the time it takes me to read this sentence, the Voyager One spacecraft has gotten approximately 200 kilometers farther away from us on Earth. Boom.
Mat Kaplan: Did you actually time the sentence and figure that out? I mean you had to figure this out, I imagine?
Bruce Betts: I did, but I wouldn't swear I delivered it exactly properly, but so approximately.
Mat Kaplan: Wow.
Bruce Betts: I was assuming, a 12 second sentence, you can go back and check. Anyway, [crosstalk 01:16:16]...
Mat Kaplan: No, I'm happy. I don't want to know. I just want to believe that wonderful Random Space Fact.
Bruce Betts: That was exactly, that was exactly how long it took it to get 200 kilometers farther away and I believe, since we've been talking, it got another 500 kilometers away.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah, and if we don't shut up, it's going to be a 1,000 kilometers away. That was so fun...
Bruce Betts: And wonderful, thank you.
Mat Kaplan: Or what? Hey, there's no contest to go to.
Bruce Betts: Ahh, what will I do with myself?
Mat Kaplan: Just one week off, because next week I promise a new contest and then winners, two new winners the following week. That's going to be a wonderful return. I don't know what else to say, it seems so strange not to have a contest, except to say, we're done.
Bruce Betts: All right, everybody. Go out there, look up the night sky and think about questions and answers. Thank you and good night.
Mat Kaplan: The really big ones, the ones that haunt all of us, probably 2,000 kilometers by now. He's Bruce Betts, the Chief Scientist of The Planetary Society who joins us every week, even when I'm not really there for What's Up or is it 2,001 kilometers? Whoo..
Mat Kaplan: Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California and is made possible by its innovative and very advanced members. Learn how easy to become one of us at planetary.org/join.
Mat Kaplan: Mark Hilverda and Jason Davis are our Associate Producers. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser.
Mat Kaplan: Ad astra.