KSC ‘Swamp Works’ Creating, Spinning off Tools for Exploration

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Taking a page out of NASA’s history book, a group of Kennedy Space Center (KSC) space shuttle engineers has refashioned itself into a hands-on hub for prototyping and testing that is winning contracts from other NASA centers and eying commercial work as well.

Modeled after Lockheed Martin’s famed Skunk Works research and development center, the Florida group chose a name suited to its environment: Swamp Works. 

“The idea grew from a group of people. We want lean development, which means minimum appropriate processes. NASA over the years has gotten more process-orientated and we wanted to reset the clock and get back to early NASA,” Swamp Works manager Jack Fox said.

“How did early NASA do it? They did lean development, lean processes, rapid innovation. You get an idea and you have the machining tools and equipment to fabricate something, hands-on, see if it works, test it, break it and then learn from that. Then you improve the design based on the performance of your demo. After a series of iterations, you then understand the requirements of it and at that point you hand it off to industry to go fabricate it,” Fox said.

Swamp Works formed informally as the shuttle program was winding down in 2011 and two months ago set up shop inside a building originally used for Apollo flight training. The building later became a tourist bus stop with space station mockups. A movie theater is now Swamp Works’ laboratory. A concession stand houses its machine shop. 

Its first projects fell under the general category of “spaceports in space,” and includes technologies needed to excavate and process soil, ice and volatiles from planetary bodies to support for future human and robotic exploration initiatives. The development led to related projects, such as developing technologies to mitigate dust.

“Dust is a huge issue in space, the static cling of particles to every surface,” Fox said. 

An early success came with a microgravity excavator called the Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot, or RASSOR. Kennedy Space Center currently is looking to license the technology to an industry partner for further development. 

Swamp Works also invented two percussive excavators, the Reducing Extra-Terrestrial Excavation Forces with Percussion, or Viper, which was commissioned by NASA’s Pasadena, Calif.-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and a follow-on project called Badger. 

“There are commercial companies that are serious about mining space resources, and we’re talking to them,” Fox said. 

Swamp Works is now building an indoor regolith pit, which will be tented to keep the abrasive particles from spreading. The idea is to provide a simulated lunar environment to test equipment. 

About 20 engineers and scientists staff Swamp Works full time and another 20 or so work on an as-needed basis. The project has turned into a bit of a money-maker for Kennedy Space Center. Swamp Works has contracts with other NASA centers worth about $7 million a year, Fox said. 

The team hopes to compete for commercial work as well as partner with universities and other research centers. Swamp Works currently has a nonreimbursable Space Act Agreement with Omega Envoy in Orlando, Fla., to work on space mining technologies. The company is competing for the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, which will be awarded for the first privately funded robotic mission to the Moon.

Swamp Works also is in discussions with at least two other X Prize contenders.

“These labs existed before Swamp Works,” Fox said. “I’d like to think that we took an order of magnitude step forward when we formalized.”

“I think we’re coming around that we need to diversify what we do at Kennedy,” he added. “Do a little of this and a little of that. That’s kind of KSC’s future — a little of this and little of that instead of the big giant customer.”