NASA Engineers Working To Make Robot Moonwalk a Reality

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WASHINGTON — Despite a NASA plan to scrap manned lunar exploration in favor of missions to more challenging destinations, engineers at the agency’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston are cobbling together a handful of disparate technologies already in development in hopes of sending a humanoid robot to walk the surface of the Moon by 2013, according to agency and industry sources.

Dubbed Project M, the effort has scant funding, no prime contractor and no official backing from NASA headquarters. And while legislation moving through Congress appears to support deep space exploration missions, it also would gut funding for robotic precursor and technology demonstration efforts that could benefit Project M.

But project manager Matthew Ondler, head of the Software, Robotics and Simulation Division at JSC, is undeterred.

“Right now, we are not sort of in the budget, but we are continuing to work toward that,” Ondler said in an Aug. 4 interview, explaining that Project M comprises several funded technology efforts under way across JSC’s engineering directorate, including the General Motors Corp.-built Robonaut 2 droid, liquid oxygen/liquid methane propulsion systems and an Automated Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology project that utilizes guidance and control capabilities from Draper Laboratory of Cambridge, Mass.

Ondler said Project M’s lunar lander, the prototype for which was developed by Rockwall, Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace, would be relevant and extensible to a variety of NASA missions. Robonaut 2, meanwhile, could captivate the imagination of youngsters, inspiring them to pursue careers in science and engineering, he said.

“There are other ways to get that sort of dexterity on the Moon,” Ondler said, adding that the Robonaut 2 robot torso could be integrated on a wheeled base rather than the currently planned legs. “But it was really about the human form being very compelling and having students and kids being able to relate to it better.”

Since November, Ondler and Tim Crain, Project M’s flight dynamics lead, have “begged and borrowed” to fund a prototype lander using excess capacity within the agency, swapping engineering know-how with the private sector, relying on hardware store materials and piggybacking off of tests geared toward other NASA projects.

“We wanted to focus these technologies and demonstrate them on a flight test,” Ondler said. “A lot of times you can demonstrate an individual technology but it’s not easily transferred to a flight program.”

With at least one successful flight test of the lander’s guidance and navigation system completed, Ondler and Crain are working with their private sector partners to design and build a second test article for flight in the fall. Ondler said the first flight test, conducted June 23 at Armadillo’s facilities in Caddo Mills, Texas, was completed within five months of contract award for under $100,000.

Ondler said one of Project M’s goals is to help NASA better cultivate its relationship with entrepreneurial firms.

“Part of the Armadillo connection is to try to understand these commercial vendors,” he said. “We wanted to partner with a commercial venture and try to learn from them. They’ve learned from us, too.”

Ondler said he has enough money to design and manufacture a second test article that will be demonstrated in the fall. In addition, Ondler said, NASA is preparing a launch and landing pad for the prototype lander at Ellington Field near JSC, which should be completed by year’s end.

Tye Brady, principal member of technical staff at Draper, said JSC gave the company about seven weeks beginning in March to configure the guidance and control capability for a test flight on an Armadillo prototype lander. “We took a small team of folks at Draper and into the lab we went,” Brady said. “And next thing I know, I’m standing in 100-degree heat in Texas and putting it on top of the rocket.”

Brady said the point of Project M is to quickly demonstrate a prototype in the field and learn from mistakes made in the process. “If my customer at JSC can show through field tests they have a great technical solution, hopefully the rest will fall in place,” he said.

Although Ondler pitched Project M as a contender for NASA’s new robotic precursor and exploration technology flagship demonstrations earlier this summer — two new funding lines in NASA’s 2011 budget request worth a combined $10 billion over the next five years — it’s unclear whether Congress will approve the robust technology initiatives outlined in Obama’s budget.

But with a waist-up version of Robonaut 2 slated to fly aboard the international space station later this year, Ondler expects the droid to engage public interest while potentially drawing private sector investment for terrestrial applications. “Having [Robonaut 2] on station will help a lot,” he said. “It will make the robotic piece a little more real, and it’s an opportunity to see how real the public interest is in that.”

In addition to the new technology money that might or might not pass muster in Congress, Ondler says other potential funding sources exist. But he’s also realistic.

“Some of the money in 2011 could come through our partners, and we’ll get a little from the directorate,” he said. “But the big amount of money required to put it on the Moon, it’s probably highly unlikely it will happen this year.”