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To Infinity and Beyond

Tech plays a big role in leading the next stage of space exploration.

Sep 18, 2015

Space exploration is taking us to places—and offering up opportunities—once imaginable only in science fiction. As private companies and global players continue to exert increasing influence on the science and economics of reaching for the stars, we’re beginning to see the universe in a whole new way.

Former NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus, PhD MSE 96, had been preparing for her 2002 mission to the International Space Station on the Space Shuttle Atlantis for years. She knew, intellectually, that when she got her first glimpse of the Earth from space, it would be like nothing she’d experienced before.

Still, when the moment came—when she opened the shuttle’s payload doors and saw the Earth in the context of the vast expanse of outer space beyond it—she instinctively understood that her seemingly sturdy home planet was no more durable than a robin’s egg. “I said, immediately, without even thinking, ‘Wow, our atmosphere is so thin’,” recalls Magnus, who now serves as the executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). “It looked so fragile, and it’s something we have no sense of in our daily living,” she says. Her experience of seeing the Earth as a fragile, tiny ball of life felt transformational.

Until recently, the only people who ever had a real shot at experiencing this kind of sublime, otherworldly experience were those who’d spent years pursuing that dream: a few hundred highly educated, rigorously trained, and keenly ambitious men and women. It makes sense: nine-figure mission budgets made anything else implausible.

Today, space tourism for the masses is getting tantalizingly close. Private space exploration firm Virgin Galactic has sold more than 700 tickets (at up to $250,000 a pop) for suborbital spaceflights in the coming years, which would more than double the total number of astronauts the world has seen. Another player, XCOR Aerospace, expects to be carrying eager customers on its suborbital vehicle, Lynx, by 2016.

In other words: Our sci-fi future in space has arrived.

Thanks to vast growth in our knowledge base, shifts in funding, and increasing opportunities for research and exploration at many levels, the science and experiences that once seemed possible only in the feverish imaginations of authors like Douglas Adams and Arthur C. Clarke seem now within our grasp. It’s not just that rocketing off to space will become possible for those with the cash to spare. It’s that the possibilities open to us have increased exponentially in recent years.

In the past few months, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has beamed back extraordinary images of Pluto, and the Kepler telescope may have identified Earth 2.0.

From human space travel to planetary research to advances that will make even our life here at home seem more magical, we are in a transformational time. The universe beyond our planet is looking more interesting—and reachable—every day.

From Pipe Dream to Practical

More than 40 years ago, the biggest names on the American space scene were Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, the men who donned the bulky, NASA-emblazoned space suits to walk on the moon. Today’s biggest space celebrities—Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos—aren’t known for logging time in space; they’re titans of the business world who want to open up space and its myriad benefits to everyone.

That transition marks a sea change in the way we’ve approached space exploration as a nation, says Robert “Bobby” Braun, Georgia Tech’s David and Andrew Lewis Professor of Space Technology and a former chief technologist for NASA. “If you take any major sector of our economy, the government has always been the first in,” Braun says. “It was a prime motivator for ground transportation when it built highways, for example.”

“The same is true of air transportation,” he says. “The private sector typically comes in only after the government makes the initial investment.”

The enormous cost of space exploration, particularly during the early days, made it impossible for any private company to consider it seriously. At the height of NASA’s work with Apollo, for example, NASA’s budget represented a full 4.4 percent of the federal budget—$43 billion in today’s dollars. Today, NASA’s budget represents just a half a percent of the total budget.

While private companies have been pursuing opportunities in space for years (Elon Musk’s SpaceX, for example, was founded in 2002), interest exploded when it became clear that NASA would officially retire the space shuttle fleet in 2011—with no plans to build a near-term replacement. Private companies headed by space-loving visionaries eagerly arrived to fill the vacuum. Richard Branson promised to democratize access to space; SpaceX wants to help people live on other planets; Nanoracks bills itself as the “concierge to the stars,” giving high schools and even Kickstarter customers a way to get their payloads into space.

These companies absorbed everything NASA had learned in the previous half-century, and then used laser-focus to upend its most weighty, expensive practices to open up space to researchers, enthusiasts and entrepreneurs.

Virgin Galactic propulsion manufacturing engineer Alex Hreiz, AE 07, MS AE 09, for example, is helping his company scale up its production of engines, a process that ultimately will bring the cost of space travel down; it’s a formula that private companies have down to a science. “The private sector has shown that it can do high-volume production faster, better and cheaper than the government,” Hreiz says. “The launch system is still several years out, but [increasing the accessibility of space travel] is one of the things that is revitalizing America’s interest in space.”

SpaceX, too, has committed to slice space launch prices by up to 100-fold, in part by reusing rockets and improving a vehicle’s turnaround time. If they’re successful, it could reduce the cost for a person to go to space to just a few thousand dollars.

Ian Clark, AE 03, MS AE 06, PhD AE 09, visiting assistant professor in the School of Aerospace Engineering and current member of the technical staff of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says such approaches represent a new way of thinking about space. “Today’s startups are attacking the chiseled philosophies of aerospace that we had for 40 years, like, ‘Don’t recover your first stage [rockets],’” he says. “These companies are saying, ‘Let’s go back to the drawing board and really understand why folks haven’t done this in the past.’”

Those lowered costs are having effects outside of the consumer space, too. These days, it’s increasingly financially possible for university researchers—and their students—to get in the space game. Dave Spencer, professor of the practice in Tech’s School of Aerospace Engineering, for example, has been working with students for years to develop Prox-1. Integrated with its science payload and subsystems, the 110-pound spacecraft holds an 11-pound “CubeSat”—a tiny satellite designed for space research. Among other things, Prox-1’s mission in low Earth orbit will showcase automated trajectory control relative to the deployed CubeSat. Tech students are responsible for designing the mission, building and testing the spacecraft and conducting mission operations. “We’re entering a realm where universities can play a lead role, not just as science investigators, but actually implementing the visions,” Spencer says. “Not only that, but we’re giving students the chance to get their hands dirty and develop ‘engineering intuition’ that you just can’t learn from a textbook.”

Magnus, for one, marvels at the changes. “Designing, building, launching, and operating CubeSats in mission controls that they have in universities?” she says. “That was unheard of when I was in college.”

The recent growth in private sector businesses—“new space”—is attracting a generation of student space junkies eager to make an impact through these entrepreneurial companies. Spencer says the shift has been dramatic. “When I teach the capstone space systems class, I always ask students where their dream job is,” he says. “NASA? Large industry? SpaceX or Bigelow Aerospace? About 85 percent of students are interested in new space. Twenty years ago, that wasn’t even an option.”

These new opportunities, in other words, are opening up a new generation to the possibilities of space.

The Big Dreams Beyond Low Earth Orbit

GT Alumni at NASA  
Employer # of Alumni
Goddard Space Flight Center 3
Jet Propulsion Laboratory 57
John F. Kennedy space Center 3
Langley Research Center 3
Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center 22
NASA 234

For now, private companies are primarily focused on the opportunities in low Earth orbit—an altitude between 99 and 1,200 miles above the planet—as NASA continues to push into the great unknown. “You can think of space exploration as an expanding bubble,” Magnus explains. “The surface is the government, which keeps expanding—from low Earth orbit, to the moon, to the rest of the solar system. There’s private enterprise in the bubble, but the government is still invested in leading the charge.”

And the government is interested in exploring some of the questions we’ve been asking as a species for millennia. For perhaps as long as humans have been around, we’ve been asking ourselves if we’re alone in the universe. And in recent years, researchers are helping us circle ever closer to answers. In July, NASA announced that data collected from the Kepler telescope, which launched in 2009, revealed a planet—
inelegantly named Kepler-452b—that was more Earth-like than any that had yet been discovered: It’s a bit bigger than our home planet, but it has a 385-day orbit around a star much like our sun.

For Braun, such discoveries feel like revelations. “If we were talking eight years ago, I might have told you that when I look up at the night sky and I see all those stars, I know in my gut that there have to be other [Earth-like] planets out there,” he says. “But, back then, we didn’t have any hard evidence.” “Since then, we’ve flown missions that have proven that there are thousands of planets in existence around stars, including a dozen that are Earth-like.

Scientists can uncover just a few key facts about these planets, but as detection capabilities grow ever stronger in the coming decades, Braun suspects that researchers will be able to draw out even more information about these distant planets: Are they covered by a liquid ocean? Do they have nitrogen-based atmospheres? Are there trace pollutants in the atmosphere?

Scientists are also getting more concrete data closer to home in search of the building blocks of life beyond Earth. Britney Schmidt, assistant professor at the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, is doing critical work for REASON, one of the instruments that will be traveling on the NASA mission to one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, in the 2020s. The instrument will use radar to determine what lies beneath Europa’s icy shell. “REASON is going to be the first thing that actually goes and looks for water inside Europa’s ice shell, and that’s incredibly exciting,” Schmidt says.

Spencer believes that space exploration is also ready for its moment in “sample return missions” to Mars, which may bring back everything from atmospheric particles to soil and rocks from the planet’s surface. If properly selected, these samples might offer the best chance we’ve had to date to discover if Mars once harbored life. “We’ve done flyby missions and orbital missions and for Mars, we’ve even done landed missions, but we haven’t done sample returns,” he says. “We’re going to get so much more, scientifically, when we can bring a sample back to the lab and have scientists work on it, rather than having robotic instruments trying to do the analysis in place.”

Using Space to Develop Earthly Improvements

Though the prospect of space tourism or planetary visits doesn’t spark everyone’s imagination, the innovations spurred by our space ambitions might, Hreiz says.

“Whether or not you feel that going to the moon and having people on the moon, by itself, was worthwhile, the work we did to get there was,” he says. “Developing the technology to get to the moon and sustain people on the moon is technology that can help make many more inhospitable places in the world open up to us in new ways.”

Everything from ultra-precise GPS and water filtration systems to life-saving heart pumps and LED lights all trace their lineage back to the space program. You don’t have to believe in the objectives of every single space mission to understand that the resulting technical breakthroughs have made our own planet seem a tiny bit more miraculous.

And ideas that companies are currently pursuing could push those innovations to new levels. For example, some companies are looking at putting up constellations of new satellites—perhaps up to 200—to make weather prediction more accurate in lifesaving ways. “If we could detect an earthquake or a tornado even two minutes before it occurs, that could be lifesaving for hundreds to thousands of people,” says Braun, who himself co-founded a private space company, Terminal Velocity Aerospace LLC, which offers services designed to provide safe re-entry and return of spacecraft payloads. “We’re not that far from having those remote-sensing capabilities. Is there any better reason to have a space program than to save lives?”

A vast collection of new satellites could also play a role in helping make the world a little bit smaller through the Internet, says Marcus Holzinger, assistant professor in the School of Aerospace Engineering. “If a company like SpaceX could provide persistent, from-orbit Internet, you could be anywhere—even a sailboat in the South Pacific—and get broadband internet,” Holzinger says. “That could change the way that all of us live.”

Other innovations may be murky now, but their economic impact is not. NASA’s work, for example, has paid more than its share of dividends. Stanford University researchers have calculated that every dollar spent on the space program has netted $8 of economic benefit.

But in a way, to reduce this progress—an ability to connect to anyone in the world in an instant, a chance to see just a tiny glimpse into the future—to dollars and cents misses the point. It is a testament to the ingenuity and willing collaboration of thousands that is bringing us a world that no one could have imagined just a few decades ago.

Our planet may be one among many billions, fragile and tiny. But there’s no question that the dreams of the people who live on it—who look beyond its confines and see beauty and wonder and opportunity—are very, very big.

FROM MERCURY TO PLUTO

Only 10 weeks after NASA’s interplanetary mission to Mercury ended, another arrived at Pluto and started beaming back incredible photos from the ice-and-rock dwarf that most of us grew up thinking was the full-on ninth planet in our solar system. In both cases, Andy Calloway, AE 89, played a critical operations role. In fact, the day after the Mercury MESSENGER spacecraft ran out of fuel and crashed into the planet as expected, Calloway switched gears to help the New Horizons team plot a precise trajectory to rendezvous with Pluto.

“It was quite a roller coaster ride of mixed emotions,” says Calloway, who served as the MESSENGER Mission Operations Manager (aka “MOM”) at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) for eight years before jumping onboard New Horizons. “There was a sense of both satisfaction and loss when the MESSENGER mission was finally over, but that was quickly offset by the critical tasks at hand and excitement of helping ensure the success of the Pluto expedition.”

Despite such deep feelings, Calloway is usually known for his cool and calm demeanor under pressure, a prerequisite for coping with the anomalies and uncertainties of space exploration.

Case in point: 10 days prior to New Horizons’ scheduled flyby of Pluto on July 14—meaning the Fourth of July holiday weekend—the team was faced with a major challenge. The spacecraft’s fault-protection autonomy system detected a problem with the primary computer and switched over to the backup computer, clearing out the programmed command sequence and macros.

“The New Horizons team essentially performed two weeks of work in two days, working around the clock and contending with a four-hour-plus, light-time roundtrip,” Calloway says. “The operations team was able to test and reload everything and safely return to the primary computer just in time for the transition to the core nine-day flyby sequence.”

This kind of anomaly is a team’s worst nightmare, Calloway says. “But everybody was ready for it and up to the challenge,” he says. “The results have been spectacular.”

As the deputy Encounter Mission Manager for the New Horizons project, Calloway’s job was to work closely with the navigation and mission operations teams on approach to plan the perfect path for the Pluto flyby.

“Pluto takes 248 Earth years to orbit the sun and we only have an 85-year record of Pluto’s orbit,” Calloway says. It therefore takes some very careful planning and plotting to determine exactly where Pluto and its moons are at any given moment relative to Earth and the spacecraft.

“We used optical navigation image processing to track Pluto and its moons, taking specific camera sequences as New Horizons approached,” he says. “That enabled us to execute small maneuvers in March and June to fine-tune the trajectory and to confirm that the spacecraft pointing and timing were consistent with the location of Pluto. It was a process of constant assessment and refinement as we got closer.”

Ultimately the Pluto flyby turned out to be a huge success that captured the public’s imagination. But, to Calloway, it couldn’t overshadow the triumphs of the Mercury MESSENGER mission, which was a large part of his life for the past 13 years.

Calloway landed on the MESSENGER team at the APL after working at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland for six years. By this point in his career, he had accumulated a great deal of hands-on experience, ranging from his start in the industry as a flight controller with several commercial geosynchronous satellites to working with low Earth-orbiting satellites. This variety and exposure made him an excellent candidate for space operations management.

“In 2002, I moved on to the Mercury MESSENGER planetary mission, running end-to-end mission simulations and practicing launches, deep-space maneuvers and planetary flybys.” Calloway says. “I was a lead for several subsystems, and then progressed to deputy mission ops manager.”

The mission operations manager at that time, Robert Farquhar, was the former MOM for the highly successful NEAR mission. Calloway says Farquhar’s mentorship was so important to his career that he’s tried to pay it forward by working with the Alumni Association’s Mentor Jackets program over the years.

Calloway eventually took over as MESSENGER’s MOM in January 2007. One primary goal of MESSENGER was to fill in the gaps left by Mariner 10, a NASA probe that flew by Mercury back in the 1970s. “Mariner 10 only captured about 40 percent of the planet in photos and data scans,” Calloway says.

But despite the technological advances and knowhow gained since Mariner 10, the MESSENGER mission wasn’t going to be a cakewalk. “With a mission of this length in such a harsh thermal and space weather environment, bad things can and do happen,” Calloway says. “We wanted to get as complete a picture of Mercury as we could, treating each flyby opportunity as a critical activity that could be the last.”

MESSENGER successfully performed three Mercury flybys and nailed the nail-biting 15-minute Mercury orbit insertion, eventually mapping 100 percent of the surface after four years in orbit. Some of the mission’s findings shocked the scientists back home. For example, even though Mercury is 70 percent closer to the sun than the earth, MESSENGER detected water ice at its poles. “Mercury has a negligible tilt to its spin axis, and because of that, comets and asteroids with ice that crashed near its poles created craters that remain in permanent shadow,” he says. “This ice—called polar deposits—never evaporated.”

Meanwhile, Calloway isn’t done with the New Horizons mission. It will take 12 to 16 months to unpack and return all the data from the Pluto flyby, he says. “We’re so far away from the Earth, the data comes in at a trickle.”

New Horizons also has fuel left onboard to target another destination, likely at the end of 2018. “If approved, it will be a smaller body in the Kuiper belt,” he says. “As for me, I hope to continue exploring our solar system and to guide a new mission to success in other equally amazing and exotic destinations.”

Some might ask why these interplanetary missions are important, especially given the time and expense. Calloway has some ready answers: “It’s about pure exploration and gaining knowledge about our solar system and the universe,” he says. “It’s about better understanding our origins and how everything came to be. And it’s about the countless exploration and technology discoveries that we can apply to improve our lives right here on Earth.”

But exploring space is an even more personal mission for Calloway.

“I want to inspire future generations to get involved in space and other STEM careers,” he says. And he’s also doing this in an unexpected way, taking what he’s learned from his space missions and turning it into books he hopes will capture the imagination of young children.—Roger Slavens

SUITING UP FOR SPACE

Ian Meginnis, MS AE 12, helps design the latest functional fashions for travel to Mars and other interplanetary destinations.

Seeing the sheer power created by a shuttle launch in person made Ian Meginnis’ day when he was a kid. The Indiana youngster’s dad was friends with former NASA astronaut Greg Harbaugh, so Meginnis and his family received a personal invitation in 1993 to come watch a shuttle launch.

Now all grown up, Meginnis, MS AE 12, helps make sure today’s astronauts are taken care of from head to toe as a NASA space suit engineer at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. His primary job is to look for ways to improve the functionality of space suits—some of which have been in use for decades—and update them so they’re, well, suitable, for more advanced missions.

By comparing past and current space suit designs, Meginnis and his colleagues are able to take their best aspects, combine them and adapt them for future needs. On the most basic level, a suit must enable astronauts to move, bend their limbs and maintain a good field of vision in a variety of environments, Meginnis says.

One development suit Meginnis has been working on—the Z-2—will one day enable astronauts to conduct in-space and planetary exploration tasks more efficiently. The Z-2 is primarily a walking suit, and marks the first time NASA was able to use 3-D human laser scans and 3-D-printed hardware during suit development and sizing. The suit features a large, bubble-shaped helmet that provides a wide field of view, a hard upper torso for durability and protection, joints that provide greater mobility, and a rear-entry system that allows the astronauts to slip on the suit all at once, rather than fuss with a two-step, pants-and-torso donning process.

After a suit prototype is designed and manufactured, it’s tested on Earth in locations that can simulate the environment of a variety of destinations, from the vacuum of space to the moon to Mars, Meginnis says. Reduced-gravity aircraft, known more casually as “Vomit Comets,” help simulate those conditions.

Space suit design, as you might expect, requires the skills of a large team of designers. Meginnis, however, may sometimes be tasked to work on individual projects or systems. For example, he plays a pivotal role in developing ground-based life support systems to test suits on the ground and see how they hold up under various stressors. “Building life-support systems—building those components and testing them—sometimes that’s the responsibility of just one person,” Meginnis says. “It’s challenging, but rewarding when you turn it on and your design works. Those moments are great. You do it to make a difference.”—Brian Hudgins

SLEEPING OUR WAY TO MARS

SpaceWorks is exploring a novel way to make manned travel to the Red Planet a reality.

It’s time to suspend your disbelief about suspended animation chambers designed for space travel—the kind that allows crew members to snooze comfortably as they make long interstellar journeys. As president of Atlanta-based SpaceWorks Enterprises, a 15-year-old government and commercial space contracting firm, John Bradford, MS AE 98, PhD AE 01, is working to turn these fantastical ideas into something much more concrete.

However, in this case, it’s not travel between the stars that SpaceWorks is interested in, but rather just the relatively short hop to Mars. One of the biggest problems scientists haven’t yet figured out in engineering manned expeditions to the Red Planet is how to rocket the necessary payload out of earth’s atmosphere, Bradford says.

“By cutting the habitation facilities and consumables for the human crew, you could yield a dramatic savings on the payload—more than half by our calculations—as well as the propulsion needed to escape earth’s orbit,” Bradford says. “Additionally, putting the crew into medically induced torpor could also minimize the psychological challenges of such a long flight.”

The secret to his suspended animation could be therapeutic hypothermia, a technique used in extreme medical cases where patients’ body temperatures are lowered and placed in a controlled, comatose state for two to three days at a time. “It helps stop swelling and slows the metabolism to give the body time to start repairing itself,” Bradford says. “And we thought, ‘Would it be possible to extend this state for longer periods of time, say weeks or even months?’”

It was such an intriguing question that NASA funded SpaceWorks’ initial research on the matter. Though Bradford freely admits that there’s still a ton of research to be done, he says his team has talked with a lot of medical researchers around the world and found no showstoppers. “It’s something of a polarizing concept,” he says. “Therapeutic hypothermia was once a radical process that’s now used widely. It takes time to get people to wrap their mind around the idea.”

Meanwhile, SpaceWorks began sketching out ideas for how such a system—which Bradford calls a torpor-inducing transfer habitat—could be engineered. A primary need would be to provide total parenteral nutrition, which involves feeding the crew members intravenously. Neuromuscular stimulation to prevent atrophy would also be required. “We envisioned that robotic arms would do the work in managing and manipulating the crew while they are in torpor,” he says.

Though NASA did not pick up the second round of funding for the SpaceWorks project, Bradford says that many other entities are interested in their idea and the research will continue. Meanwhile, SpaceWorks has many other projects in the pipeline, ranging from aerodynamics to advanced propulsion systems to planetary defense systems.

“We tackle about six to eight projects at a time,” Bradford says. “Often NASA or other clients will come in with ideas they want explored, and we help engineer solutions to their specifications. Or sometimes we’re asked to do some reverse engineering. But we have our own ideas we pursue, as well.”

Bradford and his colleagues have grown tired of people talking about traveling to Mars and, with the torpor-inducing habitat, wanted to “bridge the gap” between science fiction and reality. “I’ve been at this for a long time, and it always seems there is a 20- to 30-year horizon for making a trip to Mars feasible,” he says. “We’d like to speed that timeline up.”—Roger Slavens


This story originally appeared in the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine.