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Tap into the experiences of NASA’s technical workforce as they develop missions to explore distant worlds—from the Moon to Mars, from Titan to Psyche. Learn how they advance technology to make aviation on Earth faster, quieter and more fuel efficient. Each biweekly episode celebrates program and project managers, engineers, scientists and thought leaders working on multiple fronts to advance aeronautics and space exploration in a bold new era of discovery. New episodes are released bi-weekly on Wednesdays. 

The Artemis Lunar Terrain Vehicle will help astronauts explore the surface of the Moon like never before. Applying lessons learned from Apollo could help future surface missions to the Moonand Mars.

On April 3, 2024, NASA announced the companies selected to move forward with advancing the development of the Lunar Terrain Vehicle (LTV) for Artemis missions to the Moon’s South Pole region. NASA Chief Exploration Scientist Jacob Bleacher, a planetary geologist, talks about how industry will work with NASA to develop the LTV and how lessons learned from Apollo could help future surface missions to the Moon and Mars.

In this episode, you’ll learn about 

  • How collaborating with industry drives exploration 
  • Science goals of the Lunar Terrain Vehicle 
  • The challenges and benefits of exploring the Moon’s South Pole region


Apollo era resources 

Episode 13: Apollo Legacies and Lessons Learned

Related Courses 

Contract Management and Principles 

Human Spaceflight and Mission Design (APPEL-vHSMD) 

Leading Complex Projects (APPEL-vLCP)


Portrait shot of Jake Bleacher in a blue button-down shirt with the NASA emblem on it. He is sitting at a dais with a transparent surface. A black conference microphone sits in front of him.

Jacob Bleacher
Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Jacob Bleacher is a planetary geologist who currently serves as the Chief Exploration Scientist in the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington. In this role, he is the science advocate for NASA technology and architecture development to enable human exploration of the Moon and Mars. He also serves as a primary contact with NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and the science community external to NASA. He also leads the science, technology utilization, and integration team within ESDMD’s Strategy and Architecture Office. Dr. Bleacher earned a Bachelor of Science in Geosciences from Franklin and Marshall College and Ph.D. in Geological Sciences from Arizona State University. During his Ph.D. research, he worked on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express Mission by conducting geologic mapping of the initial images acquired of the large Tharsis province volcanoes by the mission’s High Resolution Stereo Camera, or HRSC.


Andrés Almeida (Host): Welcome to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, the NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast. I’m your host, Andrés Almeida. In each episode, we focus on the role NASA’s technical workforce plays in advancing the agency’s mission through the development and sharing of knowledge. Our guest this episode is Jacob Bleacher, NASA’s chief exploration scientist.  

He’ll tell us how industry will work with NASA to develop the Lunar Terrain Vehicle, or LTV. On April 3, 2024, NASA announced the companies that were selected to move forward with developing the LTV for Artemis missions to the Moon’s South Pole region. He’ll also talk to us about how lessons learned from the Apollo era could help future surface missions to the Moon and Mars.

Hi, Jake, thanks for joining us on the podcast.  
Bleacher:  Yeah, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Host: Can you tell us about your current role at NASA?  

Bleacher: Yes, my current role is I serve as the chief exploration scientist for NASA in our Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate. So, my job is to coordinate with our other mission directorates who look to Artemis to conduct research, science, or technology demonstrations at or on the Moon, or in orbit around the Moon. So, I work to coordinate all of those activities so that we can build the best architecture to go do the things we want to do.  
Host: And one of those activities is the development of the LTV, and the contract for it gives companies the freedom to innovate, so how does that enable collaboration?

Bleacher: Well, the innovation is really exciting for us. In the past, NASA works with a contractor to develop systems the way that NASA wants them designed. But now what we’re doing is talking with industry about what we want to achieve, what capabilities we need. And we’re looking to those companies to create new ways of tackling those problems. And so, as these companies are working, to think through how to address what we’re asking them to do, they’re partnering with each other, they’re talking with us, and they’re creating new approaches that simply, you know, expand the options that will help us explore the Moon and beyond in the future. So that innovation is really something we’re trying to nurture and help move forward, as we work with, with companies to help explore the Moon.  
Host: So what are the expected capabilities of the LTV?

Bleacher: So, at a high level, the LTV’s job is to help us go do science, explore the Moon, maybe conduct reconnaissance so that we know what to expect when we land future landers. So, it has a whole bunch of jobs that we’ll be looking to but basically breaks down to exploring on the surface for us. What’s neat about it is the LTV’s job will be to support our astronauts when they land on the Moon.

But then when the astronauts leave, the LTV will continue to go do that work for us. So, it’s really pushing this robotic human interface, exploring together collaboratively. So, when astronauts are there, they can use the LTV to go farther than they could walk. When the astronauts leave, the LTV can drive to a new place where we may land with the astronauts or go check out an area that astronauts saw but couldn’t get to. So, there’s a lot of options that we’ll have. The LTV can also carry some science payloads. So, we’ll be looking to equip it with payloads that can help make measurements beyond just looking at the Moon with visible cameras.

Host: So the LTV will be operated remotely like a rover on Mars. What specific sort of research applications and tasks do you think will be accomplished by doing it this way?

Bleacher: Yeah, that’s right when astronauts are not present on the Moon, the LTV can be operated similar to how we operate rovers on other planets like Mars. So what that does is [it] gives us the opportunity to use the time between our crewed missions to go do more research. So that gives us a chance, maybe, to get to places the astronauts wouldn’t be able to get to, or to go spend longer periods of time in places than the astronauts could during an EVA, uh, which is extravehicular activity. So, an EVA has a certain time limit to it, whereas the LTV, when it’s operated robotically, could be directed to a location to sit and observe for long periods of time, much longer than astronauts can be there. So, it really opens up the breadth of what we can do research-wise, taking advantage of what astronauts can do, but also taking advantage of what robots can do as well.

Host: And NASA is going to do this with industry, so what makes that a strategic move?

Bleacher: Working with industry gives us a number of partners to help think about the different types of challenges that we have to address when we go to explore places like the Moon, and eventually on to Mars. So, this gives us an opportunity to not only work with the NASA workforce, but really tap into that creativity that exists outside of NASA as well. So, we have many great companies out there who think about specific parts of this much bigger puzzle that we would refer to as the exploration of the Moon. So, you’ve got folks thinking about detailed pieces of that, who can partner with each other or partner with us to help us go tackle the challenges that we will face.  
The Moon is a harsh environment. It’s not a nurturing environment, like we have here on the earth with an atmosphere and water. So, we have to design systems to survive in that environment, and to help our astronauts survive in that environment. And so having that creativity, being able to tap into a broader set of folks thinking about these problems in different ways, helps us to find the best way to go about doing it.  
Host: What are the science and engineering goals of exploring the Moon’s South Pole region?

Bleacher: So, the South Pole region of the Moon is a new place for us to explore. We have been to the Moon, but we’ve never gone to the polar regions. Some of the reasons that we want to go to the polar regions is that the lighting is very different. So, there are some locations, high terrain, for instance, like peaks or ridges that actually see sunlight for larger amounts than you would expect to see than the average everywhere else on the Moon. So, if we can identify those locations, we can design systems that take advantage of that, from thermal control to maybe power generation solar power generation. So that’s a unique attribute to the polar region.  
Now, the opposite situation also exists. Just like there’s a lot of sunlight at the high topography, low topography like impact craters or depressions might not ever see sunlight. And so, we think that those locations are places where water or other volatile elements, volatile meaning if it sees the sunlight and interacts with the solar wind, it will be volatilized and lost.  
Those types of elements and molecules may be trapped in these places that never see sunlight. So that could have been delivered by comments over the entire history of the solar system. Could be water that’s trapped from the formation of the moon itself. So, this is a resource for us scientifically. It’s also possibly a resource for us to use. Water’s heavy. It’s heavy to carry from the earth the whole way to the Moon. So, if it’s a resource we can use, that makes it even, even better.   

So, there are a lot of technical objectives [like] learning how to survive at the Moon. This is really our first step away from the Earth. We took short trips during Apollo. And then we have since then learned how to live off the surface of the earth by living on the International Space Station. Now what we like to say is we’re building a blueprint for exploring the solar system. And so, the Moon is our first step in doing so. So, we want to learn how to go farther and go to other places like Mars, but also spend more and more time on the Moon, expand on the Moon, learn more about the Moon, because some of the science objectives that we have. The Moon is basically a witness played for the entire history of the solar system. Here on the earth, we have this environment, this air, this atmosphere, water, wind, plate tectonics, for instance. These are all processes that have created this nurturing environment that we can survive in. But those same processes also erase most of the history of the early Earth and the early solar system.  
So, when we ask questions of ourselves, for instance, why are we here? Where does life come from? We actually can’t answer those questions very well staying on the earth. Because the Moon has been a partner for us the entire time. It’s basically orbited the Earth and watched everything that has happened here on the earth. So, by going to the Moon scientifically, we can start digging up some of that evidence to help us understand where we come from, why we’re here – things we just can’t answer here. It also helps set the stage for how we interpret everything else that we see in the solar system.  
So, I like to say we’re not just going to study the Moon. We’re going to study ourselves. We’re studying the Earth-Moon system and the solar system as a whole. And the Moon is a very critical piece of understanding that.  

Host: Why could those lessons learned be valuable to people here on Earth?  

Bleacher: So beyond learning about ourselves and our history, and understanding the solar system, the environment around us, the challenges we have to overcome in order to survive in space are challenges that will drive technology, technology that will become infused in everyday life back here on Earth. 

And you just have to look back to, for instance, Apollo and other space missions since then, to see that infusion. You know, from cell phones to, everybody always likes to joke about Velcro and Tang, but, you know, those types of things I’d really like examples from the International Space Station about water recycling. I mean, we’re to the point now where we can recycle well over 90% of, approaching 100% of, the water.  
Those are the types of things that have a huge impact here on Earth in places where water is not readily available. And because we challenge ourselves in that extreme environment, it helps drive solutions that feed right back here on Earth and can help humankind in everyday life.

So, it cannot be overstated the value of challenging oneself in order to help all of us just, you know, in our day-to-day life.

Host: You mentioned lessons learned and that’s obviously a big topic here at NASA APPEL. What lessons are you incorporating from the Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicles?  

Bleacher: Yes, the Lunar Roving Vehicle was really a game changer for exploring the lunar surface during Apollo. So, if you look at Apollo 11, if you look how far those astronauts walked if we like to say that if they landed in the middle of the [National] Mall in Washington, D.C., the distance they traveled would not have enabled them to go inside any of the Smithsonian museums.  

But that wasn’t the goal of that mission, we were learning how to go land on a different planetary body and come home safely. They did an excellent job. They got out, they did their work on the lunar surface. They brought back pieces of the Moon that are still yielding secrets for us today.  

But as we progressed, we began to recognize that the limits related to how far we could walk during an extravehicular activity, an EVA. That makes it harder to go farther away and encounter more diverse pieces of the Moon. So, when you’re on any kind of a geological exploration, one of the things you’re looking for is diversity. You want to find what’s normal, and you want to juxtapose that against what’s different. Because that diversity of types of things that you observe, helps you start to piece together the history or the story that the Moon has to tell you in that location.   

So, the Lunar Roving Vehicle, or LRV, gave us the ability to go much farther. And as you go farther, you increase your ability to encounter different terrains that you expect to see. You also increase, basically, your chances for serendipitous observation. So, “Where did that rock come from? I wasn’t expecting to see that one.” You can pick that up and that might yield new information that you don’t have. So, the ability to drive and also then to carry more hardware – so, tools or instruments — those were all lessons driven home throughout Apollo, that we were able to apply by bringing the LRV and then learn from that as a basis to help us get ready for mobility, enhanced mobility lunar terrain vehicle in Artemis.   

Host: And are there any science results you can share from the Apollo Moon samples that perhaps we can apply to future sample studies with the LTV?  

Bleacher: Sure. Just like everything, there’s kind of two ways to think about this: There’s the technical lessons learned and then there’s the science itself. So, I’ll start with some of the technical. 
We are still actually opening samples from Apollo. Our Apollo foreparents had the vision to recognize that they didn’t want to open all of the samples then because technology would advance through the years. And so, they kept some of those samples sealed.  

And we have a program at Apollo and our Science Mission Directorate now that is opening some of those sealed containers. It’s almost like getting a brand new sample from the Moon, even though it was from Apollo. So, for instance, one of the things we’re learning there is that those canisters actually sealed very well. We’re not seeing leaked-in atmosphere or water. And we know that those sample containers held. So that’s useful in helping us decide how to technically approach this going forward, because as I’ve already mentioned, a goal we have will be to access water and volatile materials at the south polar region, which we had no chance of interacting with, in the equatorial regions where Apollo landed.   

So, we learned a lot about how to approach it, how to design the systems and the tools, the curation containers that will hold those samples for us. But we also learned from some of the gases that were trapped in those samples, we learned a lot about making sure that we observe the area around a sample, if you just pick up a sample and have no other information about it, it’s less valuable than if you actually look at and document the context of the area so that you can place it into the story there. Those are all very important. The other thing that’s really neat about samples is you just can’t understand how much of a story it will have to tell you. There’s so much information in the rock, depending on what different types of scientists analyze it with their different approaches.

So, we thought the Moon was a very dry place long, long ago, going into Apollo, and we confirmed it is very dry. But we brought back some glass beads, for instance, from, you know, interaction with the lunar surface volcanic activity, perhaps those things start telling us a little bit about the history of the Moon. And ultimately led us into situations where we could hypothesize that some of these places in the polls might actually contain water, at least have the environment that could contain and preserve water were it to be there. So, there’s like this progression going from Apollo up through all the other observations we’ve made over the last several decades.  

Host: That’s fascinating. Now, you were a test subject and crew member of Desert RATS, which had participants doing field tests of prototype human rovers in Arizona. Can you elaborate on that? And what’s something you learned there that could inform LTV developments?  

Bleacher: Yeah, that’s going back into my history a little bit. Great question. So, I was a crew member test subject during Desert RATS, which stood for Desert Research and Technology Studies. And back during that that time period in the early 2000s to late 2000s, we were conducting tests in the field, looking at prototype rovers and suits, really trying to stress how operations might work.

So, how do two astronauts or one astronaut work with vehicles, work with science support teams back here on Earth? So, the test was really looking at operations and, you know, impacts from communications? What if communications were intermittent or continuous? How does that impact our ability? How do we develop the skillsets in those, those plans, those operations related [to] go do the job. So, we drove a rover, all around the desert in Arizona and northern Arizona, collecting samples working with a back room that was off site in a different area just kind of driving this rover and it really, for me, it drove home the impressive capability that that mobility can give you.  

Sometimes you see things out when you’re driving around in a car and you think, you know, they’re fairly close, but they’re actually quite far away. And if you have to walk everywhere, that can be fairly strenuous. But if you have the ability to kind of sit on a vehicle or interact with a vehicle that offloads some of that, that hard work off your body, that enables you to think more to observe more, to do other tasks with the time, that precious time that you have during EVA and extravehicular activity.

So, we learned a lot of lessons and they’re still doing tests right now. They just completed a test, a similar test in the field in Arizona as well called JETT [Joint EVA and Human Surface Mobility Team]. So, we’re still doing that and we’re learning a lot and one thing I can say is that was definitely an exciting time for me and throughout my career.  

Host: How do you envision NASA building upon LTV knowledge for future Mars missions?

Bleacher: Yeah, that’s a great question. How do we build upon what we’re learning right now? And so, the LTV is the next element or a next, you know, capability we’re planning to send to the Moon. And it will be a starting point for us learning about how to move around and drive on the surface of the moon. So, it will help us learn what next iterations of the rover should be as we explore more and more of the lunar surface and learn to spend more time away from the Earth.  

And it will also help us understand how do we prepare for that long trip to a place like Mars. So, when we have the background based on some of the science rovers that have already gone there, so we’re learning about the technical, geotechnical properties of the surface of Mars, and how they vary from area to area.

So, we can combine that information with lessons we’ll learn from driving the vehicles that carry human beings on the Moon to really understand, you know, what do we expect that those Mars rovers are going to be driving over? What terrain should we try to avoid? How much resource will we need to carry is something we’ll learn from the LTV? Do we have a pressurized rover or unpressurized rover like an LTV? We have to think about those different approaches. There are different strategies for what, what you can do, what you choose to do. And that really has to be driven from what you want to accomplish. And so, one of the most important things right now is that we’re setting up what we call our Moon to Mars objectives. And so those objectives serve as the source for us to interpret what we need to design next.  
So as we learn about the questions, we’ll ask ourselves to go address with humans at Mars, which is an active area for us right now. That, combined with the lessons we learned from driving the LTV around the lunar surface for 10 years, will help us start to set the stage for what we need to design when we go to Mars.   

Host: Well, it sounds like there’s a lot to look forward to. Do you have any closing thoughts?   

Bleacher: Yeah, you know, I just want to communicate how exciting of a time this is right now. We’re really, you know, building upon all of the lessons learned from the past, we truly are standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before us. But we’re also right at the cusp of beginning this whole new research and exploration strategy for the solar system. And so, you know, you kind of pointed out, looking forward, I just want to drive home to folks out there who might be listening who wonder, “How can I be involved?” Because that’s a, that’s a tremendous question. And I, everybody answered that question differently.

But the thing I like to tell folks is, the best way to be involved is to find what you like to do. Because this isn’t about a narrow little approach to going out and exploring space. This is about humankind, learning to live away from the earth. In the end, it will need that breadth of creativity, it will need all of the things that we do here on Earth, to be done in some manner, elsewhere on the Moon at Mars, everywhere else in the solar system that we may get to. So, you know, don’t feel like you need to go learn a specific thing in order to do part of this job. Go figure out what you like to do so that you’re happy and enjoying it. And it can easily be applied to this exploration.

And what’s great right now is there’s NASA but all these companies that are coming online right now and helping us explore space, the opportunity will be there. So go find what you’d like to do. And then, you know, find a spot to go do it because there will be many different places to help us learn to explore the solar system.  
Host: And we’ll all do it together.   

Bleacher: There you go. 

Host: Jake, thanks for your time with us.   

Bleacher: Absolutely. Thank you for helping us tell the story because it really is an exciting story.