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Small Steps, Giant Leaps

From a project’s smallest steps to humanity’s greatest leaps, NASA’s technical workforce embodies the spirit of Neil Armstrong’s immortal words from the surface of the Moon, boldly pushing the envelope of human achievement and scientific understanding. In our podcast, Small Steps, Giant Leaps, APPEL Knowledge Services talks with systems engineers, scientists, project managers and thought leaders about challenges, opportunities, and successes.

NASA Swamp Works Senior Technologist Rob Mueller discusses technologies being developed for missions to the Moon and Mars.

The Swamp Works innovation labs at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center design, test and build tools and technologies for space exploration. Mueller describes technologies being investigated at Swamp Works that could be game changers for future missions.

In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:

  • An electrodynamic dust shield for lunar missions
  • Sustainable space exploration
  • Multidisciplinary team expertise and collaboration

 

Related Resources

Kennedy Space Center Swamp Works – Developing New Tools for Deep Space Exploration

Kennedy Space Center Partnerships: Surface Systems Engineering

In-Situ Resource Utilization

Artemis: Humanity’s Return to the Moon

Masters with Masters 17 (Jack Fox and Rob Mueller)

APPEL Courses:

Team Membership (APPEL-TM)

Team Leadership (APPEL-TL)

Pay It Forward: Capturing, Sharing and Learning NASA Lessons (APPEL-PIF)

Leading Complex Projects (APPEL-LCP)

 

Rob Mueller Credit: NASARob Mueller is a senior technologist for Advanced Products Development in the Exploration Research and Technology Programs Directorate at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Mueller is the co-founder of the NASA Swamp Works innovation labs and the Kennedy Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations Lab, and is also Kennedy’s lead for Autonomous-Robotic Systems involved with In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). He has worked for NASA at Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Mueller, a former chairman of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Committee for Regolith Operations, Mobility and Robotics as well as the ASCE Aerospace Division Executive Committee, has been awarded four U.S. patents for new technology inventions. He holds a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Miami, a Master of International Space Systems Engineering from the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands, and a Master of Business Administration from the Florida Institute of Technology.


Transcript

Rob Mueller: Our goal at Swamp Works is to expand civilization into the solar system for the benefit of humanity. This is a grand challenge that the next generation really embraces.

So, if you want to build a small outpost, which turns into a village, which turns into a town and eventually a city on the Moon or Mars, you have to use local resources.

The future of space is going to be manufacturing in space, and we will manufacture many useful things, but they won’t necessarily come back to Earth. Most of them will be used in space.

Deana Nunley (Host): You’re listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps – a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast featuring interviews and stories, tapping into project experiences in order to unravel lessons learned, identify best practices and discover novel ideas.

I’m Deana Nunley.

Swamp Works is an innovation environment at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center where new technologies are developed for space exploration. Rob Mueller is a senior technologist and co-founder of the NASA Swamp Works innovation labs and joins us now.

Rob, thank you for talking with us.

Mueller: Pleasure talking to you.

Host: How does Swamp Works set the stage for technology breakthroughs?

Mueller: Well, the rules are a little bit different at Swamp Works. We really went back to our roots at NASA and we do a lot of hands-on development. It’s basically a way we used to work, where you do a lot of rapid prototyping. You learn very quickly from your mistakes, and sometimes we say we fail fast forward. That means we’re not afraid to make a mistake and learn very quickly from our mistakes, as long as they’re safe, and we move forward in a much quicker way than you would with traditional technology development. This is the way they used to do things in Apollo, when we had a lot of missions and a lot of spectacular failures, but also very rapid progress.

Host: How do you think the Swamp Works approach is contributing to our next adventure in space exploration?

Mueller: We have a big challenge given to us by the president and vice president to put a man and woman on the Moon by 2024. This is going to take extreme focus and a way of working which is extremely efficient. We can’t do this in the normal way. We have to really try to change the way we do business, and one of the ways of doing this is with rapid development in a lean development environment. That’s what Swamp Works specializes in, just going straight to the prototyping phase, and then we use the Technology Readiness Level scale, which is the typical way you develop technologies at NASA.

So, at 1, there’s a new idea. That’s a brand new formulation of an idea. At 9, it means the idea has actually been built and has been flown in space on a routine basis. So, in our lab, we typically work between 1 and 6, TRL 1 and 6. The way you do that is through a rapid cycle of design-test-build, and then you do it again—design-test-build. Usually, by about the third or fourth iteration, you have a good product.

Host: What do you think the next crew headed to the Moon and beyond might be taking with them that originated from scientific discovery and technology development at Swamp Works?

Mueller: We have some really interesting technologies. One of the exciting new things we’re working on is a dust shield. Many people remember the Apollo missions, and we learned a lot on the Apollo missions about dust. In fact, the Apollo astronauts said that dust was going to be the biggest operational problem we’ll have when we go back to the Moon.

In fact, this dust is crushed rock. It’s very fine. It’s like talcum powder, but it’s also very sharp. Imagine talcum powder that’s formed of crushed glass. That’s kind of what it is. It’s crushed rock in a very small particle size. Because there’s no humidity on the Moon—it’s a vacuum—there’s also high electrostatic charges that accumulate on these little particles. So they stick to everything and that’s a big challenge.

So, we’ve developed an electrodynamic dust shield. Imagine a camera with a lens that is dusty, and if you turn the switch on this special dust shield that we’ve developed, the dust is repelled by electrodynamic forces. So that’s one of the things I expect that the astronauts will be using, dust shields and other technologies that will help you live and work on the surface of the Moon.

Host: How would you gauge the progress right now of that technology and the work that you’re doing?

Mueller: Most of our technology is at about the TRL 4 or 5 level. Then when we get to 6, that’s when we test it in a relevant environment. So that requires a little bit more budget, where you need a vacuum chamber, a thermal vacuum chamber. So, most of our technology is about 4 or 5.

At that point, typically in technology development you hit what’s known as the valley of death. That’s when a technology has gone as far as it can in a lab. It’s ready to go out into the field, into a relevant environment, but it just hasn’t got the funding to go do that. That’s typical of any technology development program, and that’s the challenge, to make it through the valley of death.

Host: And these technologies that you’re working on now, for missions to the Moon especially, where are they on the TRL scale?

Mueller: We work mostly on technologies to do with resource utilization. Sometimes we call that living off the land in space. What that means is that you don’t bring it with you. You make it in space. In fact, there’s a lot of energy in space from the sun and there are many resources in the regolith. So, if we can mine the regolith, we actually dig it up with robots, and then we put it into a processor and we extract useful things out of the regolith like oxygen and hydrogen, aluminum, titanium, magnesium, all these very useful things. We can extract them out of the regolith.

Those are the kinds of technologies we are developing. Most of those are proven here on Earth, but they’ve never actually flown in space. So that puts them at about TRL 5 or 6. That’s where most of the technologies are right now.

Host: When you look at those technologies, like with the regolith and the technologies you’re working, do you think that Swamp Works is making a big contribution toward our future missions?

Mueller: Absolutely, because it’s just not sustainable. We can go into space and we can plant a flag and we can take pictures of the footprints, and everybody celebrates that. But if you’re not going back because you haven’t done it in a sustainable way, then, really, that’s shortchanging our future. So, the only way we’re going to really make a difference and expand our economy into space so that everybody can thrive and prosper, really, the only way you can do it is by being self-reliant in space using local resources. It’s just too expensive to lift everything out of Earth’s gravity well.

Most of the energy you need to go into space is just getting out of Earth’s gravity well. Once you’re in space, then the cost of transportation is relatively cheap, because you’re outside of that gravity well. So, the key to sustainable space exploration is to use local resources, and that’s what we’re doing in our lab, and I think that’s going to make a big difference in the future.

Host: When you are looking forward to the missions and trying to be sustainable, what are some of the things that come to your mind that you’re like, “Oh, wow. I wish we could…” Fill in the blank. What are those things?

Mueller: I wish we could find water. The water is there. The big difference between 20 years ago and today is that there’s more and more evidence that there is actually a lot of water in our solar system. Now most of the water is beyond the frost belt. The frost line is where the asteroid belt is. Beyond that, there are many volatiles. In fact, comets are volatiles that are coming in from the outer solar system into the inner solar system. That tail behind the comet, those are the volatiles that are subliming. You see them streaking away behind the comet. So that’s evidence of some volatiles.

A lot of times these volatiles, these are gases. Sometimes those volatiles are in the form of water. Water ice. And the water ice vaporizes. But water is the key to life. And if we go into the solar system, we need water to survive. We need water for consumption, human consumption, life support. We need it to grow plants. It’s also very good for radiation shielding. And if you electrolyze the water, you turn it into hydrogen and oxygen, and that’s the best chemical rocket propellant that you can find. It has a very high specific impulse. In fact, that’s what the space shuttle used. So, if we find water in space, that’s going to be the big breakthrough because it will let us use the water for transportation purposes and also just to survive.

Host: What are you working on at the moment that you think has high likelihood of being a game changer?

Mueller: One of the best technologies we have in our lab is 3-D printing with regolith concrete. You can imagine that it’s not very practical to launch concrete or steel I-beams into space. That’s typically how we do construction on Earth, with concrete and steel, but that’s just not going to work in space. That’s too much mass, too much volume. So, if you want to build a small outpost, which turns into a village, which turns into a town and eventually a city on the Moon or Mars, you have to use local resources.

So, what we’ve done is we’ve invented a new type of concrete, and the concrete uses the regolith. The regolith is the crushed rock on the surface of the Moon and Mars that’s been formed by meteorites and comets and other high-energy impact events over four and a half billion years. So, you have a lot of crushed rock on the surface of the Moon.

On Earth, we call that crushed rock aggregate, and aggregate is one of the main components of concrete. So, if we take the aggregate and mix it with a binder, we now have a lunar or Martian concrete, and we can 3-D print with that new material by using advanced robotics and autonomous software. If we take all those three technologies and combine them together, we have a new way of automated additive construction. What’s really exciting about it is this technology that we can use in space; you can also use it on Earth. That is really the ultimate technology, when it has a benefit in space and on Earth. I think that’s going to be a big game changer, when we can 3-D print a house in a very short period of time, for about 10 percent of the cost of what your house would cost today.

Host: That sounds amazing. How optimistic are you that this is all going to come to pass, and what do you envision building in space?

Mueller: Well, the evidence is out there that technology is accelerating. The rate of change is getting faster and faster. You just have to think about computers and Moore’s Law, where the processing speed of a computer chip is doubling over a period of about one and a half to two years. So, this is happening. It’s exponential growth. In fact, it’s hard to keep up with it because it’s happening so quickly.

But when you take all these technologies and the way they’re accelerating, it just gives you endless new possibilities. So, we have all the materials. We have all the energy in space. We’re starting to get the technologies that are necessary. So, the only thing that’s missing is the human imagination to put all these puzzle pieces together and make something useful.

So, the key to all of this is when you’re in space, don’t bring it from Earth. Make it there. The future of space is going to be manufacturing in space, and we will manufacture many useful things, but they won’t necessarily come back to Earth. Most of them will be used in space. Then we might do other things which will benefit the Earth, which we can’t even imagine yet. But a few things people have talked about is beaming energy back to Earth, or there is a fiber optic that you can only make in zero gravity that is much more pure than the fiber optic you can find on Earth, which has much higher transmission rates for data. So, there are potentially useful products that can be used on Earth as well, but most of the products in space will be made for use in space, and then we’ll derive value from that for Earth by using them in space.

Host: Rob, you’ve been doing this for a while. What stands out to you as the biggest Swamp Works achievements so far?

Mueller: So far, I’m really proud that we exist at all. We’ve built a great team. We have a great facility, and we’ve developed a new way of working, which isn’t really that new. We’ve been doing it for many years in other industries and previously in the Apollo days, but we’ve reintroduced that to the new generation of workers.

So, I’m really proud of the fact that we have a good team. Now when you have a good team, we can do anything, anything that NASA asks us to do. Given enough imagination and resources, we can probably get it done, and that’s a very valuable mindset to be in, and if you’re in that mindset, that’s the key to success.

What I’m proud of is that we’ve managed to build robots that can mine on the Moon. We’re building 3-D printers that can 3-D print with concrete. We’re working on swarming robot technology and a variety of other investigations. We’re looking at how rocket plumes interact with the surface. So, when you land, there’s going to be a big jet of rocket exhaust plume hitting the surface and that’s going to eject particles at 2,000 – 3,000 meters per second. That’s four or five times faster than a speeding bullet. So, these are all things that have very practical applications when you do space exploration.

So, these technologies will be extremely necessary when we go and live in space, and we’re just getting started. So, the main thing that I’m proud of is that we’ve built this team and we have the right mindset to tackle these audacious tasks. That in itself I think is the highest value.

Host: From a team perspective, what makes it possible for Swamp Works to make such amazing technology advancements?

Mueller: A lot of it is that you have to eliminate fear. Many things in life are driven by a fear of failure. If you can get past that fear and you can create a safe environment, where everything is achievable because you’re not afraid of failure, then you might not know the answer right away when you embark on this journey of discovery, but, eventually, you just iterate your way into it. So that’s the way you can be successful.

It’s more of a way of working than an actual body of knowledge. You can always get the knowledge by bringing the right team members in and using the right resources, but I think the way of working is very important, to have this mindset that we can do it. We just have to make some mistakes along the way until we figure it out.

Host: Do you have a multidisciplinary team?

Mueller: Absolutely. ISRU is called In-Situ Resource Utilization. It’s an intersection of many technologies. It’s actually quite humbling to work on ISRU because you’ll never know everything. You have to rely on your teammates. We have chemical engineers. We have physicists. We have mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, software programmers. We have even ergonomic specialists on how robots interact with the crew. We have management teams, project management. So, it’s multidisciplinary and everybody is important.

You just need all these different skills interacting with each other, because the main thing in this space resource utilization is it’s very similar to a mining operation on Earth. First, you have to find the resource. That means prospecting. Then you have to acquire the resource. That means you have to mine it. Then you have to process the resource. So that’s some kind of chemical engineering.

Then you have to transfer the resource into a tank, for example, for a cryogenic propellant. Then you have to store it and condition it and load it onto the rocket. Then you have to operate that rocket. So, there are many disciplines interacting and it really requires teamwork.

Host: Are there lessons learned or experiences you’ve had with Swamp Works that might be helpful to NASA’s technical workforce?

Mueller: Well, there are a lot of experiences that we’ve had. I think the fact that you have a good team with a good attitude is very important, but then you also have to have the skills. So technical competence is very important. That means it’s a lifelong learning process.

We have a young team, the ages between 25 and 35, but we also have older team members with experience to guide the younger team members. But even the older team members, because we’re on the frontier, we’re constantly learning. There is no right answer on the frontier. So, when somebody asks you, “Where is the water on the Moon?” there is no answer. We haven’t really discovered the answer to that question yet.

So, there’s a lot of room for curiosity. You constantly have to recalibrate your thinking, because what you thought was correct one day, it turns out we have some new information now and it’s completely changed the way we think about where the resources are.

So, in this business, when you’re on the frontier, you have to be extremely flexible. Maybe that’s what we’ve learned. We’ve learned how to be flexible and react very quickly to change. And if you’re on the frontier and you want to survive, that’s a very important characteristic to have.

Host: In terms of the way you do business, are there elements of the Swamp Works approach that could be applied effectively in other NASA programs and projects?

Mueller: I think there are many lessons to be learned from an innovation environment that can be applied to a big organization, but the trouble is scale. When you scale an organization up, it becomes difficult. The communication becomes difficult and interaction becomes difficult.

There have been many studies done on this, but the way you can apply these lessons from an innovation environment to a large organization is you have to split up into smaller units. So, you take a large organization and you split it into smaller work units, and then you have those small teams working independently, but then interacting with each other on a regular basis.

But really, size is a big driver of inefficiencies. So, to be lean and effective and efficient, you have to reduce size, but a large organization is difficult to control. So, the key to making that work is to split the large organization up into smaller work units and then have good interfaces. That’s just typical of any systems engineering problem, but if you apply that to a large organization, I think that is one of the lessons learned from our experience.

Host: Do you think that’s something that NASA is doing well, especially as we prepare for these next bold missions?

Mueller: Well, NASA has to evolve with the mission. NASA has done very well with the mission it had in the past, but the mission is changing and the world is changing and technology is changing. Before, the government in the 1950s and ’60s, we talked about spin-out. The government provided the funds. These organizations developed the technology, and then we spun that out to private industry and commercialized it.

But in fact, today it’s much more complex. We have spin-out and we have spin-in, and it’s a constant interaction between spinning out and spinning in. But there’s also much more spin-in than there was in the past, because industry is working so effectively. You just have to look at the rate of change of computer processing, the new chipsets that are coming out and other technologies, optics, lasers, all kinds of things, communications, even things like harmonic drives for robotics. It’s all changing.

So instead of the government developing it all, we can take advantage of things that are happening in private industry, and we call that spin-in. So, there’s a constant interaction and NASA has to change the way it’s working because the world is changing. You have to adapt to your environment.

That’s a challenge for a government agency, because a government agency is driven by bureaucratic processes. That is NASA’s biggest challenge, how to operate in a way which is more efficient and can do more with less resources.

Host: How does Swamp Works collaborate with other NASA centers, industry and academia to find solutions to challenges of traveling longer and farther from our home planet?

Mueller: That’s a great question. We’re a small team. We only have 25 to 50 people at any given time in the Swamp Works labs. There are six labs. But we have a footprint of thousands, and the way we do that is by partnering.

In fact, in our lab we have a banner hanging on the wall. For each successful partnership that we’ve had, we’ve put up a banner celebrating that partnership. We couldn’t do it without our partners. We have private industry partners. We have a lot of university partners, and we have other government agency partners as well.

We work with the U.S. Army. We worked with Oak Ridge National Labs. We’ve worked with many universities. We have the Small Business Innovative Research Program, SBIR, which specializes in giving seed money to small businesses, so that they can develop new technologies and launch their businesses.

So really, we have a high degree of leveraging, and the way we leverage is by awarding contracts, government contracts to universities and private industry. That’s the key. We have 50 people doing the work of 5,000, because we do this very effective partnering.

Host: And the partnering and the collaboration, that goes across other NASA centers as well?

Mueller: Absolutely. Every center specializes in something different. We try to avoid duplication. So, we have specialization centers of excellence, where different field centers—there’s nine field centers at NASA and NASA Headquarters—and each center has a different expertise domain.

So, we call up the centers that have the expertise and we partner with them. We meet each other regularly at conferences and other workshops. So, there is a community that crosses all the centers.

Host: Rob, it’s been a real pleasure having you on the show today. We really do appreciate you joining us.

Mueller: Thanks for the opportunity. It’s been great talking to you.

Host: Is there anything else that we didn’t cover that you’d like to talk about ?

Mueller: Well, our goal at Swamp Works is to expand civilization into the solar system for the benefit of humanity. This is a grand challenge that the next generation really embraces. In fact, I saw the other day that NASA was in the top five of entities that graduating seniors would like to work for.

So, this is also about inspiring the next generations. When you do great things, you attract great minds. That’s what we’d like to do is attract the best thinkers and creative individuals that we can find to go solve this grand challenge of expanding civilization into the solar system. I think we’re doing that, and we are welcoming everybody that’s willing to work on this and inspiring the next generation.

Host: You’ll find links to topics mentioned on the show, along with Rob’s bio and a transcript, at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast.

If you have suggestions for interview topics, please let us know on Twitter at NASA APPEL, and use the hashtag SmallStepsGiantLeaps.

Thanks for listening

Rob Mueller: Our goal at Swamp Works is to expand civilization into the solar system for the benefit of humanity. This is a grand challenge that the next generation really embraces.

So, if you want to build a small outpost, which turns into a village, which turns into a town and eventually a city on the Moon or Mars, you have to use local resources.

The future of space is going to be manufacturing in space, and we will manufacture many useful things, but they won’t necessarily come back to Earth. Most of them will be used in space.

Deana Nunley (Host): You’re listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps – a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast featuring interviews and stories, tapping into project experiences in order to unravel lessons learned, identify best practices and discover novel ideas.

I’m Deana Nunley.

Swamp Works is an innovation environment at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center where new technologies are developed for space exploration. Rob Mueller is a senior technologist and co-founder of the NASA Swamp Works innovation labs and joins us now.

Rob, thank you for talking with us.

Mueller: Pleasure talking to you.

Host: How does Swamp Works set the stage for technology breakthroughs?

Mueller: Well, the rules are a little bit different at Swamp Works. We really went back to our roots at NASA and we do a lot of hands-on development. It’s basically a way we used to work, where you do a lot of rapid prototyping. You learn very quickly from your mistakes, and sometimes we say we fail fast forward. That means we’re not afraid to make a mistake and learn very quickly from our mistakes, as long as they’re safe, and we move forward in a much quicker way than you would with traditional technology development. This is the way they used to do things in Apollo, when we had a lot of missions and a lot of spectacular failures, but also very rapid progress.

Host: How do you think the Swamp Works approach is contributing to our next adventure in space exploration?

Mueller: We have a big challenge given to us by the president and vice president to put a man and woman on the Moon by 2024. This is going to take extreme focus and a way of working which is extremely efficient. We can’t do this in the normal way. We have to really try to change the way we do business, and one of the ways of doing this is with rapid development in a lean development environment. That’s what Swamp Works specializes in, just going straight to the prototyping phase, and then we use the Technology Readiness Level scale, which is the typical way you develop technologies at NASA.

So, at 1, there’s a new idea. That’s a brand new formulation of an idea. At 9, it means the idea has actually been built and has been flown in space on a routine basis. So, in our lab, we typically work between 1 and 6, TRL 1 and 6. The way you do that is through a rapid cycle of design-test-build, and then you do it again—design-test-build. Usually, by about the third or fourth iteration, you have a good product.

Host: What do you think the next crew headed to the Moon and beyond might be taking with them that originated from scientific discovery and technology development at Swamp Works?

Mueller: We have some really interesting technologies. One of the exciting new things we’re working on is a dust shield. Many people remember the Apollo missions, and we learned a lot on the Apollo missions about dust. In fact, the Apollo astronauts said that dust was going to be the biggest operational problem we’ll have when we go back to the Moon.

In fact, this dust is crushed rock. It’s very fine. It’s like talcum powder, but it’s also very sharp. Imagine talcum powder that’s formed of crushed glass. That’s kind of what it is. It’s crushed rock in a very small particle size. Because there’s no humidity on the Moon—it’s a vacuum—there’s also high electrostatic charges that accumulate on these little particles. So they stick to everything and that’s a big challenge.

So, we’ve developed an electrodynamic dust shield. Imagine a camera with a lens that is dusty, and if you turn the switch on this special dust shield that we’ve developed, the dust is repelled by electrodynamic forces. So that’s one of the things I expect that the astronauts will be using, dust shields and other technologies that will help you live and work on the surface of the Moon.

Host: How would you gauge the progress right now of that technology and the work that you’re doing?

Mueller: Most of our technology is at about the TRL 4 or 5 level. Then when we get to 6, that’s when we test it in a relevant environment. So that requires a little bit more budget, where you need a vacuum chamber, a thermal vacuum chamber. So, most of our technology is about 4 or 5.

At that point, typically in technology development you hit what’s known as the valley of death. That’s when a technology has gone as far as it can in a lab. It’s ready to go out into the field, into a relevant environment, but it just hasn’t got the funding to go do that. That’s typical of any technology development program, and that’s the challenge, to make it through the valley of death.

Host: And these technologies that you’re working on now, for missions to the Moon especially, where are they on the TRL scale?

Mueller: We work mostly on technologies to do with resource utilization. Sometimes we call that living off the land in space. What that means is that you don’t bring it with you. You make it in space. In fact, there’s a lot of energy in space from the sun and there are many resources in the regolith. So, if we can mine the regolith, we actually dig it up with robots, and then we put it into a processor and we extract useful things out of the regolith like oxygen and hydrogen, aluminum, titanium, magnesium, all these very useful things. We can extract them out of the regolith.

Those are the kinds of technologies we are developing. Most of those are proven here on Earth, but they’ve never actually flown in space. So that puts them at about TRL 5 or 6. That’s where most of the technologies are right now.

Host: When you look at those technologies, like with the regolith and the technologies you’re working, do you think that Swamp Works is making a big contribution toward our future missions?

Mueller: Absolutely, because it’s just not sustainable. We can go into space and we can plant a flag and we can take pictures of the footprints, and everybody celebrates that. But if you’re not going back because you haven’t done it in a sustainable way, then, really, that’s shortchanging our future. So, the only way we’re going to really make a difference and expand our economy into space so that everybody can thrive and prosper, really, the only way you can do it is by being self-reliant in space using local resources. It’s just too expensive to lift everything out of Earth’s gravity well.

Most of the energy you need to go into space is just getting out of Earth’s gravity well. Once you’re in space, then the cost of transportation is relatively cheap, because you’re outside of that gravity well. So, the key to sustainable space exploration is to use local resources, and that’s what we’re doing in our lab, and I think that’s going to make a big difference in the future.

Host: When you are looking forward to the missions and trying to be sustainable, what are some of the things that come to your mind that you’re like, “Oh, wow. I wish we could…” Fill in the blank. What are those things?

Mueller: I wish we could find water. The water is there. The big difference between 20 years ago and today is that there’s more and more evidence that there is actually a lot of water in our solar system. Now most of the water is beyond the frost belt. The frost line is where the asteroid belt is. Beyond that, there are many volatiles. In fact, comets are volatiles that are coming in from the outer solar system into the inner solar system. That tail behind the comet, those are the volatiles that are subliming. You see them streaking away behind the comet. So that’s evidence of some volatiles.

A lot of times these volatiles, these are gases. Sometimes those volatiles are in the form of water. Water ice. And the water ice vaporizes. But water is the key to life. And if we go into the solar system, we need water to survive. We need water for consumption, human consumption, life support. We need it to grow plants. It’s also very good for radiation shielding. And if you electrolyze the water, you turn it into hydrogen and oxygen, and that’s the best chemical rocket propellant that you can find. It has a very high specific impulse. In fact, that’s what the space shuttle used. So, if we find water in space, that’s going to be the big breakthrough because it will let us use the water for transportation purposes and also just to survive.

Host: What are you working on at the moment that you think has high likelihood of being a game changer?

Mueller: One of the best technologies we have in our lab is 3-D printing with regolith concrete. You can imagine that it’s not very practical to launch concrete or steel I-beams into space. That’s typically how we do construction on Earth, with concrete and steel, but that’s just not going to work in space. That’s too much mass, too much volume. So, if you want to build a small outpost, which turns into a village, which turns into a town and eventually a city on the Moon or Mars, you have to use local resources.

So, what we’ve done is we’ve invented a new type of concrete, and the concrete uses the regolith. The regolith is the crushed rock on the surface of the Moon and Mars that’s been formed by meteorites and comets and other high-energy impact events over four and a half billion years. So, you have a lot of crushed rock on the surface of the Moon.

On Earth, we call that crushed rock aggregate, and aggregate is one of the main components of concrete. So, if we take the aggregate and mix it with a binder, we now have a lunar or Martian concrete, and we can 3-D print with that new material by using advanced robotics and autonomous software. If we take all those three technologies and combine them together, we have a new way of automated additive construction. What’s really exciting about it is this technology that we can use in space; you can also use it on Earth. That is really the ultimate technology, when it has a benefit in space and on Earth. I think that’s going to be a big game changer, when we can 3-D print a house in a very short period of time, for about 10 percent of the cost of what your house would cost today.

Host: That sounds amazing. How optimistic are you that this is all going to come to pass, and what do you envision building in space?

Mueller: Well, the evidence is out there that technology is accelerating. The rate of change is getting faster and faster. You just have to think about computers and Moore’s Law, where the processing speed of a computer chip is doubling over a period of about one and a half to two years. So, this is happening. It’s exponential growth. In fact, it’s hard to keep up with it because it’s happening so quickly.

But when you take all these technologies and the way they’re accelerating, it just gives you endless new possibilities. So, we have all the materials. We have all the energy in space. We’re starting to get the technologies that are necessary. So, the only thing that’s missing is the human imagination to put all these puzzle pieces together and make something useful.

So, the key to all of this is when you’re in space, don’t bring it from Earth. Make it there. The future of space is going to be manufacturing in space, and we will manufacture many useful things, but they won’t necessarily come back to Earth. Most of them will be used in space. Then we might do other things which will benefit the Earth, which we can’t even imagine yet. But a few things people have talked about is beaming energy back to Earth, or there is a fiber optic that you can only make in zero gravity that is much more pure than the fiber optic you can find on Earth, which has much higher transmission rates for data. So, there are potentially useful products that can be used on Earth as well, but most of the products in space will be made for use in space, and then we’ll derive value from that for Earth by using them in space.

Host: Rob, you’ve been doing this for a while. What stands out to you as the biggest Swamp Works achievements so far?

Mueller: So far, I’m really proud that we exist at all. We’ve built a great team. We have a great facility, and we’ve developed a new way of working, which isn’t really that new. We’ve been doing it for many years in other industries and previously in the Apollo days, but we’ve reintroduced that to the new generation of workers.

So, I’m really proud of the fact that we have a good team. Now when you have a good team, we can do anything, anything that NASA asks us to do. Given enough imagination and resources, we can probably get it done, and that’s a very valuable mindset to be in, and if you’re in that mindset, that’s the key to success.

What I’m proud of is that we’ve managed to build robots that can mine on the Moon. We’re building 3-D printers that can 3-D print with concrete. We’re working on swarming robot technology and a variety of other investigations. We’re looking at how rocket plumes interact with the surface. So, when you land, there’s going to be a big jet of rocket exhaust plume hitting the surface and that’s going to eject particles at 2,000 – 3,000 meters per second. That’s four or five times faster than a speeding bullet. So, these are all things that have very practical applications when you do space exploration.

So, these technologies will be extremely necessary when we go and live in space, and we’re just getting started. So, the main thing that I’m proud of is that we’ve built this team and we have the right mindset to tackle these audacious tasks. That in itself I think is the highest value.

Host: From a team perspective, what makes it possible for Swamp Works to make such amazing technology advancements?

Mueller: A lot of it is that you have to eliminate fear. Many things in life are driven by a fear of failure. If you can get past that fear and you can create a safe environment, where everything is achievable because you’re not afraid of failure, then you might not know the answer right away when you embark on this journey of discovery, but, eventually, you just iterate your way into it. So that’s the way you can be successful.

It’s more of a way of working than an actual body of knowledge. You can always get the knowledge by bringing the right team members in and using the right resources, but I think the way of working is very important, to have this mindset that we can do it. We just have to make some mistakes along the way until we figure it out.

Host: Do you have a multidisciplinary team?

Mueller: Absolutely. ISRU is called In-Situ Resource Utilization. It’s an intersection of many technologies. It’s actually quite humbling to work on ISRU because you’ll never know everything. You have to rely on your teammates. We have chemical engineers. We have physicists. We have mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, software programmers. We have even ergonomic specialists on how robots interact with the crew. We have management teams, project management. So, it’s multidisciplinary and everybody is important.

You just need all these different skills interacting with each other, because the main thing in this space resource utilization is it’s very similar to a mining operation on Earth. First, you have to find the resource. That means prospecting. Then you have to acquire the resource. That means you have to mine it. Then you have to process the resource. So that’s some kind of chemical engineering.

Then you have to transfer the resource into a tank, for example, for a cryogenic propellant. Then you have to store it and condition it and load it onto the rocket. Then you have to operate that rocket. So, there are many disciplines interacting and it really requires teamwork.

Host: Are there lessons learned or experiences you’ve had with Swamp Works that might be helpful to NASA’s technical workforce?

Mueller: Well, there are a lot of experiences that we’ve had. I think the fact that you have a good team with a good attitude is very important, but then you also have to have the skills. So technical competence is very important. That means it’s a lifelong learning process.

We have a young team, the ages between 25 and 35, but we also have older team members with experience to guide the younger team members. But even the older team members, because we’re on the frontier, we’re constantly learning. There is no right answer on the frontier. So, when somebody asks you, “Where is the water on the Moon?” there is no answer. We haven’t really discovered the answer to that question yet.

So, there’s a lot of room for curiosity. You constantly have to recalibrate your thinking, because what you thought was correct one day, it turns out we have some new information now and it’s completely changed the way we think about where the resources are.

So, in this business, when you’re on the frontier, you have to be extremely flexible. Maybe that’s what we’ve learned. We’ve learned how to be flexible and react very quickly to change. And if you’re on the frontier and you want to survive, that’s a very important characteristic to have.

Host: In terms of the way you do business, are there elements of the Swamp Works approach that could be applied effectively in other NASA programs and projects?

Mueller: I think there are many lessons to be learned from an innovation environment that can be applied to a big organization, but the trouble is scale. When you scale an organization up, it becomes difficult. The communication becomes difficult and interaction becomes difficult.

There have been many studies done on this, but the way you can apply these lessons from an innovation environment to a large organization is you have to split up into smaller units. So, you take a large organization and you split it into smaller work units, and then you have those small teams working independently, but then interacting with each other on a regular basis.

But really, size is a big driver of inefficiencies. So, to be lean and effective and efficient, you have to reduce size, but a large organization is difficult to control. So, the key to making that work is to split the large organization up into smaller work units and then have good interfaces. That’s just typical of any systems engineering problem, but if you apply that to a large organization, I think that is one of the lessons learned from our experience.

Host: Do you think that’s something that NASA is doing well, especially as we prepare for these next bold missions?

Mueller: Well, NASA has to evolve with the mission. NASA has done very well with the mission it had in the past, but the mission is changing and the world is changing and technology is changing. Before, the government in the 1950s and ’60s, we talked about spin-out. The government provided the funds. These organizations developed the technology, and then we spun that out to private industry and commercialized it.

But in fact, today it’s much more complex. We have spin-out and we have spin-in, and it’s a constant interaction between spinning out and spinning in. But there’s also much more spin-in than there was in the past, because industry is working so effectively. You just have to look at the rate of change of computer processing, the new chipsets that are coming out and other technologies, optics, lasers, all kinds of things, communications, even things like harmonic drives for robotics. It’s all changing.

So instead of the government developing it all, we can take advantage of things that are happening in private industry, and we call that spin-in. So, there’s a constant interaction and NASA has to change the way it’s working because the world is changing. You have to adapt to your environment.

That’s a challenge for a government agency, because a government agency is driven by bureaucratic processes. That is NASA’s biggest challenge, how to operate in a way which is more efficient and can do more with less resources.

Host: How does Swamp Works collaborate with other NASA centers, industry and academia to find solutions to challenges of traveling longer and farther from our home planet?

Mueller: That’s a great question. We’re a small team. We only have 25 to 50 people at any given time in the Swamp Works labs. There are six labs. But we have a footprint of thousands, and the way we do that is by partnering.

In fact, in our lab we have a banner hanging on the wall. For each successful partnership that we’ve had, we’ve put up a banner celebrating that partnership. We couldn’t do it without our partners. We have private industry partners. We have a lot of university partners, and we have other government agency partners as well.

We work with the U.S. Army. We worked with Oak Ridge National Labs. We’ve worked with many universities. We have the Small Business Innovative Research Program, SBIR, which specializes in giving seed money to small businesses, so that they can develop new technologies and launch their businesses.

So really, we have a high degree of leveraging, and the way we leverage is by awarding contracts, government contracts to universities and private industry. That’s the key. We have 50 people doing the work of 5,000, because we do this very effective partnering.

Host: And the partnering and the collaboration, that goes across other NASA centers as well?

Mueller: Absolutely. Every center specializes in something different. We try to avoid duplication. So, we have specialization centers of excellence, where different field centers—there’s nine field centers at NASA and NASA Headquarters—and each center has a different expertise domain.

So, we call up the centers that have the expertise and we partner with them. We meet each other regularly at conferences and other workshops. So, there is a community that crosses all the centers.

Host: Rob, it’s been a real pleasure having you on the show today. We really do appreciate you joining us.

Mueller: Thanks for the opportunity. It’s been great talking to you.

Host: Is there anything else that we didn’t cover that you’d like to talk about ?

Mueller: Well, our goal at Swamp Works is to expand civilization into the solar system for the benefit of humanity. This is a grand challenge that the next generation really embraces. In fact, I saw the other day that NASA was in the top five of entities that graduating seniors would like to work for.

So, this is also about inspiring the next generations. When you do great things, you attract great minds. That’s what we’d like to do is attract the best thinkers and creative individuals that we can find to go solve this grand challenge of expanding civilization into the solar system. I think we’re doing that, and we are welcoming everybody that’s willing to work on this and inspiring the next generation.

Host: You’ll find links to topics mentioned on the show, along with Rob’s bio and a transcript, at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast.

If you have suggestions for interview topics, please let us know on Twitter at NASA APPEL, and use the hashtag SmallStepsGiantLeaps.

Thanks for listening

Rob Mueller: Our goal at Swamp Works is to expand civilization into the solar system for the benefit of humanity. This is a grand challenge that the next generation really embraces.

So, if you want to build a small outpost, which turns into a village, which turns into a town and eventually a city on the Moon or Mars, you have to use local resources.

The future of space is going to be manufacturing in space, and we will manufacture many useful things, but they won’t necessarily come back to Earth. Most of them will be used in space.

Deana Nunley (Host): You’re listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps – a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast featuring interviews and stories, tapping into project experiences in order to unravel lessons learned, identify best practices and discover novel ideas.

I’m Deana Nunley.

Swamp Works is an innovation environment at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center where new technologies are developed for space exploration. Rob Mueller is a senior technologist and co-founder of the NASA Swamp Works innovation labs and joins us now.

Rob, thank you for talking with us.

Mueller: Pleasure talking to you.

Host: How does Swamp Works set the stage for technology breakthroughs?

Mueller: Well, the rules are a little bit different at Swamp Works. We really went back to our roots at NASA and we do a lot of hands-on development. It’s basically a way we used to work, where you do a lot of rapid prototyping. You learn very quickly from your mistakes, and sometimes we say we fail fast forward. That means we’re not afraid to make a mistake and learn very quickly from our mistakes, as long as they’re safe, and we move forward in a much quicker way than you would with traditional technology development. This is the way they used to do things in Apollo, when we had a lot of missions and a lot of spectacular failures, but also very rapid progress.

Host: How do you think the Swamp Works approach is contributing to our next adventure in space exploration?

Mueller: We have a big challenge given to us by the president and vice president to put a man and woman on the Moon by 2024. This is going to take extreme focus and a way of working which is extremely efficient. We can’t do this in the normal way. We have to really try to change the way we do business, and one of the ways of doing this is with rapid development in a lean development environment. That’s what Swamp Works specializes in, just going straight to the prototyping phase, and then we use the Technology Readiness Level scale, which is the typical way you develop technologies at NASA.

So, at 1, there’s a new idea. That’s a brand new formulation of an idea. At 9, it means the idea has actually been built and has been flown in space on a routine basis. So, in our lab, we typically work between 1 and 6, TRL 1 and 6. The way you do that is through a rapid cycle of design-test-build, and then you do it again—design-test-build. Usually, by about the third or fourth iteration, you have a good product.

Host: What do you think the next crew headed to the Moon and beyond might be taking with them that originated from scientific discovery and technology development at Swamp Works?

Mueller: We have some really interesting technologies. One of the exciting new things we’re working on is a dust shield. Many people remember the Apollo missions, and we learned a lot on the Apollo missions about dust. In fact, the Apollo astronauts said that dust was going to be the biggest operational problem we’ll have when we go back to the Moon.

In fact, this dust is crushed rock. It’s very fine. It’s like talcum powder, but it’s also very sharp. Imagine talcum powder that’s formed of crushed glass. That’s kind of what it is. It’s crushed rock in a very small particle size. Because there’s no humidity on the Moon—it’s a vacuum—there’s also high electrostatic charges that accumulate on these little particles. So they stick to everything and that’s a big challenge.

So, we’ve developed an electrodynamic dust shield. Imagine a camera with a lens that is dusty, and if you turn the switch on this special dust shield that we’ve developed, the dust is repelled by electrodynamic forces. So that’s one of the things I expect that the astronauts will be using, dust shields and other technologies that will help you live and work on the surface of the Moon.

Host: How would you gauge the progress right now of that technology and the work that you’re doing?

Mueller: Most of our technology is at about the TRL 4 or 5 level. Then when we get to 6, that’s when we test it in a relevant environment. So that requires a little bit more budget, where you need a vacuum chamber, a thermal vacuum chamber. So, most of our technology is about 4 or 5.

At that point, typically in technology development you hit what’s known as the valley of death. That’s when a technology has gone as far as it can in a lab. It’s ready to go out into the field, into a relevant environment, but it just hasn’t got the funding to go do that. That’s typical of any technology development program, and that’s the challenge, to make it through the valley of death.

Host: And these technologies that you’re working on now, for missions to the Moon especially, where are they on the TRL scale?

Mueller: We work mostly on technologies to do with resource utilization. Sometimes we call that living off the land in space. What that means is that you don’t bring it with you. You make it in space. In fact, there’s a lot of energy in space from the sun and there are many resources in the regolith. So, if we can mine the regolith, we actually dig it up with robots, and then we put it into a processor and we extract useful things out of the regolith like oxygen and hydrogen, aluminum, titanium, magnesium, all these very useful things. We can extract them out of the regolith.

Those are the kinds of technologies we are developing. Most of those are proven here on Earth, but they’ve never actually flown in space. So that puts them at about TRL 5 or 6. That’s where most of the technologies are right now.

Host: When you look at those technologies, like with the regolith and the technologies you’re working, do you think that Swamp Works is making a big contribution toward our future missions?

Mueller: Absolutely, because it’s just not sustainable. We can go into space and we can plant a flag and we can take pictures of the footprints, and everybody celebrates that. But if you’re not going back because you haven’t done it in a sustainable way, then, really, that’s shortchanging our future. So, the only way we’re going to really make a difference and expand our economy into space so that everybody can thrive and prosper, really, the only way you can do it is by being self-reliant in space using local resources. It’s just too expensive to lift everything out of Earth’s gravity well.

Most of the energy you need to go into space is just getting out of Earth’s gravity well. Once you’re in space, then the cost of transportation is relatively cheap, because you’re outside of that gravity well. So, the key to sustainable space exploration is to use local resources, and that’s what we’re doing in our lab, and I think that’s going to make a big difference in the future.

Host: When you are looking forward to the missions and trying to be sustainable, what are some of the things that come to your mind that you’re like, “Oh, wow. I wish we could…” Fill in the blank. What are those things?

Mueller: I wish we could find water. The water is there. The big difference between 20 years ago and today is that there’s more and more evidence that there is actually a lot of water in our solar system. Now most of the water is beyond the frost belt. The frost line is where the asteroid belt is. Beyond that, there are many volatiles. In fact, comets are volatiles that are coming in from the outer solar system into the inner solar system. That tail behind the comet, those are the volatiles that are subliming. You see them streaking away behind the comet. So that’s evidence of some volatiles.

A lot of times these volatiles, these are gases. Sometimes those volatiles are in the form of water. Water ice. And the water ice vaporizes. But water is the key to life. And if we go into the solar system, we need water to survive. We need water for consumption, human consumption, life support. We need it to grow plants. It’s also very good for radiation shielding. And if you electrolyze the water, you turn it into hydrogen and oxygen, and that’s the best chemical rocket propellant that you can find. It has a very high specific impulse. In fact, that’s what the space shuttle used. So, if we find water in space, that’s going to be the big breakthrough because it will let us use the water for transportation purposes and also just to survive.

Host: What are you working on at the moment that you think has high likelihood of being a game changer?

Mueller: One of the best technologies we have in our lab is 3-D printing with regolith concrete. You can imagine that it’s not very practical to launch concrete or steel I-beams into space. That’s typically how we do construction on Earth, with concrete and steel, but that’s just not going to work in space. That’s too much mass, too much volume. So, if you want to build a small outpost, which turns into a village, which turns into a town and eventually a city on the Moon or Mars, you have to use local resources.

So, what we’ve done is we’ve invented a new type of concrete, and the concrete uses the regolith. The regolith is the crushed rock on the surface of the Moon and Mars that’s been formed by meteorites and comets and other high-energy impact events over four and a half billion years. So, you have a lot of crushed rock on the surface of the Moon.

On Earth, we call that crushed rock aggregate, and aggregate is one of the main components of concrete. So, if we take the aggregate and mix it with a binder, we now have a lunar or Martian concrete, and we can 3-D print with that new material by using advanced robotics and autonomous software. If we take all those three technologies and combine them together, we have a new way of automated additive construction. What’s really exciting about it is this technology that we can use in space; you can also use it on Earth. That is really the ultimate technology, when it has a benefit in space and on Earth. I think that’s going to be a big game changer, when we can 3-D print a house in a very short period of time, for about 10 percent of the cost of what your house would cost today.

Host: That sounds amazing. How optimistic are you that this is all going to come to pass, and what do you envision building in space?

Mueller: Well, the evidence is out there that technology is accelerating. The rate of change is getting faster and faster. You just have to think about computers and Moore’s Law, where the processing speed of a computer chip is doubling over a period of about one and a half to two years. So, this is happening. It’s exponential growth. In fact, it’s hard to keep up with it because it’s happening so quickly.

But when you take all these technologies and the way they’re accelerating, it just gives you endless new possibilities. So, we have all the materials. We have all the energy in space. We’re starting to get the technologies that are necessary. So, the only thing that’s missing is the human imagination to put all these puzzle pieces together and make something useful.

So, the key to all of this is when you’re in space, don’t bring it from Earth. Make it there. The future of space is going to be manufacturing in space, and we will manufacture many useful things, but they won’t necessarily come back to Earth. Most of them will be used in space. Then we might do other things which will benefit the Earth, which we can’t even imagine yet. But a few things people have talked about is beaming energy back to Earth, or there is a fiber optic that you can only make in zero gravity that is much more pure than the fiber optic you can find on Earth, which has much higher transmission rates for data. So, there are potentially useful products that can be used on Earth as well, but most of the products in space will be made for use in space, and then we’ll derive value from that for Earth by using them in space.

Host: Rob, you’ve been doing this for a while. What stands out to you as the biggest Swamp Works achievements so far?

Mueller: So far, I’m really proud that we exist at all. We’ve built a great team. We have a great facility, and we’ve developed a new way of working, which isn’t really that new. We’ve been doing it for many years in other industries and previously in the Apollo days, but we’ve reintroduced that to the new generation of workers.

So, I’m really proud of the fact that we have a good team. Now when you have a good team, we can do anything, anything that NASA asks us to do. Given enough imagination and resources, we can probably get it done, and that’s a very valuable mindset to be in, and if you’re in that mindset, that’s the key to success.

What I’m proud of is that we’ve managed to build robots that can mine on the Moon. We’re building 3-D printers that can 3-D print with concrete. We’re working on swarming robot technology and a variety of other investigations. We’re looking at how rocket plumes interact with the surface. So, when you land, there’s going to be a big jet of rocket exhaust plume hitting the surface and that’s going to eject particles at 2,000 – 3,000 meters per second. That’s four or five times faster than a speeding bullet. So, these are all things that have very practical applications when you do space exploration.

So, these technologies will be extremely necessary when we go and live in space, and we’re just getting started. So, the main thing that I’m proud of is that we’ve built this team and we have the right mindset to tackle these audacious tasks. That in itself I think is the highest value.

Host: From a team perspective, what makes it possible for Swamp Works to make such amazing technology advancements?

Mueller: A lot of it is that you have to eliminate fear. Many things in life are driven by a fear of failure. If you can get past that fear and you can create a safe environment, where everything is achievable because you’re not afraid of failure, then you might not know the answer right away when you embark on this journey of discovery, but, eventually, you just iterate your way into it. So that’s the way you can be successful.

It’s more of a way of working than an actual body of knowledge. You can always get the knowledge by bringing the right team members in and using the right resources, but I think the way of working is very important, to have this mindset that we can do it. We just have to make some mistakes along the way until we figure it out.

Host: Do you have a multidisciplinary team?

Mueller: Absolutely. ISRU is called In-Situ Resource Utilization. It’s an intersection of many technologies. It’s actually quite humbling to work on ISRU because you’ll never know everything. You have to rely on your teammates. We have chemical engineers. We have physicists. We have mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, software programmers. We have even ergonomic specialists on how robots interact with the crew. We have management teams, project management. So, it’s multidisciplinary and everybody is important.

You just need all these different skills interacting with each other, because the main thing in this space resource utilization is it’s very similar to a mining operation on Earth. First, you have to find the resource. That means prospecting. Then you have to acquire the resource. That means you have to mine it. Then you have to process the resource. So that’s some kind of chemical engineering.

Then you have to transfer the resource into a tank, for example, for a cryogenic propellant. Then you have to store it and condition it and load it onto the rocket. Then you have to operate that rocket. So, there are many disciplines interacting and it really requires teamwork.

Host: Are there lessons learned or experiences you’ve had with Swamp Works that might be helpful to NASA’s technical workforce?

Mueller: Well, there are a lot of experiences that we’ve had. I think the fact that you have a good team with a good attitude is very important, but then you also have to have the skills. So technical competence is very important. That means it’s a lifelong learning process.

We have a young team, the ages between 25 and 35, but we also have older team members with experience to guide the younger team members. But even the older team members, because we’re on the frontier, we’re constantly learning. There is no right answer on the frontier. So, when somebody asks you, “Where is the water on the Moon?” there is no answer. We haven’t really discovered the answer to that question yet.

So, there’s a lot of room for curiosity. You constantly have to recalibrate your thinking, because what you thought was correct one day, it turns out we have some new information now and it’s completely changed the way we think about where the resources are.

So, in this business, when you’re on the frontier, you have to be extremely flexible. Maybe that’s what we’ve learned. We’ve learned how to be flexible and react very quickly to change. And if you’re on the frontier and you want to survive, that’s a very important characteristic to have.

Host: In terms of the way you do business, are there elements of the Swamp Works approach that could be applied effectively in other NASA programs and projects?

Mueller: I think there are many lessons to be learned from an innovation environment that can be applied to a big organization, but the trouble is scale. When you scale an organization up, it becomes difficult. The communication becomes difficult and interaction becomes difficult.

There have been many studies done on this, but the way you can apply these lessons from an innovation environment to a large organization is you have to split up into smaller units. So, you take a large organization and you split it into smaller work units, and then you have those small teams working independently, but then interacting with each other on a regular basis.

But really, size is a big driver of inefficiencies. So, to be lean and effective and efficient, you have to reduce size, but a large organization is difficult to control. So, the key to making that work is to split the large organization up into smaller work units and then have good interfaces. That’s just typical of any systems engineering problem, but if you apply that to a large organization, I think that is one of the lessons learned from our experience.

Host: Do you think that’s something that NASA is doing well, especially as we prepare for these next bold missions?

Mueller: Well, NASA has to evolve with the mission. NASA has done very well with the mission it had in the past, but the mission is changing and the world is changing and technology is changing. Before, the government in the 1950s and ’60s, we talked about spin-out. The government provided the funds. These organizations developed the technology, and then we spun that out to private industry and commercialized it.

But in fact, today it’s much more complex. We have spin-out and we have spin-in, and it’s a constant interaction between spinning out and spinning in. But there’s also much more spin-in than there was in the past, because industry is working so effectively. You just have to look at the rate of change of computer processing, the new chipsets that are coming out and other technologies, optics, lasers, all kinds of things, communications, even things like harmonic drives for robotics. It’s all changing.

So instead of the government developing it all, we can take advantage of things that are happening in private industry, and we call that spin-in. So, there’s a constant interaction and NASA has to change the way it’s working because the world is changing. You have to adapt to your environment.

That’s a challenge for a government agency, because a government agency is driven by bureaucratic processes. That is NASA’s biggest challenge, how to operate in a way which is more efficient and can do more with less resources.

Host: How does Swamp Works collaborate with other NASA centers, industry and academia to find solutions to challenges of traveling longer and farther from our home planet?

Mueller: That’s a great question. We’re a small team. We only have 25 to 50 people at any given time in the Swamp Works labs. There are six labs. But we have a footprint of thousands, and the way we do that is by partnering.

In fact, in our lab we have a banner hanging on the wall. For each successful partnership that we’ve had, we’ve put up a banner celebrating that partnership. We couldn’t do it without our partners. We have private industry partners. We have a lot of university partners, and we have other government agency partners as well.

We work with the U.S. Army. We worked with Oak Ridge National Labs. We’ve worked with many universities. We have the Small Business Innovative Research Program, SBIR, which specializes in giving seed money to small businesses, so that they can develop new technologies and launch their businesses.

So really, we have a high degree of leveraging, and the way we leverage is by awarding contracts, government contracts to universities and private industry. That’s the key. We have 50 people doing the work of 5,000, because we do this very effective partnering.

Host: And the partnering and the collaboration, that goes across other NASA centers as well?

Mueller: Absolutely. Every center specializes in something different. We try to avoid duplication. So, we have specialization centers of excellence, where different field centers—there’s nine field centers at NASA and NASA Headquarters—and each center has a different expertise domain.

So, we call up the centers that have the expertise and we partner with them. We meet each other regularly at conferences and other workshops. So, there is a community that crosses all the centers.

Host: Rob, it’s been a real pleasure having you on the show today. We really do appreciate you joining us.

Mueller: Thanks for the opportunity. It’s been great talking to you.

Host: Is there anything else that we didn’t cover that you’d like to talk about ?

Mueller: Well, our goal at Swamp Works is to expand civilization into the solar system for the benefit of humanity. This is a grand challenge that the next generation really embraces. In fact, I saw the other day that NASA was in the top five of entities that graduating seniors would like to work for.

So, this is also about inspiring the next generations. When you do great things, you attract great minds. That’s what we’d like to do is attract the best thinkers and creative individuals that we can find to go solve this grand challenge of expanding civilization into the solar system. I think we’re doing that, and we are welcoming everybody that’s willing to work on this and inspiring the next generation.

Host: You’ll find links to topics mentioned on the show, along with Rob’s bio and a transcript, at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast.

If you have suggestions for interview topics, please let us know on Twitter at NASA APPEL, and use the hashtag SmallStepsGiantLeaps.

Thanks for listening.