Monsi Roman, NASA Centennial Challenges Program Manager, discusses the agency’s flagship prizes and competition program.
The Centennial Challenges Program directly engages the public in the process of advanced technology development and currently includes four active competitions and several challenges in formulation for a total prize purse over $12 million. Roman shares highlights of competitions designed to generate revolutionary solutions to problems of interest to NASA and the nation.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- Innovative designs from the 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge
- Advancing the field of regenerative medicine via the Vascular Tissue Challenge
- A challenge to provide astronauts tasty, nutritious food on long-duration missions
Monsi Roman is the NASA Centennial Challenges Program Manager. Roman manages the day-to-day operations of the agency flagship prizes and competition program, which supports technology development under the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. She previously held several positions at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. From 1989 to 2013, Roman served as the International Space Station Life Support Chief Microbiologist as part of a small team of scientists and engineers that developed and tested the water and air systems currently keeping the crew alive on the space station. She has also served as project manager for the development of the next generation of life support systems that could be used during a mission to Mars. Roman has a bachelor’s in biology with a major in microbiology from the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras and a master’s in microbiology with a minor in chemistry from the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Monsi Roman: NASA Centennial Challenges, it’s a program that invites the public to come and help NASA solve really, really hard problems. There are technology gaps that we need to solve in order for us to be able to send our humans to Moon, Mars and beyond.
Deana Nunley (Host): That’s Monsi Roman. She’s the NASA Centennial Challenges Program Manager, and is our guest today on Small Steps, Giant Leaps. I’m Deana Nunley.
Welcome to our NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast that taps into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.
Monsi, thank you for joining us.
Roman: Oh, it is my pleasure to be here today.
Host: What makes the Centennial Challenges Program unique?
Roman: What makes it unique and what I love about the program is that the solutions that come for these technology gaps that we are addressing come from the public, from people that sometimes have not been working with NASA in the past. And so they are unique and very innovative solutions. And because they do not know the history and they do not know the no’s and they do not know all the things that are already programmed in our NASA groups, the solutions sometimes are super cool and provide us with kind of a fresh view of what could be the possibilities for the future.
Host: So the challenges themselves are very intriguing. Let’s explore five competitions that you’re working on now. And one that seems to have garnered a lot of attention and produced novel concepts and solutions is the 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge. Could you talk about that?
Roman: Yes. So we closed that competition after five years in May 2019. And that competition was started in 2015, where we were asking people to come and help us dream. What will a house on Mars look like if you could actually autonomously 3-D print it using materials that you find on the surface of the planet you’re in and recyclables? The trip to Mars is going to take a while, so you could potentially accumulate a lot of trash, and using that trash and using what surface materials you had available, we can 3-D print houses. So we started with asking the public – use your imagination, architectural designs – what could it look like?
And the designs we got were amazing. They were truly amazing and so different from what we were used to seeing from our NASA counterparts and contractors. And for you to have an idea how bold this was when we started asking people about it – and when we started early 2015, houses did not have 3-D printer –there was not a possibility for you to have a small 3-D printer in your house yet. They were at industry. And if you needed something 3-D printed, it was very – it was the start of the industry, truly. So imagining that you could barely make a little trinket with it, imagine trying to make a whole house with it.
So it was really bold and very – it was interesting. People were like, “I don’t think we can do this.” So now go back to our competition in May 2019, where we asked these teams to come and actually build a subscale of these houses, and they actually did it. They actually built amazing houses, subscale houses that even the NASA and industry people were wowed with them. Because when we started the competitions, the judges came and told me, “I don’t think this is going to happen. Once they start 3-D printing the houses, we expect them to start collapsing.” Well, that did not happen. So – and these are experts, construction experts, you know?
Roman: It was awesome.
Host: And so talk to us a little bit more about that. So they started doing the 3-D printing. And they’re really looking at it for space applications, but did it go beyond space applications as they really got into the process?
Roman: Yes. We had very, very strong support from industry – Earth-based industry interested, and venture capital interested in what was happening, what we were incentivizing. Because – there’s several reasons. But one of them is the industry is having issues finding enough workers to do construction, and construction in major cities is expensive for workers to stay at. So they’re – they have a problem contracting and keeping personnel for building.
And the thought of being able to do at least part of it autonomously was of a lot of interest to the – to the industry. In addition, the designs are absolutely amazingly beautiful because you can do things you could not do with normal construction. So you can draw your design in CAD drawings and then actually go and build them. And they can be round and they can be – they are truly beautiful constructions. And we have amazing examples of that right now.
Host: And from this 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge, what did you learn that has space application?
Roman: So what we learned was first of all that actually, it can be done, that we could potentially use basically construction that can be guided from Earth. We could potentially even start building at least some structures, maybe some beginning of structures, before humans get to where we’re going. Of course, we have to send equipment upfront. And we also learned the fact that we have the liberty to build things that we had not thought of before. So now, the kinds of architectured houses that at some point we could build will be functional, will be purposefully designed to use the materials found on the surface of where we are and use those materials as a strength. So instead of bringing them from Earth, you use those materials.
And those materials sometimes are also good for radiation shielding. And so they can afford other advantages that just building things that we bring from Earth might not. So it’s basically the liberty to do things that we never thought we could do before, truly. They can be small places or it can be bigger places. They can be a garage kind of place. I think what it opens the doors to all kinds of concepts that we perhaps didn’t have the access to before.
Host: And as far as for people here on Earth, who are some of the people that may actually be helped by what you learned through this challenge?
Roman: So already, we’re seeing the effects of what happened as part of these. One of the companies that work with us got a contract with the city of Austin. And they’re currently 3-D printing houses for homeless in Austin. They have a contract to build a hundred houses in Austin. And I actually had the opportunity to go down there and see. When they told me, I thought, “How pretty will these houses be?” I don’t know. I had no concept.
And so when we went there, these houses are like small houses where anybody would love to live. They’re amazingly beautiful. They have one bedroom, a kitchen, a bathroom, an open area. And they’re truly – I invite you guys to go and look at what ICON Build is doing, because it is amazing.
Another of our competitors is actually helping build – two competitors are partnering to start looking at the possibility of building houses for Native Americans with their design, so they get to design their houses and then 3-D printing their houses. So that’s, right now, in talks. And then there’s another of our companies that is building an Airbnb in New York, all sustainable materials. And it’s beautiful. That’s AI SpaceFactory and their name of the build is TERA. And it is truly a beautiful concept.
Host: It’s exciting to hear you talk about the benefits extending to Earth. Is that also true for the Vascular Tissue Challenge?
Roman: Oh, my goodness, yes. That’s another of our challenges. And this one – the exciting part of this one is the possibility of helping in the future people that might need organs or that have organs that are not functioning correctly. So this is about building pieces of tissue that are fully functional, for examples, your kidney or your liver or pancreas or any other of your major organs, and keeping it alive for 30 days, completely vascularized. So all the nutrients have to go through naturally like they do in our bodies with veins and arteries. We have 22 teams right now trying to make this a reality. And the winner of this competition is going to be going to space station to actually prove that it can be done in microgravity, which the theory is that it’ll work a lot better in microgravity.
And the possibilities are amazing. So there’s a possibility that a company can take some of your tissue and actually custom build pieces of tissue for humans. This is short-term, if it works. And then in the future some of the dream part of it is it could even potentially start building organs. The group we’re working with, that’s what they want to do – eventually build organs using your own cells so there’s no rejection. It’s a big dream that we start with a little bit of baby steps with this challenge.
Host: Wow. And that sounds like it would be really important for future missions.
Roman: Oh, yes. And actually, near-term, what we’re looking at is the possibility of using those tissues to test countermeasures to keep the humans healthy. So instead of finding out what is the effect of radiation long-term on the surface of whatever, we can use tissues that will provide us that information back instead of using the humans, right? And we can also do all kinds of countermeasures, so medicines or using all the – try all the things that we think might work to keep our humans healthy and then see how the tissues handle it and then using that as information. So we can do a lot of things a lot faster.
Host: It all just sounds so interesting. Another competition that we’d like to hear more about is the CO2 Conversion Challenge.
Roman: Yes. That is one of our newer competitions. And this is about taking CO2 and converting it into glucose not using biological systems, but using physical chemical systems that we can depend on on the surface of, for example, Mars. So the reason why this is important on the surface of Mars is because glucose, it’s the most effective and the preferred nutrient for microorganisms. So we are expecting, if this works, to have basically make-on-demand kind of farms inside the habitats, where you will have microorganisms that will make basically whatever they have been programmed to make, so if it is vitamins or food or bioplastics or anything that – maybe even textiles or whatever microorganisms can make – so if you have a reliable and plentiful source of nutrients for those microorganisms, you can rotate the crops. With what you’re doing, you can keep your humans with fresh vitamins and fresh food.
And it’s amazing, the possibilities of these in the future for our humans on the surface of Mars. Can also be used on the Moon. We can use metabolic CO2 if that makes sense when the time comes. And so there’s a lot of possibilities there. On Earth, there’s also all kinds of possibilities if you can convert CO2 in this way. There’s a lot of companies that are interested in pushing the technologies and see what kind of good things we can do for Earth, too.
Host: The fourth of the five competitions that we’re talking about is the Cube Quest Challenge. Could you describe that one for us?
Roman: Cube Quest is a pushing of the technologies of CubeSats, which are small satellites that can do all kinds of things. They can be designed to do many, many things. But in this case, we’re asking these participants to design CubeSats that will help us communicate back from Mars or even the surface of the Moon in a better way. Because right now, there’s a lag between the time that you can – if you send a command from Earth, by the time Mars receives it, it’s several minutes behind. So it’s very difficult to do things from Earth, or even the communication.
So, we’re looking at how far our CubeSats can go in deep space or on the lunar orbit. And they can choose which way they want to go. They can go deep space or lunar orbit. The advancements that we’re looking for is the propulsion systems in those very harsh environments. So how far can they go, and how long they can communicate back to Earth. So we’re pushing the technology in a way that is a little bit more innovative, asking the public, “Help us with this.” And we have three winners that will be launched in our Artemis I mission. So there’s three payloads from the result of this competition that will be competing for $4.5 million. The farther they go, the longer they communicate, the more money they’ll win out of that pot. So we’re looking forward to that launch for many reasons, but also for this one.
Host: Oh, yeah. That’s going to be a fun part of the launch to watch, for sure, and to watch on the mission.
Host: The Space Robotics Challenge is the last of the current competitions that we’ll explore today. What’s going on with this one?
Roman: This one is a really cool one. We had a phase one before, where we work with humanoids. And it was a very successful competition with a lot of interest from the public and a lot of interest from competitors, where we were looking at, how can we improve the way these humanoids can reach out and grab things, not too hard, not too soft so they fall off, and how the commands can be given so there’s some kind of thought processes, “thought” in quotes here, from these humanoids. So the second phase, which we just opened, it’s about using rovers to do a lot of perhaps mining or looking for things that we need on the surface of the Moon. So we’re using them as assistants to us, but we want them to have certain amount of autonomy so they do not need a human constantly telling them, “Go here, go there. Pick it up or don’t pick it up” and allowing them to be our little explorers or big explorers depending on what ends up happening with this competition.
And so we have 121 teams that will be working the first piece of this competition, which is a qualification round. From there, we’re going to narrow it down to 25 teams. And from there, those 25 teams are going to work with us and see how we can program these rovers. Now, the amazing part of this competition is that the software that we’re using is available to anybody. So it’s free software, open source software. So we’re hoping that it does not only stay with these teams, it also helps others start to think about how we can do things in the future.
Host: What would you say makes this robotics challenge different to maybe some of the other robotics competitions that we’ve seen in previous years?
Roman: Well, this one in particular, it is very specifically addressing the service of humans on the surface of the Moon. And this is completely autonomous. Well, I guess you can think that some of the Pathfinders on Mars have some certain autonomy also. But these ones are going to be designed just to serve us for the missions that we are planning to do on the surface of the Moon. So they’re less of an explorer and in a way of analysis and such and more of a workhorse. We’re looking at them more as a workhorse for us. And the qualification round will end in the summer. And then a year later, we are going to be looking at the results of the finals.
Host: As your challenge is ongoing, do you have some insight throughout the process? Are you having to wait until the summer to kind of get surprised by what the different competitors are coming up with?
Roman: So for the first phase we had, they got to send us their bloopers. And they were hilarious because as they start programming these things, humanoids were walking in air and doing all kinds of flipping around and walking through walls while they were working on the software. And so we were showing everybody because we thought it was really funny. So we were using social media to show all kinds of bloopers the teams were giving to us. They were giving them willingly to us.
No, we’ll be watching with them as they go through the process, and so it’s going to be interesting. And then once we get to the 25 teams, we become fairly close to these teams. And so we go through the process with them. All the challenges have NASA subject matter experts and subject matter experts from other government agencies or industry that are watching closely. So this is one of them. And so the robotics subject matter experts at NASA are very interested in this, and working with them and watching what’s happening.
Host: Could you give us a preview of challenges that may be coming in the future?
Roman: Yes. Well, my personal favorite – they’re all – they are like children. They’re all favorites. But there’s – as a biologist, then – one of the new ones that I think it’s super cool – it’s one that we’re currently calling the Lunar Nutrition Challenge. And this is about building basically a box where you’re going to provide the astronauts with nutrition that tastes good for long-duration missions.
So I am kind of hoping that the end of this competition gives us sort of like a pantry that will have different boxes so they will have a variety of options for eating. They can eat – there’s spirulina, which is an algae that provides a lot of nutrient needed by humans, but the taste is not as good. But maybe we can get ideas of how to make it more appealing for consumption. We might have plants in those boxes that will provide different kinds of vitamins.
We might have – I mean, we don’t know. We are excited to see what – I mean, maybe a fungus that might taste good. We’re just excited to open the space to the public to come and tell us what solutions they think will be possible in the confined space that we’re giving them, which is not going to be a lot. And we’re thinking about the possibility of maybe old recipes from long, long time ago, from when people didn’t have as many options for food, that might be the ones that might say – or might help keep the astronauts eating something nutritious and that tastes good. So it’ll be interesting to see what happens. That, we’re hoping to open in the summer.
Host: That sounds like fun.
Roman: Yeah. Then we have another one coming on lunar power. So when we get to the surface of the Moon, we’re going to have an issue because we cannot get a cord all the way from Earth to the Moon. And the sun is not a very reliable source of power depending on where you are on the Moon. There are areas that stay dark either all the time or most of the time.
So how are we going to provide that power? How we’re going to store it and distribute it – it’s going to be a very interesting competition. Because in this one, microgrids on Earth are problems in some areas on Earth. So it’s going to be interesting to see. It’s going to have a lot of Earth application.
And then the other one, it’s kind of like the second part of the 3-D printed hab, but now we’re looking at – so we need to go and do the excavations and prepare the materials for manufacturing and construction of landing pads. And so it is the next step of, we demonstrated we can use 3-D printing to do vertical structures. Now we need to figure out how we’re going to get the materials – and they are kind of connected because space robotics can provide – maybe we can get the excavation and the robotic systems that are designed for the space robotics might be able to pick up that material and take it to where they’re going to be used to 3-D print habitat. So it’s kind of cool.
Host: For sure. Monsi, what curiosities do NASA program and project managers usually have about Centennial Challenges?
Roman: Well, I have to say that it is – it is a program that is not as well-known as I wish it was. In fact, when I started – when I was asked to start with the program – it started in 2005, by the way – I had very little information about it. So I thought it was more a game than anything else. And I was a technologist. I came from doing technologies for life-support. So I was kind of like, “I’m not sure about this.”
As you learn about the program, you realize this is – this is about technology. This is about really and true technology development path that goes fairly quickly because we’re not – normally, we don’t go all the way to flight. For example, Cube Quest, they do go all the way to flight hardware. But most of the other ones, it goes from concept to buildup and demonstration, which normally you don’t have the opportunity to do. Usually within NASA, we spend a lot of time in the design area. And sometimes we don’t go all the way to the demo part because it’s usually expensive.
And so it’s a really good way to go – to see this path all the way from you have the thought, you have the designs. And then they actually build it and they prove that they work. And they only get paid if they win. Otherwise, they don’t get paid. NASA doesn’t pay them.
The other thing that is amazing about this challenge program and has worked so well is the fact that it attracts a lot of interest from the media – and I’m not kidding about the interest, it’s incredible – and venture capital and industry. And these companies that sometimes are completely unknown get a lot of exposure and get a lot of investments. The top ones get a lot of investments. We see small companies actually flourishing because of the strong Earth application that they have. And it’s just amazing to show the public very easily, very fast, “We’re designing this for space, but look how – ” we’re building houses for the homeless. We can build houses in a – Africa right now is very interested in a lot of these technologies.
So we’re doing good for Earth, too. And it’s very easy to find. The connections are very much there. It is very hard, if you only see the outside of it, to see all those wonderful things that are within the program that maybe people are not aware are available.
Host: When our NASA program and project managers do get to see kind of the inside of Centennial Challenges, what sort of a reaction do they typically have? What do you hear from them?
Roman: A change of heart. No kidding. When we started working with our group in Glenn for lunar power, we had to tell them, “Just trust the system. We’re going to be working on ideation and working with industry.” We are a program that is about making people very uncomfortable upfront. Because we’re putting in the same room people that never work – normally, not all at once, work together.
So we’re working industry, academia, other government agencies, sometime even other countries – Canada is very interested and we’re going to look and see how we can incorporate them also – and just put them in the room and say, “OK, this is the need. We have to provide power or provide food. Based on your experience – ” and they come from all over the – sometimes the world, “how would you start looking into this?” And the amount of information that is shared and the networking opportunities and the ideas that come out are incredible. And these engineers after – they’re like, “I wasn’t sure about this first, but I’m sold now.” So truly, they understand. They get to work a little bit up front, and then they basically let the public come back and give us their solutions.
Now, those solutions belong to the public. We do – NASA does not take this IP. That belongs to the people that came up with the technology. So they can go and patent if they want. And we’re – these small businesses or small groups can start becoming businesses on their own. And so it is – it is really amazing to see how it all works out.
Host: What do you like most about Centennial Challenges and the work you’re doing?
Roman: I was thinking about that the other day because there’s so many things that are amazing. But I actually think the thing I like the most is the people. You get to work with such a diverse group of people. And they’re all focused on solving a problem that has so many ways of making our world better and long-term missions better also.
So I think the people is – our team is amazing. It’s a very diverse team, incredibly diverse team to begin with, from backgrounds and cultures. And then you amplify that by bringing all the people you work with outside, and it truly is refreshing. Everybody has the same goal in mind. We all want to solve a problem, right? But we’re coming from so many different places. And so the agency benefits so much from this looking at things in a different way. That’s what I like the most.
Host: Monsi, this has been so interesting. And I really do appreciate you taking the time to join us. It’s a different twist. It’s different than other topics that we’ve had on the podcast before. We just really do appreciate you taking time to talk with us today.
Roman: I promise you this works. And if anybody’s interested in looking at the possibility – there’s many ways NASA does prizes and competitions. This is only one way. This is the biggest program that NASA has prize-wise and the way we put the competitions, but there are also smaller ways that NASA does prizes and competition. So, I really would like for people to be curious and look into them and go through the process. And I promise you, you go through one of these processes, you’re going to be hooked.
Host: Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you’d want to mention before we close?
Roman: Again, I just want people to be curious. And our group is available to talk if you want to come and learn more about this process. And thank you so very much for giving us the opportunity to talk to a different kind of group that we normally talk to. And it truly works, I promise.
Host: You’ll find links to topics discussed on the show along with Monsi’s bio and a transcript of today’s episode on our website at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast.
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