NASA Game Changing Development Program Executive Niki Werkheiser discusses advancement of space technologies that could lead to new approaches for future space missions.
The Space Technology Mission Directorate’s Game Changing Development (GCD) Program collaborates with research and development teams to rapidly move discoveries from the laboratory to application. Through analytical modeling, ground-based testing and spaceflight demonstration of payloads and experiments, GCD develops capabilities and innovative ideas from academia, industry, NASA and other government agencies.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- Game-changing technologies for living on the Moon
- Balancing programmatic vigor and technical rigor in technology development
- Novel approaches to collaboration and partnerships
Niki Werkheiser is the Game Changing Development Program Executive for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. Werkheiser brings a wealth of expertise and a proven approach to managing complex projects across NASA centers, industry partners and academia. She has built and managed the agency’s In-Space Manufacturing efforts, including the development and implementation of novel, on-demand manufacturing, repair and recycling capabilities on the International Space Station (ISS). Werkheiser spent the majority of her career in NASA’s Space Shuttle and ISS Payload Offices where she designed, developed, integrated and operated multiple NASA payloads. She has bachelor’s degrees in biology and Russian studies and a master’s in gravitational biology from the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Niki Werkheiser: If we’re really going to evolve these technologies from lab curiosities to institutionalized capabilities, then we absolutely cannot allow ourselves to get too immersed into group think or to marry to singular development paths.
You truly do get to witness transformational technologies come to life in real time.
Deana Nunley (Host): We’re glad you’re along with us today for Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
NASA’s Game Changing Development Program is advancing space technologies that could lead to completely new approaches for future missions as well as solutions to significant national needs.
Game Changing Development Program Executive Niki Werkheiser is our guest today on the podcast.
Niki, thank you for joining us.
Werkheiser: So happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
Host: What is the Game Changing Development Program?
Werkheiser: So, the Game Changing Development Program is part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. This program advances our space technologies that can help us lead to entirely new approaches for our agency’s future space missions. And the way we do this is we collaborate with research and development teams to progress to the most promising ideas. And we do it through analytical modeling, ground-based testing and space flight demonstrations for payloads and experiments, either on space station — and you’ll hear some today about — on the lunar surface. And for Game Changing, we really focus on what we call the mid technology readiness levels, which is the range of 3-6, for those that are familiar with that, which really means that we generally take technologies all the way from the initial lab concepts through a complete engineering development prototypes.
And the way that we really employed this is through a balanced approach of guiding the technology development efforts and our competitively selected efforts from really across academia, industry, in-house at NASA, of course, and other government agencies. And then we strive to develop really the best ideas and capabilities irrespective of their source. So we have a very interesting balance of work and folks that we get to work with.
Host: Would you say Game Changing Development is unique among NASA programs?
Werkheiser: In terms of program structure GCD, we’re in our ninth year of execution, and we have a portfolio of about 83 projects and tasks. So it’s quite large and diverse. This does include, as I mentioned, our in-house efforts that are being implemented by more than about 250 civil servants across our seven NASA centers, but approximately about 45 percent of the current activities are in collaboration with 40-plus of our industry partners, dozens of universities, and multiple other government agencies.
So really speaking to your question, managing technology development programs, in general, comes with unique challenges. So, many of the efforts are inherently higher risk, and we will face a significant technology and technical hurdles along the way. That’s part of the process. And so realistically, this does result in schedule and budget risk and issues all along the way, which makes it kind of a unique program to manage.
And then furthermore, when you look at Game Changing, the fact that we do work in that mid-TRL capability area, which is lovingly referred to as the valley of death, when you’re looking at technology readiness, this TRL 4-6 range requires really bridging the gap between academic research, which usually falls between the 1-4 TRL range and industry commercialization, which is more like the 7-9 range.
And so that does make it unique. And then when you combine with that, that most of the NASA work force, for most of us technology development is a learned skill, based on experience rather than a degree. So, often our engineers and even our resource managers and lawyers, it can sometimes be a little uncomfortable managing those unknowns that are really intrinsic to technology development.
So, in terms of managing the project, it is somewhat unique in that you really have to anticipate and incorporate that into the programmatic planning in order to really successfully increase that technology readiness level and progress on to the infusion capabilities.
And so what we have found is that with creative and flexible thinking, and we combine that with the agile mechanisms that we have to work with our NASA centers and industry and academia, a lot of times what we initially perceive is those hurdles really become more opportunities for even greater technical and process disruption. And for me, I’ve found that’s actually one of the most rewarding aspects of this whole technology development process.
So, if I had to say what makes it unique, it’s kind of finding that secret sauce that you have to find for leading these types of developments, and it’s a real conscious balance of programmatic vigor and technical rigor in how you develop the technologies.
Host: What’s most exciting about working with this program?
Werkheiser: Oh, wow. A lot of things really. If I had to narrow it down, when I think about what I really love most about working with Game Changing, one of my favorite quotes is, I can’t help, but to think of that, and it was by Henry Ford. And he said about inventing the car, ‘If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said faster horses.’
So, I find that that is just as true today with technology development, because as humans, we can really easily grasp or understand what the ultimate capability is that we desire, but what the new technology may look like is still very unknown, right? So, I grew up in the 80s when my friends and I were all imagining what the 21st century would be like. And so, when we thought of that, we always thought, for sure, we’d have our flying cars. And, of course, it goes without saying that we don’t have those in every garage quite yet. But guess what, we do have the Internet.
And so, we have phones now that we can hold in our hands that are quite literally millions of times more powerful than the Apollo 11 guidance computers. And who could have saw that coming. Right? So for me, the most exciting thing about technology development is that you truly do get to witness transformational technologies come to life in real time.
And sometimes you don’t realize even in that second, the meaning of that moment, but you can look back on it and realize how pivotal that really is. And, of course, not every technology works out, but when they do, it truly is, well, game-changing, and not just in space, but it’s just as rewarding right here on earth to see how all these capabilities make life better for all of us.
Host: Working with the Game Changing program, are you generating or discovering novel approaches to collaboration and partnership?
Werkheiser: Absolutely. And I think being able to do that is just as pivotal as the technologies themselves. If we’re really going to evolve these technologies from lab curiosities to institutionalized capabilities, then we absolutely cannot allow ourselves to get too immersed into group think or to marry to singular development paths, which for any large agency, any large group at all, is just a risk that you run.
So, in order to really meet those challenges, we’ve developed a keen sense of combining flexibility and agile planning, and then pairing our internal and external resources with public-private partnerships and those sorts of mechanisms in ways that really leverage our relative government, industry and university strengths.
So, there is so much opportunity for collaborations in this mid TRL range, being that we really are bridging, as I mentioned, that proverbial valley of death between that lower TRL, which is more research and development focused with our academia and university communities, and then the higher TRL with demonstrations, which is more with industry. So it leaves us a lot of opportunity, and we are incredibly fortunate that we do have so many amazing collaborative tools in our toolbox within the agency that we can employ and in a multitude of ways.
So, for example, some of these might include crowdsourcing and Centennial Challenges, SBIRs. We flew actually three novel ISS demonstrations in the area of 3D printing in space in just under six years using the SBIR program. And other opportunities like our NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts. These are further out, very novel ideas, but we also have what they call phase three NIACs, which are somewhat new. We have one right now that’s exploring lunar pits with Astrobotic and Carnegie Mellon, for example.
And then the whole Space Technology Research Grants opportunities, where we have research institutes and early career faculty at universities that we employ, broad agency announcements and much more in terms of public and private partnerships. So really we have such an amazing toolbox and it’s a lot of fun, and I really enjoy the strategy of looking across that portfolio, across those capability development areas, and seeing how to best, very deliberately and consciously mix and match out of that toolbox to use those resources the most effectively.
One of the most significant collaborative efforts that we just stood up here recently, and that’s currently underway includes our Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium. So, in April of 2019 Space Tech was asked to lead the Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative, which was announced shortly after the Artemis Program. And it’s a technology development portfolio that allows us to rapidly explore on the Moon and future operations on Mars, and how we actually establish the lunar infrastructure that we need for true sustainability of living and operating on the Moon.
So, we’ve looked across different opportunities and different organizations on how we might employ or get a consortium in this area stood up that would focus more on technology development and gaps for lunar surface capabilities. And so, we started looking at our existing University Affiliated Research Centers, or UARCs, and we really have a wealth of knowledge in the United States within the UARCs and they have been established for decades.
And one that really stood out for our purposes was the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Labs. And many folks may be familiar with them and the work they’ve done with NASA and particularly with the Science Mission Directorate, but their roots are really founded with the Navy and DARPA and doing a lot of technology development-type activities.
And so, when you marry that experience with NASA, along with what they’ve done on the DARPA and Navy side with technology development, it was really a perfect mix for a system integrator for LSII and for establishing this consortium. So we worked with APL on how we would set up this consortium that would focus on surface technologies for living and operating on the surface and provide really regular stakeholder communications and networking, and then really create true technology infusion opportunities.
And in addition to that, we also wanted to make sure that this consortium could provide mentoring among our large and small industry participants. So we have a lot of our, what often is referred to as traditional space and new space and how we could also implement mentoring there as well as with our university students and early career folks in this community. So, in less than six months after we got the contract stood up with APL, we actually created this national consortium, and we held the kickoff at APL in late February of this year.
And we had over 250 participants across the industry and government and academia. And what was really interesting to me and what we really wanted to ensure is that we didn’t just see the same folks that always work in this area and are familiar with what we do in Space Tech. We wanted to also infuse that with folks that weren’t quite as familiar. And we worked really hard to try to reach out to that newer audience as well and have a good kind of cross-pollination.
And so, after polling the attendees, about 52 percent that had participated in the kickoff had never worked with NASA Space Tech previously or were aware of the opportunities provided. So we’re very excited about where this is leading and the type of activities that come from that. In June this past year, we actually initiated the Consortium Focus Groups, which are complementary to the biannual larger consortium meetings.
The focus groups are actually established across each of our six LSI capability areas and they meet monthly virtually and really dive in and focus on their technical areas. And as a community across that university and industry and nonprofit and government stakeholder group, they’re discussing things like what are our key gaps? What are the real priorities that we have for sustainability? And where is industry, for example, investing internally in those versus where do they really need the government to kind of do those things that aren’t and are never going to be profitable for industry in order to kind of lay the roads and pipes kind of stuff.
So currently, after just two months or so of operation, we have about 160 organizations across those stakeholders participating in these monthly focus groups. And I’m very excited to see where this goes. It’s kind of a different model of marrying up the larger consortium meetings twice a year with the monthly focus groups, and even have created things like LinkedIn groups, where now we’re seeing our members teaming up and talking and pulling threads, even between the focus group discussions. And trying things like they’re going to be holding a supply-and-demand workshop that will bring potential consumers and producers together to discuss those technical needs and supply issues for our In-Situ Resource Utilization, or ISRU.
And so, having those kind of more informal and consistent dialogues combined with the larger group meetings has been one of the ways that we’ve really facilitated more collaboration and open dialogue.
Host: Do you think that technology development happens faster when it’s in this environment that you just described?
Werkheiser: I think not only does it happen faster, I think it is much more effective. And I also believe that in an attempt to really understand where the value proposition is, where we work with industry and university, especially when you’re talking about things like, establishing sustainable operations on the lunar surface, and you see that we all have common goals. And especially in the first, say 10 years of the lunar mission in particular, where we all need these basic lunar infrastructure capabilities. We all need power. We all need access to certain locations on the Moon. We all need to use the local resources and consumables. We all have to survive the extreme environment that the Moon has to offer.
So, if we really collaborate and look at, like I said, those deliberate or conscious ways to leverage our strengths and how government can help and kind of lay in the roads and pipes part of it, how industry can, where they are internally investing, where that state of the art really lies kind of behind the firewalls. When you start to partner those things, you absolutely see an acceleration of getting to meaningful, effective collaborations and being really good stewards of our taxpayer money, of course, and creating new capabilities for us as a country.
Host: From your vantage point as program executive, could you offer perspectives that might be helpful to program and project managers across the agency?
Werkheiser: Sure, absolutely. First of all, I would say, use all the tools available to you. As I mentioned before, we truly do have an amazing array of tools at our fingertips in Space Tech and really across the agency. I know many of those have been highlighted on your podcast and we all learn from them. Things such as our TechPort capability, all the way to SBIRs and how we can use our centers of excellence for collaborative innovation to do crowdsourcing. Things like Centennial Challenges that really puts out novel ideas of ways that industry and universities and even private citizens can participate in solving actual massive challenges, and much more.
So, if you really look at your projects and your portfolio, and you really challenge yourself to see how you can use these opportunities and have some fun with it, right. Mix and match, and it really starts to make a lot of sense, and you start to find that you really do reap some meaningful schedule, budget and technology benefits. The other thing I would say is you really have to create hyper clear priorities and communicate them articulately and often. So, I know I had a coworker that used to talk about the 10 by 10 by 10 rule. Say something in 10 ways, say it 10 times, so that people retain 10 percent. And it’s true, we all speak kind of different languages and hear things in different ways and especially when we’re talking about technology development and what capabilities we need. So, really setting those clear priorities, how we need to focus on our objectives and phase those to meet our programmatic needs.
And then, clearly repeating that and taking time to say that as many ways to as many audiences as you can, I think is very important. And then obviously things like be honest, be empathetic and be available. That’s hard right now, we’re all in this COVID environment, and so we have to find new and creative ways of doing that. It’s not as easy to walk down the hall and have a quick chat and run into each other at the coffee machine. So, we’re all professionals, but first and foremost, we’re humans and NASA really is a family. And I think we’re all very passionate about our work. So I think that’s a really important one.
Host: Niki, what role does NASA’s early career workforce play in Game Changing Development?
Werkheiser: I can tell you it’s a very large and significant one to us. And it’s one of the most important things that we can do is to invest in and grow our early career workforce and really develop this human supply chain, if you will, of diverse, experienced project managers and engineers and scientists, resource analysts, all of this is just as, if not more, important than our actual technology pipeline itself.
And so, as I discussed earlier, technology development can be very challenging and it’s a unique thing to manage. And it does require a certain level of agility and risk acceptance and understanding of that technology development process. So the best way to really learn these things is through hands-on experience. And that’s exactly why we have the early career initiatives, and it’s why it’s one of my very favorite Space Tech programs because through fostering these early career initiative proposals, and then eventually infusing many of those efforts into the actual GCD program as projects and activities, as part of our portfolio, we are providing very real and very meaningful, firsthand experience to the early career workforce.
And I can promise you that we actually learn every bit as much from them as they do from us. It really does. It’s another important tool to keep us from having that group think and looking at new and creative ways to approach these problems.
This past year in 2020, we selected seven new proposals for our Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative. We actually went above our normal allocation or how many we usually select, because we just had that many good and relevant proposals. And we are actually just this week, I’m doing our review for this upcoming year’s, and it’s one of my favorite times of the year to get to hear those.
Host: So, you talk about workforce dynamics, culture, Artemis generation, the excitement with the early career workforce. Let’s talk about technologies that this generation is exploring. What are some of the innovative ideas that are capturing your attention?
Werkheiser: Oh, this is a fun topic. Well, I’ve got to preface that just a little bit. I’ve always been a science and technology nerd. So, this is just a very exciting field in general to me. And when you really consider the fact that 90 percent of all scientists that have ever lived are alive today, you really start to grasp what a truly exciting time that we are living in. So a simple statistic like that really captures the power of the exponential growth in science and engineering that’s been taking place over the last century.
For those who have not read it, there is a book in 1961, I think, called Science Since Babylon and where they studied science and metrics, and that’s where those statistics came from. But it really does look at the technological advancements and upheavals of the past 200 years and how we are only at the tip of the iceberg, and how many ways science and technology has really drastically transformed our lives.
And so, this revolution has taken place almost entirely in the past 200 years with one tenth of 1 percent of our species, a 200,000 year history. So we’ve never really had so many people whose sole purpose of work is to better understand how the world works, and that really has far reaching implications for all of us.
So, when you talk about specific favorites, in general I love the whole idea of innovation and how we’re really fostering that and what may come. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but there are several capability development areas for the technologies that we need on the surface of the Moon that I find extremely exciting to be working right now, and feel like we’re really on the cusp of really developing some technologies, like I said, they not only help us live and operate on the Moon, but right here on Earth.
So if you take In Situ Resource Utilization, for example, how we are going to use the resources on the Moon surface to get the consumables for the astronauts, to make propellants for our rockets, and how we can use those same resources in conjunction with things like our additive construction technologies to build structures like landing pads and possibly even habitats.
And then of course, to do any of these things, you have to have power and you have to have the ability to store that energy. So now we’re also developing fission surface power and regenerative fuel cells and solar rays and other novel technologies for power storage and distribution to do all of these things on the Moon.
And then in turn, of course, in order to do all of that, you have to be able to survive the extreme environment that the Moon presents, and you have to be able to enable rovers and manipulators and other systems that can operate on the lunar surface. When you have conditions that include things like the lunar noon, which is up to 150 degrees Celsius in the night, which goes down to minus-180 degrees Celsius. And then you have multiple day and night cycles and permanently shadowed regions that go down to minus-240 degrees Celsius. So the technologies that you need in interdisciplinary aspects of that to me are very exciting. And even things that sometimes may seem trivial, such as dealing with the dust on the Moon, right, require new technologies.
And many people may say, ‘Well, you know, Apollo astronauts went there, and they seem to make it work, right?’ But when Apollo astronauts went to the Moon, of course, we didn’t really have a good understanding of the regolith, or lunar dirt. So, the trouble with the Moon dust though really does stem from the strange properties of the lunar soil itself. The powdery gray dirt is really formed by micrometeorite impacts, which then pulverize those local rocks into real fine particles. And then it melts that dirt into vapor, and it condenses on the soil particles and ultimately it coats them in a really glassy shell. And these particles — we learned through Apollo — can really wreak havoc on spacesuits and all of our equipment. So if you listen to some of the stories from astronauts, I think one that really stood out to me was during the Apollo 17 Mission. For example, when Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt and Gene Cernan, they really had trouble moving their arms during the moonwalks because the dust had gummed up all of the joints, and it was so abrasive that it actually wore three layers of this Kevlar-like material on Schmitt’s boots.
So, these are things that even though we’ve been, we’ve learned a lot from those missions, and now we have to come up with new ways, new technologies to address that. And so, when you look at longer term living and operating on the Moon and sustainability, we have to do things. There’s no such thing as dust solution, but we have to mitigate the dust. So we have created new, just this past year, new Small Business Innovation Research Awards, and early career faculties and tipping points, and all those different collaborations that I talked about earlier on how we can actively, passively or operationally help with those types of problems.
Host: So much to look forward to and I can’t wait to talk with you sometime in the future to hear how everything’s going with the technologies that you’re developing now and all these innovative ideas. Do you have a couple of favorite Game Changing Development success stories that you’d want to share with us?
Werkheiser: Oh gosh, it’s almost like your children, right? It’s hard to pick your favorite. So I’m going to cheat a little bit, and since we are always looking forward to the next thing in the Game Changing Development office, I’d have to say that maybe my favorites are related to some of our current opportunities we have open that build on what we’ve learned from our past successes.
In all of these what’s most exciting to me is they have the potential to really evolve into actual demonstrations on the Moon. So, for example, we have an open tipping point call that’s in the evaluation phase right now, and we’ll be announcing selections for that in September. And we received the most solicitations we’ve ever received by like threefold, I think, in this topic area.
And again, that tells us how much interest there is out there from industry and our other external stakeholders for these sorts of public-private partnerships. We have our Lunar Surface Technology Research Opportunity, or LuSTR for short, that’s part of our Space Technology Research Grant Program. And these are one- to two-year university-led efforts with awards of one to two million each year to develop immature technologies for our high-priority lunar surface challenges.
So, these are real ways for universities and university students, again, to get that hands-on experience and develop capabilities or technologies that truly do have potential for infusion into technology demonstrations on the lunar surface. We also have what we call our Breakthrough Innovative Game Changing, or BIG, because we love acronyms, idea challenge, that’s also open to all of our US universities, that’s affiliated with their state’s space grant consortiums, and those prizes range from 50,000 to 180,000. And that’s looking for those dust mitigation solutions like I talked about earlier. So we really are asking our universities and our students out there to come up with new and creative ways of how we can mitigate these real-world problems that NASA faces.
And then of course, as I mentioned, we have a number of crowdsourcing prizes and challenges, and we have one coming out in September with our Centennial Challenges Program that’s called ‘Watts On The Moon’ — we have fun with this — on helping to address our surface power challenges.
And then shortly after that, we’ll have an excavation manufacturing and construction challenge that will be kind of a follow-up to our 3D printed hab challenges on the Moon. So it’s a little bit of a cheat, but all of these things are my favorites because they build on our past successes and we’re able to move to this next step by building on the previous work we’ve done to develop these real capabilities.
Host: What challenges are you facing?
Werkheiser: So, we’ve talked some about in general, the kind of just inherent aspects of managing a technology development and how that can be challenging and exciting at the same time.
But, of course, at the moment, I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the real impacts and challenges that we’re all dealing with, with the COVID pandemic. And how it brings, how we do our work is changing so much. And this really is an unprecedented time for us, unprecedented in history when you really consider the tools that we have at our fingertips now that aid us in continuing to work virtually. So there’s a new way of doing business for all of us.
Ironically though, even in this unique environment, much does remain the same, including our primary roles, our teams, our objectives. We’re marching ahead. We’re maintaining our schedules because of these amazing technology tools that we have available that allow us to still collaborate and work together.
I have noted, though, that there are really numerous minor challenges that when you add them together in terms of quantity and frequency, they realistically do result in considerable workforce fatigue. And these are often the things that we all discount as little things, right? But they simply wear folks down. And that includes things that are like constant and unpredictable computer glitches that slow us down or not having what I’ve been hearing referred to as micro-breaks between meetings.
In physical meetings, even if you have back-to-back meetings all day, you get up, you leave a room, you walk to another room, you run into someone in the hall, you say, ‘Hi, how you been?’ You grab some water at the fountain. You make eye contact. Now, we literally hit a button on Teams or WebEx or whatever platform we may be using at the moment, and it switches to the next meeting and the next meeting. All of these things do add up.
One fun part, we’ve all got to know each other’s pets and kids. We’re all very human, getting dressed for work is much easier these days. But with that comes, the lines are blurred between kind of our work personas and our home personas and the very real and significant challenges of things like parenting while trying to work and having younger children in particular with no real easy near-term solution on how to do those things in parallel.
So, I think these are unique times and NASA is a family and we’re all working together and having very open, transparent discussions and authentic discussions on how to best mitigate these things. Sometimes it’s a little fix, like staggering meetings, five to 10 minutes after the hour to give folks chances for those micro breaks and not letting them all kind of blend together.
And then also, it could change the way that we work together in the future even. We might consider hybrid versus binary approaches to work schedules and job duties. So it’d be interesting, just like our technologies are disruptive, how we work together virtually and what comes from this, even in the long term, will be interesting to see.
Host: Yeah, a lot to think about there. You covered a lot of ground. We’ve talked a lot about the Game Changing Development Program, but I want to ask you about a game changer that you engineered almost six years ago — the creation of the first object to ever be 3D printed in space. In fact, Forbes called you a ‘phenomenal NASA pioneer doing whatever it takes.’ How significant is that milestone, and what do you see as the future of 3D printing in space?
Werkheiser: Oh, goodness. Well, thank you. Of course, this one is very near and dear to my heart, and I get extremely excited when I think about the advancements we’re seeing with additive and advanced manufacturing and materials, I could really geek out for a long time on this one.
Host: Feel free.
Werkheiser: But the bottom line — we can go on for a while, don’t get me started. I can honestly tell you that for me personally, when you really dig in and look at the major issues that we’ve had or challenges that we face since the inception of the human space program, and when we launch things into space and kind of the cycle that you get into of having to build everything really heavy and sturdy, so you can escape Earth’s gravity on the rocket and survive the vibration of that, and the costs that you incur from doing that and how you have to have all these extra spares.
So, the idea that you could have a capability to make what you need, when you need it, wherever you might be, has really larger implications than I believe we’ve even got our arms around. So the 3D printing ISS technology demonstration that you’re referring to was really that first step toward realizing that, and in that short timeframe, just to show how truly disruptive these capabilities are.
Like I mentioned, within six years, we had found three novel technologies, including that first 3D printer with polymers, and then the second one with the company Made In Space, which I’m so happy to see is operating as a kind of standalone business on space station now, that we NASA can use as well as universities, other government agencies, industry, and international partners.
And then also capabilities like the Refabricator that then takes these plastic parts, especially when you look at wasted or used-up food containers and medical equipment like syringes and the little otoscope specula that the doctor uses to look in your ear, and we just have to throw those things away. Right? And so when you look at being able to add a capability that allows you to sterilize those and turn them back into 3D printing filament to make new parts, you really do start to see a dramatic paradigm shift in the development of creating kind of new space architectures, and how you could go about operating in space and truly becoming more Earth-independent through that efficiency gain and risk reduction, and just basically a new paradigm for maintenance and repair and logistics.
And so when we’re looking at going to the lunar surface, for example, you’ve kind of got the same situation, but on a larger scale, where now instead of small plastic parts, you’re also looking around and you have all that famous Moon dust that I talked about, so how can we use that? So you look at additive construction technologies, large-scale 3D printing, for how you can use those natural resources to make large structures and landing pads, habitats, things like that, which again, changes the way that we can do business in space and really affords us a lot more opportunity for how we meet our schedules and our priorities, and our budgets, and develop these new technologies that have real implications right here on Earth.
You can imagine what that might do for something like a FEMA disaster or our soldiers in the field, homeless shelters, for example. So there really are endless potentials.
The one that we’re working on now that I’m so excited about is called the ISS multi-material fabrication laboratory or FabLab for short. So, now we’re looking at metals in space and how you can actually print with aerospace-grade metals and even embed electronics.
So, one of my favorite questions I get from students is, ‘When can you 3D print my phone?’ That’s always the first, but we really are able to print with metals and embed electronics, so you can make circuit boards and all kinds of sensors and interesting things. And so, we’ve been working on that one here for the last couple of years, and that’ll be our next big demonstration on space station.
It’d be about the size of a home refrigerator, which is quite small for a machine that can do aerospace-grade metals, take much, much less power and mass and volume than anything we have terrestrially at this point with similar capabilities. So again, it has a lot of disruption, exciting, positive disruption potential in space and right here on Earth.
Host: Many thanks to Niki Werkheiser for joining us today on the podcast. You’ll find links to topics discussed during our conversation along with Niki’s bio and a show transcript on our website at appel.nasa.gov/podcast.
If there’s a topic you’d like for us to feature on the podcast, please let us know on Twitter at NASA APPEL – that’s APP-el – and use the hashtag Small Steps, Giant Leaps.
For more interviews about NASA missions and technologies, check out other NASA podcasts at nasa.gov/podcasts.
As always, thanks for listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps.