Dealing with space contamination

24 08 2010

Operation of LOCAD-PTS swabbing unit on the palm of a NASA spacesuit during simulated activities at Meteor Crater, Arizona; 09/2005. Credit: Dr. Jake Maule.

Planetary Protection, despite how it sounds, does not refer to a Bruce-Willis-style suicide mission to save Earth from an incoming asteroid.  However, it is one of those practical space exploration concerns that will only get more important with time.

So, what is planetary protection (PP)?

Think of it as the discipline of preventing the spread of interplanetary biological contamination, either from or to Earth, by astronauts, rovers, and anything else we might send between worlds.

For instance, what good is the search for life on another world if we actually deliver it there, (e.g., bacteria hitching a ride on the outside of a spacecraft) – or worse – if we accidentally contaminate the site and kill the life we’re looking for?

To this end, NASA scientists have been developing the LOCAD-PTS, which stands for Lab-on-a-Chip Application Development-Portable Test System.  Much like a Star Trek “tricorder,” the handheld device includes an electronic swab wand and onboard processor designed for the rapid testing of biological substances.  In just 15 minutes, an analysis can be performed and contamination results delivered to a waiting astronaut.

NASA Astronaut Sunita Williams using the LOCAD aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

A number of field tests have been performed with the system so far, with many actually performed in space on the International Space Station to determine how biological material is transferred from Earth to space, and to monitor the spread of that material while there.  Samples were taken both inside and outside the station.  Beyond contamination on the exterior of spacecraft being transported to another world, in a closed environment the movement of biological material is also important to ensure astronaut health.

Even better here is the famed NASA technology “trickle-down” effect.  The LOCAD system as tested by NASA will also be highly useful on Earth.

Applications of the LOCAD procedures and technology include not only science on Earth, but also detecting lethal viral outbreaks and helping first responders during a potential biological attack.

With the forethought of technology programs like this, not only will all worlds involved be kept more pristine, but any data gathered will be that much more defensible.  Here’s hoping that before too much longer, the offspring of the LOCAD will get to see some action off-world.

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Military powered exo-skeleton to create future SuperAstronauts?

15 08 2010

Lockheed Martin's HULC exoskeleton field trial. Credit: Lockheed Martin

A quick note today on emergent technology.  Right now, aerospace and defense mega-contractor Lockheed Martin is working with the military to develop the HULC exoskeleton.  (That’s “Human Universal Load Carrier.”)

The exoskeleton, which is moving into human beta-testing now, improves the endurance and load-carrying capacity of a given person nearly an order of magnitude.

My immediate thought turns to the non-military, obviously, and to considering what an asset technology like this would be to a future astronaut.  Imagine navigating rough planetary terrain loaded up with scientific equipment.  That crater slope too steep?  Never fear – HULC is here!

Rough terrain faces future planetary explorers. Credit: NASA

Seriously – one of the most practical aspects of powered exoskeleton technology may be in future planetary astronaut logistics, where a small number of people will be in the position to perform any number of jobs.  In addition to extending or quickening scientific sorties, imagine the logistics of unloading a drop-shipment of crates at a future moonbase.  With technology like this, it would be possible for an astronaut to act as both scientific investigator and powered loader, minimizing the amount of equipment to haul up to the moon while maximizing the number of things an astronaut could do on a single EVA.  Something to consider.

See Lockheed Martin’s promotional video of the HULC in action here.





The art of emergency response

24 06 2010

I spent this past weekend on a training exercise with the Nevada-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team, or NV-1 DMAT.  On a part-time, voluntary basis, I serve as a Logistics Officer for the federal emergency response team (currently under NDMS instead of FEMA), which involves monthly meetings and periodic training in preparation for deployment to the next Katrina disaster, for example.

Me training with the Nevada-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team. June 19. Credit: NV-1 DMAT

This particular Saturday, we partnered up with the FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Nevada Task Force One (NV-TF1) and spent time practicing the rapid set-up of emergency shelters (and associated electrical and communications equipment) that will be used as portable hospital rooms, triage areas, command posts, sleeping quarters for the responders, etc.

The take home message for me is that emergency response is an art, and one that must be practiced.  Familiarity with equipment is key.  It’s hard enough to set these things up in a warehouse, and it was immediately obvious that every second more proficient we became was one fewer future second spent standing in the sweltering humidity of a tropical depression in a cloud of blood-sucking insects.

In short: Be prepared.





Reincarnation Exists! -Bigelow Aerospace and Von Braun’s Project Horizon

28 05 2010

History never fails to surprise and amaze me.  While there is serious talk today regarding the logistics of setting up a lunar base and whispers of Bigelow Aerospace pushing their inflatable habitats as the right modules to compose one, I was awed and humbled when I recently learned that we’ve done this research before.

Half a century ago, in fact.

 

Robert Bigelow explaining a model depicting a Bigelow Aerospace lunar outpost. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

Many of us are familiar with the name Wernher von Braun as the father of the American space effort.  However, just how advanced his early efforts were is not common knowledge.  Take Project Horizon, for example.  Horizon is a little-known study conducted by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, led by Wernher von Braun in 1956, which detailed the specific logistics, processes and challenges of constructing and manning a US outpost on the Moon in shocking detail.  (Shocking to me, anyway, considering that this project was produced shortly after my father was born.)

Army Ballistic Missile Agency officials. Werner von Braun is second from right. (Credit: NASA)

In short, Project Horizon was nothing less than visionary.  (While it proposed the creation of a military base on the moon, we should be reminded that this was two years prior to the creation of NASA, and the military was the only place to find rockets of any sort.)  According to the project’s projections, a small logistical space station would be constructed in Earth orbit using spent rocket tanks, and the lunar base would have been constructed of simple, pressurized cylindrical metal tanks, with the program requiring approximately 140 SATURN rocket launches during the course of three years.  The project is exhaustive, defining with striking clarity the equipment and astronaut tool requirements to accomplish the work, space transportation systems and ideal orbits for them, lunar habitat design requirements, and even new launch sites from Earth to optimize the program.  Most impressive is the fact that it looks like they could have actually done it for the cost they proposed, which was just less than two percent of the annual US military defense budget of their time.

For an even more humbling window into the conceptual fortitude of Horizon, let’s take a look at their rationale for building a lunar base in the first place (NASA – take note):

  • Demonstrate US scientific leadership
  • Support scientific investigations and exploration
  • Extend space reconnaissance, surveillance, and control capabilities
  • Extend and improve communications and serve as a communications relay (4 years prior to the world’s first communications relay satellite was lauched!)
  • Provide a basic and supporting research laboratory for space research and development activities
  • Develop a stable, low-gravity outpost for use as a launch site for deep space exploration
  • Provide an opportunity for scientific exploration and development of a space mapping and survey system
  • Provide an emergency staging area, rescue capability, or navigation aid for other space activity.
  • Serve as the technical basis for more far-reaching actions, such as further interplanetary exploration.

With a short list like this, the project sounds to me even more worthwhile than the current International Space Station, (which, I should note, satisfies Horizon’s orbiting space station requirements…) But, the project gets better still.  Horizon went so far as to select potential locations for the outpost based on the most cost-effective orbital trajectories, (between +/- 20 degrees latitude/longitude from the optical center of the Moon,) and they even set up a detailed construction and personnel timeline, which to me reads like a novel:

October, 1963 – SATURN I rocket program is operational, and launches of Horizon orbital infrastructure material and equipment begin.  Construction begins on an austere space station with rendezvous, refueling, and launch capabilities only (no life support), which will allow larger payloads to be delivered to the moon.  Astronauts working on assembly at the space station will live in their earth-to-orbit vehicle during their stay.  A final lunar outpost candidate site is selected.

December, 1964 – SATURN II rocket program is operational, and a total of 40 launches have been conducted in support of Project Horizon so far.  Construction of a second refueling and assembly space station begins using additional spent rocket stages, which can accelerate orbital launch operations.  The first space station is enhanced with life support capability, allowing for longer astronaut stays (if desired/necessary).

January, 1965 – Cargo deliveries from the space station(s) to the lunar outpost site begin.

April, 1965 – The first two astronauts land at the lunar outpost site, where cargo and infrastructure buildup has already been taking place.  (Their lander, it is noted, has immediate return-to-Earth capability, but only in the case of an emergency.  These guys are intended to be pioneers until the advance construction party arrives.)  Living in the cabin of their lander, the initial two astronauts make use of extra supplies already delivered to the site, while they verify both that the environment is satisfactory for a future outpost as well as that all necessary cargo has been delivered successfully.  The length of this tour is at most 90 days.  Cargo and infrastructure deliveries continue.

July, 1965 – The first nine-astronaut advance construction party arrives.  After a hand-off and requisite celebratory send-off, the original two lunar astronauts depart for Earth and the new crew begins Horizon’s 18-month outpost construction phase.  Groundbreaking begins, as the crew uses previously-delivered lunar construction vehicles to move and assemble the previously-delivered habitation modules and manage future deliveries.  Habitation quarters are established, small nuclear reactor electricity generators are placed in protective pits and activated, and the station becomes operational within the first fifteen days.  Crews are kept on 9-month rotations, and cargo and infrastructure deliveries continue.

December, 1965 – After six months of construction activities, the Horizon outpost is composed of several buried (for radiation and thermal protection) cylindrical modules as living quarters for the initial crew as well as a parabolic antenna station for Earth communications.  The main quarters and supporting facilities are being assembled, which will also ultimately be covered with lunar regolith.  Empty cargo and propellant containers are being used for the storage of bulk supplies and life essentials.  The crew is brought up to a full twelve astronauts.

December 1966 – Construction activities are complete, Horizon outpost is fully operational with a twelve-astronaut crew on staggered nine-month rotations.  Capital expenditures have concluded, and funding is reduced to operations-only to allow secondary projects (Mars missions, etc.).

1968, TBD – Expansion construction activities begin on Horizon outpost…

Anyone else as jazzed as I am reading this stuff?  Project Horizon was dutifully methodical, practical even.  Horizon could have actually happened, knowing what we know now about von Braun, the future Apollo mission successes, and the success of the SATURN I and SATURN V rockets…

And yes, it appears that the soul of ol’ Horizon lives today in the heart of Bigelow Aerospace’s lunar ambitions.  Let’s hope they can carry von Braun’s torch all the way back to the Moon.





Alien archeology – now a real science?

15 05 2010

Concept sketch of Mars xenoarchaeological site from movie Total Recall. Credit: Steve Burg

Well, I’ve done it.  Making good on a promise I made to myself while presenting a poster at the Society of American Archaeology conference in 2008, I recently submitted an article to the journal Space Policy outlining a framework for a science that doesn’t quite exist yet: Xenoarchaeology.

“Xeno” is Greek/Latin for “foreign” or “stranger.”

Seriously.  I drew from SETI protocols, interplanetary geological sample return guidelines, archaeology fundamentals, and historical examples to make a call for a proactive set of xenoarchaeological guidelines.  My argument?  -The moment that we find something we think might be the real deal on another planet is the wrong moment to try and figure out how to study it correctly and credibly.  And we’ve got spacecraft and landers everywhere these days.  -It’s only a matter of time until we do cross over something that makes us double-take.

To paraphrase my general points in the paper, an archeological mindset is particularly well-suited to analyzing a site of truly unknown character, but there are planetary science landmines a regular archaeologist would be completely unprepared to dodge.  Gravity, temperature, chemistry, and electromagnetic environment can all be (and likely are) very different on another world, which will affect essentially every property of an object.  On Earth we can take all of those things for granted – the strength and effectiveness of friction, for example.  On Mars?  We had to completely redesign the drill bits used on our Mars rovers simply because the effectiveness of a cutting edge on Mars is only half what it is here on Earth because the atmospheric pressure is so low, which is in turn because the gravity is 1/3 weaker.  See what I mean?

If it walks like an arrowhead, and it talks like an arrowhead… it might not actually be an arrowhead on Mars.

So, that’s my stab at taking a scientific discipline out of the realm of science fiction and elevating it to reality.  -The paper made it favorably through editorial review, and I am waiting to hear back on comments from the peer referees.

My ulterior motive?  I really do believe it’s only a matter of time until we find something – and if I center myself in the burgeoning discipline, when we do find something (if I don’t happen to be the one who stumbles across it, myself)… they’ll have to call me.

Fingers crossed.

(NOTE, 10/2010:  The paper was accepted and published!  Find it here.)

(NOTE, 05/2011: See the follow-up post on article responses here!)





Dawn of the Corporate Scientist-Astronaut

14 05 2010

For those of you who have known me a while, who have had to endure my many rants during the last decade-and-a-half about the future and the promise of corporate space exploration, I have four words:

I told you so.

It’s with an almost electric sense of expectation that I am pleased to report a change in the tide of space exploration.  It’s a change that history has never seen before.  -With the advent of private spacecraft, (e.g., Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, XCOR Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace,) a critical mass must be near or already achieved, because suddenly the Corporate Scientist-Astronaut has taken shape.  Companies are stepping up to provide training, and pioneers are filling out the flight suits I hope to one day wear.  It’s thrilling.

FAA approved centrifuge training. Credit: NASTAR Center

For example, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has recently awarded safety approval to a private firm to offer astronaut training – known as the National AeroSpace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center, it’s the first of its kind.  Their services include centrifuges, hyperbaric chambers, technical training, and custom flight simulators, and they’re state-of-the-art.

Then, there’s Starfighters, Inc. – the first company of its kind to get both the FAA and NASA’s approval to provide live suborbital training to corporate astronaut-hopefuls using a small fleet of F-104 Starfigher jet aircraft.

Suborbital flight training. Credit: Starfighters, Inc.

Meanwhile, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), a non-profit applied research and development organization, has started taking advantage of these training opportunities for its own scientists to prepare for the new corporate space opportunities as they arise.  Dr. Daniel Durda, one of the first SwRI scientists to participate, says, “We’re finally arriving at the day when space scientists can conduct their research ‘in the field’ in the same way that botanists, geologists and oceanographers have been doing all along. We hope many of our fellow researchers and educators in the diverse disciplines that will benefit from frequent access to space will also get in line to fly.”

IS3 spacesuit. Credit: Orbital Outfitters

And, then there’s the Astronauts4Hire initiative – with a collection of young up-and-coming space scientists vying to get their training at the aforementioned facilities sponsored so that they too can “get in line to fly.”  They’re marketing themselves as burgeoning commercial suborbital payload specialists, the idea being that when companies/universities/etc. want to perform suborbital research using the new spacecraft around the corner, it’ll be cheaper to hire these guys than to train and certify their own staff for spaceflight.  -I think it’s a fantastic idea.  Heck, I’d be jazzed to sign up with them one day if the opportunity arose.

The market is so ripe that company Orbital Outfitters, a private spacesuit manufacturer, has formed to offer standardized “get me down” spacesuits to supply suborbital researchers.  Known as the Industrial Suborbital Spacesuit, or IS^3, the suit provides at least 30 minutes of emergency life support at at an altitude of 90 miles and offers imbedded communication equipment and biometric sensors, enhanced visibility, and can even be integrated into a parachute harness.

The future is now, and it looks like my dream of becoming a corporate astronaut is more realistic than ever.  All I have to do is find the right way to get my foot in the door…. er, airlock.





Power Tools in Space (…someday)

16 03 2010

Me maneuvering a crate onto a flatbed truck in high wind.

I spent my Saturday training with the Nevada-1 DMAT team to operate forklift trucks.   For what it’s worth, I’m now certified.  But man, are forklifts awkward to steer!  They pivot on the rear axle, and while loaded up, you actually drive in reverse.  The forklift “arms” have three degrees of movement, too.  -Takes some getting used to.  Having said that, though, it definitely had scores of ‘guy’ appeal, not to mention several potential space exploration (and obvious science-fiction) crossovers. 

Astronaut operating a robot arm aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

For instance, using heavy machinery requiring precision is a way of life for Mission Specialist Astronauts operating remote manipulator robotic arms.  They reach out to maneuver objects weighing literally tens of tons, and an errant move or slight bump might jeopardize the intergrity of the space station, spacecraft, and the lives of everyone dependent upon them. 

But, in this instance the instrument is “fly-by-wire,” so perhaps the comparison doesn’t entirely hold.

Apollo-era Lunar Rover.

Maybe it’s more akin to the legendarily-hard-to-steer Apollo rovers?  Or, maybe it’s just wishful thinking. 

In any case, logistics is a primary concern no matter where you’re going to travel and set up shop.  Developing skills to use big tools to move large objects can’t hurt a potential astronaut, and since much of what NASA has its space employees doing these days is orbital construction, perhaps this is amongst the more useful ancillary skills to have?








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