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June 15, 2014 AT 12:00 pm

Father-Son Chat Points NASA To Other Worlds #FathersDay

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A simple chat between father and son in 2009 propelled NASA to find new ways to explore outer space. by Thom Patterson at CNN via wpbf

The human imagination is an amazing thing. Take for example the story of how a simple father-and-son chat led to a prototype spacecraft for landing on other planets. One Friday evening in 2009, NASA engineer Stephen Altemus arrived home from work feeling, well, kind of frustrated.

Altemus, who was chief engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, believed the agency was under “incredible pressure and scrutiny” for allegedly high budget costs. NASA’s ambitious Constellation program to develop a next-generation rocket was about to be canceled.

“The environment was a sense of uncertainty and chaos and redirection,” Altemus told CNN last week on the phone. Engineering, he believed, wasn’t being used to contribute to NASA’s future.

“That responsibility to make sure every dollar is spent exactly right within the agency sometimes causes a stifling of innovation,” Altemus said. “What NASA needed was an innovative fire that made it OK to try and fail and learn from mistakes.”

Altemus’ 15-year-old son noticed something was wrong.

” ‘You never talk bad about NASA, Dad,’ ” Altemus recalled his son saying. The conversation that followed, the engineer said, was a “moment of inspiration — instigated by my son.”

They sat down at the family dinner table and talked about how to “put NASA back on the map with a bold mission that seemed nearly impossible.” A short time later, Altemus created a few charts and his son put together an illustrative YouTube video.

Monday morning at his office, Altemus made his pitch to his NASA leadership team.

“I said, ‘What if we unleashed the power of engineering, and did things our way, and were not deterred? What could we do together?’ ”

It was a radical idea: Build an unmanned spacecraft with a robotic explorer and send it to the moon within 1,000 days. Its engines would be powered by liquid oxygen and methane fuel. The vehicle would also have a self-guided laser landing system that avoided coming down on big boulders and other hazards. Altemus’ fellow team members said, “Yes.” They were in.

From this Project M was formed which has since influenced NSA technology, leading to the Morpheus lander: a sophisticated, self-guided system that could safely put astronauts on another planet. In fact, they hope someday they can even land astronauts on asteroids.

Amazingly, NASA planners hope to design a robot spacecraft that would capture an asteroid and haul it into a stable orbit near the moon. Next, astronauts aboard an Orion would spacewalk to the asteroid and collect rock samples that would help scientists learn more about the components of asteroids. It’s possible that Morpheus’ fuel — liquid oxygen and methane — could be found on Mars or other planets. This opens the door to the idea that a Morpheus-like lander could refuel there.

Here’s how it might work: An unmanned fuel-making spacecraft would travel to Mars ahead of the lander. The fuel-making spacecraft would then harvest methane from the atmosphere, said Altemus. “If there’s water in the soil you would harvest the water and break down the water into oxygen and hydrogen. Then the lander sets down near the fuel-making spacecraft and uses the oxygen and methane to refuel for another flight.

How amazing would it be if that father-son talk across a Houston dinner table back in 2009 had even the smallest connection to a journey to another world?

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