A Life Robotic

17:37 minutes

Science Friday producer Christopher Intagliata (right) and NASA engineers examine the underside of the RASSOR robot. Credit: Brandon Echter

If humans someday colonize the moon or Mars, robotic workers like NASA’s Resource Prospector or RASSOR may pioneer the path. Shooting fuel, water, and building supplies into space is prohibitively expensive, so robots will have to make those materials locally, paving the way (literally, with bricks made of lunar dust) for human settlement. Jackie Quinn and Rob Mueller of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center join Ira in this conversation about space colonization, recorded live at the Bob Carr Theater in Orlando.

[Would you trust a robot to perform surgery?]

The Swarmie robot. Credit: Brandon Echter

Science Friday producer Katie Hiler operates the Swarmie robot. Credit: Brandon Echter

Segment Guests

Jackie Quinn

Jackie Quinn is Payload Project Manager for the Resource Prospector mission, based at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Rob Mueller

Rob Mueller is in charge of the mining robot RASSOR. He’s a Senior Technologist in the Swamp Works at at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, coming to you from the Bob Carr Theater in Orlando, Florida.


Yes. Thank you. We’re going to start this segment with a quiz. So, put on your thinking caps a little bit. I want to ask all of you in the audience how much you think it costs to send one pound of supplies into space. I know I’m in Orlando. This is going to be easier question than asking someone in Kansas.

So, it’s a multiple choice question. It could be food, it could be fuel, could be a person, whatever, the question is, how much does it cost a space program like NASA, government program, to shoot one pound of stuff into space? Clap for the right answer that you think it is. Number one, do you think it costs $10 a pound?


They’re laughing. They’re laughing at that question. Yes. $100 a pound? No takers? I got 100, I got $10, how about $1,000 a pound? Do I have $1,000? A little bit. I have $1,000. What about $10,000 a pound?


I’ve got $10,000. You’re all right. It’s too easy in the Space Coast here to ask anybody a question like that. That’s actually the cost for NASA. Private companies think they can do it a little cheaper. But the point that we’re trying to make is that it’s really still very expensive to shoot stuff into space. So, that $1 bottle of water you get at the gas station here would cost you anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 at the gas station on the moon.

So, I know what you’re thinking. Why do we send it to the moon to begin with? How do we cut the cost? Instead of hauling it to the moon, why not make it right there on the moon instead? Yeah, that’s the idea that my next guests are working on. How do you make everything you need, your food, your fuel, your fabric, your construction materials, from moon dust? From the gravel, the rock that’s already on the moon?

Jackie Quinn is the payload project manager for the Resource Prospector Mission at NASA Kennedy Space Center here in Florida. Welcome to Science Friday.

JACKIE QUINN: Thank you.


IRA FLATOW: Rob Mueller is in charge of the mining robot RASSOR, and he’s senior technologist at Swamp Works at NASA Kennedy. Welcome to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: So, Jackie, let me begin with you. I guess the main idea here is to live off the land where you are, right?

JACKIE QUINN: That’s correct. So, you know, we’re talking a lot today about what we call in situ resource utilization, which is a near– a term we use now. But it’s not something that we as explorers, as the human race are explorers, have really– something we’ve just invented. We’ve been doing it for a very long time.

I’ll often make people think back to their middle school or elementary school when they start learning about Lewis and Clark. And Lewis and Clark were great explorers. And they explored a large portion of the North American continent. But they didn’t require– as explorers, they didn’t have to carry everything that they owned on their backs.

They actually lived off the land when they were exploring, from– they began really early 1800s and went from St. Louis all the way across. And when they did that, they lived off of what food they could harvest, water they could acquire, things they needed to make along the way. And as explorers of space, we need to be able to take hold of that philosophy and be able to make things we need, whether it’s propulsion fluid, whether it’s breathable air, whether it’s materials we need to replace because something has failed in a distant planetary body. So, that’s really what we’re talking about, is living off whatever planetary body we can find that resource and exploit it.

IRA FLATOW: But Rob, you know, when we’ve all seen the astronauts walking on the moon. It’s a really barren-looking place. You don’t see anything but the dust, the rocks. How do you make stuff out of that stuff? And you brought some stuff with you that– I’m sitting here looking at a cube of stuff and a thread that looks like a rope. That was made out of what?

ROB MUELLER: This is made of rock, basalt rock. And in fact, most people think it’s a desolate wasteland when they see these pictures coming back from the moon and Mars. But it’s all a matter of perspective. If you look at the rock and all the elements in the rock as a resource, and then you think of all the energy in space from the sun, and on Mars we have the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as well, there’s a lot of resources in space. All it requires is we have to be clever. And we have to be clever and invent technologies that take advantage of the resources, take advantage of the energy, and suddenly, in space, you can make rope.

IRA FLATOW: How do you– how did you make that? Out of the rock?

ROB MUELLER: It’s very simple. You take rock– and the moon and Mars are covered with crushed rock. It’s been crushed by 4 and 1/2 billion years of impact events. You take the crushed rock. You don’t even have to crush it. On Earth, we have to crush it.

IRA FLATOW: Comes pre-crushed for you.

ROB MUELLER: It comes pre-crushed. Mother nature crushed it for us. You take the crushed rock, you put it in a crucible, you heat up the crucible, you melt it, and you get lava. Then you take the lava and you pull it out in these little strands of glass. And then, you weave a rope out of those strands.

In Hawaii, they call that Pele’s hair. That’s these little strands of basalt fiber. And it’s just the same as fiberglass, the same thing you make your boat out of. It’s just basalt glass.

IRA FLATOW: And that little cube you have, you can make building material?

ROB MUELLER: This is a materials breakthrough, because everything in this little cube of materials can be made on Mars. We don’t have to bring any of it with us. So, what does that mean? It means I can 3D-print a habitat on Mars without bringing anything from Earth. And that is a breakthrough for us.


Now, it gets better. It gets better, because you say, well, that’s on Mars. How does that help me? Well, guess what’s in this material? Dirt and milk bottles. Those plastic milk jugs? 20% plastic milk jugs, 80% dirt. And I can build a house out of it. I’ll bet there are some places on Earth where we could use that.

IRA FLATOW: And Jackie, how are we going to make this stuff on Mars or on the moon? Who’s going to make it?

JACKIE QUINN: We’re starting, hopefully in the near term, with a new mission called Resource Prospector. And that’s going to be one of the first mining missions that we’ll be taking back to the poles of the moon. And we’re looking for one of the resources, which is water, and some of the other volatiles that we expect to find there.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, by the poles. There’s water around there? Is there water in the rocks?

JACKIE QUINN: Yeah. So, that water’s probably been there for billions of years. And it’s never seen light. It’s never seen sun. The polar regions– there are some parts of the polar regions that’ll get a little bit of light. And it comes in at about a three degrees off the horizon.

So, we have our sun that’s pointing up from when we look out, but when you’re up at the moon in these polar regions, it’s almost horizontal. So it doesn’t heat the regolith, the lunar dirt, very much, and so it doesn’t get hot. So, in the vacuum of space– purest vacuum that we can understand around the moon– you would think that water would just sublimate out, but it’s so cold. It’s just like 25 to 60 Kelvin, somewhere in there.

IRA FLATOW: That’s cold.

JACKIE QUINN: That’s really cold.

IRA FLATOW: Really cold.

JACKIE QUINN: That’s real cold. It’s frozen, frozen, frozen. And it can’t even– the molecules can’t bounce around at that temperature. So, it’s in those craters. It doesn’t get a lot of light, if any, and so it’s still there.

IRA FLATOW: Amazing. Rob, one of the ideas your lab has come up with for prospecting is not one single prospector, but a whole tiny swarm of tiny robots. I think we have some in the house tonight. Swarmies, where are you? Where are the swarmies? Come on down, swarmies. Here they come.


They look like tiny little Martian rovers out there.

ROB MUELLER: So, first thing you’ll notice about these robots if you look at them is they’re very small. They’re extremely small robots. They’re about the size of a lunchbox. And so, why are they small? Well, they’re mimicking the behavior of ants.

So, we’re inspired by biology. We looked at biology and we said, how does an ant forage for resources? Because that’s what we’re doing as a species. As the human species goes into space, we’re foraging for resources.

Well, it’s a lot more efficient for a fleet of small robots in a swarm with ant-like behavior to go look and forage for those resources. And once they find them, they’ll alert the crew, the astronauts, and say, here are the resources. Go mine the resources.

And we’ve discovered that by taking the pheromone trail of an ant and turning it into software and having a digital pheromone trail, these robots can explore, very efficiently, large areas with very little mass. And as you all know, it’s expensive to launch mass into space through the Earth’s deep gravity well, so this is the answer. Or one potential answer is to split the big robot up into many, many small robots that go forage for resources.

IRA FLATOW: How many would be in a swarm?

ROB MUELLER: We’re thinking hundreds.

IRA FLATOW: Hundreds of these?

ROB MUELLER: Hundreds, and they’re so small, they’re actually disposable. If one gets in trouble, it’s OK. And that makes the mission extremely robust.

IRA FLATOW: Just go to Radio Shack and get another one. That’s something like–

ROB MUELLER: Well, even better. We’ll 3D-print one in space.

IRA FLATOW: You 3D-print– OK, so I’m a swarm of robot– these little robots, and I find something. I really want to mine it now. What’s the next step?

ROB MUELLER: Well, the first step in any mining operation is finding the resources. We call that prospecting. And we have a mission now, the Resource Prospector Mission going to the moon to go look for the resources. We have swarmies, which is a concept, and now we have another robot, which came out of the Swamp Works at NASA Kennedy Space Center. And it’s coming on stage now, and it’s quite a beast.


ROB MUELLER: And some people think that we’re going to enter these robot competitions to destroy other robots. But we’re really not trying to do that.

IRA FLATOW: That’s not a destroyer. Wait. What’s it say? RASSOR is it’s name?

ROB MUELLER: It’s called RASSOR because it has a lot of sharp blades on it.

IRA FLATOW: It does look like one of these Battle Bots. Big, turning things on it. Wave to the crowd, RASSOR, can you wave? There you go. Wave.

ROB MUELLER: It’s a friendly robot.

IRA FLATOW: It does. It’s a friendly robot. And so, this robot would then go out to the spot and then sort of dig up in this spot?

ROB MUELLER: Well, on Earth, we dig with big yellow machines with giant buckets, and we have a lot of reaction force because the machine is so big. But in space, we don’t have that reaction force. First of all, the machine is small, to transport it to the destination. But then, gravity on the moon is one sixth, and on Mars about one third, so you don’t have much weight. There’s not much reaction force.

So, we had to rethink digging. Instead of any one big scoop, we have lots of little scoops. And we put them on a bucket wheel. We stack the bucket wheels up into bucket drums. And that’s still not enough. We’ve reduced the reaction force. And we have a duplicate system that’s symmetrical about the center line, and now the forces cancel each other out. And so now you can dig in almost no gravity at all.

IRA FLATOW: That is really cool.


And let me, again, invite the audience– if you have questions about what we’re talking about, we have mics on both sides of the room, if you’d like to make your way to the mic and ask questions about these. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International.


Do you see these as being totally autonomous, or are there people still needed to work alongside the robots?

ROB MUELLER: They will be friendly towards the crew working beside them. But there probably will be no crew, because these go ahead of the crew. And so, what we have to do when we go to Mars is we have to make propellant for the crew to come home.

So, the Mars Ascent Vehicle, which brings the crew home, is launched empty. And it lands empty. All its propellant tanks are empty when it lands on Mars. So, the first thing you have to do is go make propellants so that that crew can come home. Once the Mars Ascent Vehicle’s full of propellants, then we send the crew, and they’re assured of a trip home. But we have to make the propellants at Mars, because it’s just too much mass otherwise to transport it all from Earth.

IRA FLATOW: Over here. Yeah.

SPEAKER 1: I like asking the question why. Why would we want to go to the moon and or Mars, other than the cliche answer that it’s the preservation of humanity? What can we get back from going to the moon or Mars?

JACKIE QUINN: Well, I’ll start.

IRA FLATOW: [INAUDIBLE] Go ahead, Jackie. You can go first.

JACKIE QUINN: Ladies first. I want to say that if you look at– and I’m going to answer this from a long historic perspective of humanity– we, as humans, we are explorers. I mean, if you’d look at our history of where we were and where we are, it’s all based on our exploration. We evolved, and we have become the species that we are, and, you know, you’ve heard prosthetics mentioned up here today, all of it because we are explorers. And the need to do that is something with us.

We say it’s a preservation of humankind, but it is something that we do because it is innate. It is part of us. There is also this– once you take that perspective, you can get into the, well, there’s a whole trail of resources. I mean, we’ve talked a lot about water, but Rob can go into a lot of the mineralogy and the elements out there that we would consider rare here, but if you can put the whole universe trail of those resources, then they are not such a limitless supply.

IRA FLATOW: Then you’re talking about a business reason?

JACKIE QUINN: Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Business reason, mining.

JACKIE QUINN: And economics reasons and mining reasons, for sure.

IRA FLATOW: Rob, would that be your answer?

ROB MUELLER: I’ll add to that. Let me argue this. As humans, two of the most basic things that drives our behavior is safety and quality of life. So, if I told you I have a solution that will make you safer and vastly increase the quality of your life, would you want to know the answer?

So, here is the answer. On Earth, on Spaceship Earth, we are a sphere floating in the universe, a constrained sphere. We are resource-constrained. And it’s not that we don’t have resources. We have a lot of resources, but they’re not economic resources.

It’s hard to get to the resources. Most of them are actually below the surface of the Earth, and it’s expensive to go mine them. So, in space, we have vast amounts of just a lot of resources, abundant resources in space. And they’re actually easier to get to in the asteroid belt than they are in a planet which has differentiated itself, which means some of the things have– some of the metals have sunk to the middle, and some of the lighter minerals have floated to the top. So, it’s a different situation.

In space, you have vast amounts of energy, vast amounts of resources. If we can harness those resources through advanced technology, ingenuity, then we can expand human civilization into space, improve the quality of your life, and make it safer, because there’s a lot of threats to us from bodies that are in the solar system. Asteroids, for example. So, if we can have a safer life and a better life, why shouldn’t we go into space?

IRA FLATOW: As long as our mining ships don’t get little aliens in our chests that want to jump out of them. I want to thank both of you for taking time to be with us. Jackie Quinn, payload project manager for the Research Prospector Mission at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Rob Mueller, in charge of the mining robot RASSOR and senior technologist at Swamp Works at NASA Kennedy.

I want to thank everybody who helped make this evening possible, LaFontaine Oliver and all the great folks at 90.7 WMFE. Thank you all for your help. Everyone here at the Bob Carr Theater for helping us create a wonderful evening. Thank you all. Everybody has been backstage here.

Also, we want to thank our Science Friday staff, Charles Bergquist, Rachel Bouton, Danielle Dana, Brandon Echter, Elah Feder, Jennifer Fenwick, Xochitl Garcia, Sarah Goldfarb, Luke Groskin, Katie Hiler, Christopher Intagliata, Jen Kwok, Julie Leibach, Alexa Lim, Annie Minoff, Annie Nero, Daniel Peterschmidt, Christian Scotte, Christie Taylor, Lauren Young, and Ariel Zych. Thank you all. In Orlando, Florida, I’m Ira Flatow.


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About Christopher Intagliata

Christopher Intagliata was Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.