HWHAP Ep147 Concepts near Science Fiction

Gary Jordan (Host): Houston, we have a podcast. Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 147, “Concepts Near Science Fiction.” I’m Gary Jordan, and I’ll be your host today. On this podcast, we bring in the experts, scientists, engineers, astronauts, all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight. So back on episode 142, we chatted with Michelle Rucker about what it takes to prepare for a Mars mission. Michelle was super engaging and very thorough about the different elements to consider when thinking about how to be ready for Mars. I got really excited about the topic, and Michelle and I got to talking after the recording. We thought, what if we dedicated time to each element of a Mars mission? Rendezvous with Mars, entry, descent and landing on Mars, eating, living, exploring. What if we dove deep into the challenges of each of these parts of a Mars mission? Well thanks to Michelle and the Mars Integration Group here at NASA, we’re going to make that happen. This year stay tuned for more episodes that dive deep into the challenges of a Mars mission and the requirements to make that successful. So, on today’s podcast, we bring in Jason Derleth, Program Executive for NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program at NASA’s Headquarters in Washington. To help set the expectations for what’s to come, Jason dives deep into how many of us think of a future exploration mission based on science fiction movies, TV and books. See, in the science fiction universe, we’ve explored the cosmos in all kinds of ways. Jason makes some of those technologies we think about in science fiction, things like cryosleep, gigantic space stations, propulsion, and he applies it to how an actual mission to deep space might just work. So, here we go. Crazy ideas of science fiction that just might work with Jason Derleth. Enjoy. [ Music ] Host: Jason, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today on the podcast. Jason Derleth: It’s a pleasure to be here, Gary. Thank you for interviewing me. Host: Hey, I want to start with a little bit about you and your background, because this is a pretty interesting topic for us to dive deep into science fiction of Mars and space travel. So, I want to get a better picture of where you’re coming from and what knowledge you’re bringing to the table here. Jason Derleth: I’m a bit of an odd duck, actually, for NASA. I went to school late after working extensively in a record shop, a CD shop, actually, I should say, we didn’t sell records in the 1980s, for six or so years after I turned 18. And I finally was introduced to an odd college. So, St. John’s has a weird degree. When you’re done, you have, there’s so many classes, it’s 120 units, I think. You end up with a dual degree in philosophy and the history of math and science. And then a dual minor in classics and comparative literature. And I got a job as a tech person in the 2000, right before the 2000 tech bubble burst, and I was doing configuration of FreeBSD boxes and things like that, you know, unit stuff. Which didn’t really match with what the school did, but it matched with my hobbies. And I was coming home pretty early for a startup company, probably right around five, and I would catch three shows of “The Simpsons,” OK. But in between two of the shows, there was a half an hour break, and I would always flip over to the “Discovery Channel.” And I saw a special on the space shuttle, and I didn’t go back to “The Simpsons.” And I sat there, and I thought, is there any reason why I can’t go get another degree and go work for NASA? I can’t think of one. Huh, OK. So, who does aerospace engineering stuff? I mean, MIT comes to mind, but I’m not even sure what state that’s in. Oh, that’s what the M stands for. Got it, alright, Massachusetts. Alright, I’ll make an application to that in my spare time and go see if I can learn something about doing aerospace stuff, and that’s what I did. I didn’t do very well there, and it took me a while to understand why. I think St. John’s teaches the scientific mode of thought. Engineering is entirely different. And learning that language and learning why partial credit was important, that sort of thing, you know, was a real challenge for me. But once I got it, I did pretty well. It was a lot of fun, learning at MIT. And then I managed to get a job at [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] JPL and worked in technology development there. I did work a little bit on Curiosity, although it wasn’t very much, to my regret. But they, some friends, not friends, some people that I met invited me to do some work at Headquarters, and I ended up working on the Exploration Systems Architectural Study in 2005, which was the first time that we were trying to go back to the Moon in the 2000s, the last time before Artemis. And so, I got to work on Constellation a little bit, and I worked for Scott Pace in PA&E [Program Analysis and Evaluation], and they asked me to stay and become a civil servant, because of course, JPLers are technically contractors. And I became a civil servant and worked in PA&E for a few years and then when the Office of the Chief Technologist was spun up, they asked me to come over and help get NIAC on track, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program. The program executive was someone I had known for ten years at that point, and he was falling behind. There was too much work to do, so he asked me to come in and help. And he made me program manager, and eventually when he moved up, I took the program executive slot for NIAC, and I’ve been there ever since. So, I’ve worked about half my career for NIAC. Host: So, I want to take a step back and continue to look at your whole, expansive career, because the topic for today is science fiction, and I know you’re a big fan of reading. Jason Derleth: Yes, I am. I love reading. I have thousands of books. I stopped counting the volumes 20 years ago. For a while, I counted board feet. Now I just count how many darn boxes I have to move when I move. And it was a lot. It’s a passion. I tend to read more fantasy literature actually than I do science fiction. I love science fiction, but there’s something about the fantasy genre that really grips me. I think the difference between them really is that science fiction is more about societies, and fantasy novels are more about the individual. And so, I tend to identify more strongly with the individuals in the fantasy novels. Whereas, you know, the day to day work that we do at NASA in some ways, science fiction inspires us, but in other ways, it kind of makes us look bad. How come we don’t have warp drive yet? I mean we had that in the ‘60s with “Star Trek,” right. I mean, what’s going on? How come you guys can’t even do “Star Trek?” That was in the ‘60s. So, that sort of inflating of what we think is possible is something we have to struggle with when we describe to the average person how difficult space travel really is, especially for humans. It’s insanely difficult. One mistake and you lose your crew, and that’s not a good day. And you know, a mistake on “Star Trek,” you lose the red shirt. Everybody else gets back home fine. Host: That’s true. And honestly, you see this all the time with particularly science fiction, it’s taking maybe a concept, maybe an idea, maybe it’s focused on one single thing, maybe consciousness or maybe space travel, just in general. And then what they do is they say, all right, what can go wrong? And a lot of the narrative is maybe on the society on how things can go wrong. At least that’s what I find when, because I think I read and watch more shows based on science fiction maybe more so than on fantasy, at least for me. Jason Derleth: Well for television, I tend to watch a lot of science fiction. I like the sci-fi shows a lot. I haven’t yet watched “The Expanse,” which I haven’t started because I kind of like having weekends. And I know I’m not going to have them once I start “The Expanse” for at least a couple of weekends. But the, gosh, what is it called, there’s this one show my wife and I have been watching quite a bit. I’ll try and look it up. The shows are just so gripping on TV, and they’ve gotten, there are so many of them now. I think it’s really been getting more and more and more. And I think “Star Trek” back in the ‘60s and ‘70s started it all, right. But the reboot as “The Next Generation” with Patrick Stewart in the ‘80s was a huge deal. And Syfy channel starting and everything coming from there. It’s just been an explosion of science fiction literature. It’s really great. Host: Yeah, I’m definitely seeing the whole landscape. That was one of the actually the things I wanted to bring up is, this is something that I’m definitely seeing, is I just feel like there’s more science fiction. And then even more specifically than that, I’m seeing a lot of science fiction being tied to human spaceflight. Maybe more so than, maybe more so than in the past. Jason Derleth: Yeah, yeah. I think so. And it’s been a real pleasure to see it. Host: Yeah. Jason Derleth: And what’s been really fascinating is to watch it get more realistic as well. I mean you go back to the late ‘70s and the release of Star Wars, and we can watch those now and say, you know, for the ‘70s, we really do see that’s pretty good graphics. That model work and everything, it holds up pretty well. But you look at a modern, I mean even something from the 1990s like Babylon 5 with its large space station, right. The graphics that were done even in the ‘90s were just phenomenal in comparison. And with the explosion of computing that’s been happening since, even since the ‘90s, computers are supercomputers compared to the 2000s. You can have them on your desk now, the supercomputers, much less the 1990s. And you can do so much with it, 4K, HD, real time, full ray tracing is here basically now. It’s really exciting. The show that I was thinking of that my wife and I are watching right now is “Altered Carbon,” which is this really fascinating, gritty sort of trying to be as realistic as it possibly can be show about what happens if you can download your brain into a chip at the base of your spine. When you lose your meat body, you can just have that consciousness put into a new meat body, right. And so, then you get these people that can change bodies because they’re very rich. And they can, the intrigue and the science, but what’s really interesting is it’s looking at the society that results from having immortality, or essentially immortality, right. And so, the societal questions are the big thing, I think, in science fiction. You can see it back in “Star Trek.” I mean the Klingons were the other or some sort of different society and having constant skirmishes with them and fights over war. They would actually put negative societal actions into the Klingons and then see what happens when they interact with the Federation and hold up the Federation as the hero. It was really interesting, and there were some challenges with other, with the other, so to speak, sorry. Anyway. Very rambling. Host: No, this is perfect. Because I was, I mean I think I’ve started “Altered Carbon,” but I know I’ve been watching more “Westworld,” which explores a lot of those same themes of immortality, so I can absolutely relate, especially with these themes. What is it about science fiction that you think, what are some of the good things about science fiction that you, things that really draw you in? Is it maybe those societal themes? Is it maybe the, maybe a little bit of technology in exploring these different capabilities? Jason Derleth: The technology is always a fun thing to watch for me as well. What, you said the good side, so I’ll keep to the good side right now. One of the techniques that a science fiction author can use is to take a fact and change it and then try and imagine what a society would look like if that fact was changed, right. So, you can do a historical fact, say, you know, what would happen if the Third Reich had gotten the bomb first, right. And then you can explore that and see what happens. I think there’s a show from Amazon Prime that has that as their theme sort of, that the Third Reich won World War II and what does the world look like? And how does that, so what’s really fascinating about science fiction to me is that is reflecting on our own society. All of those things that are in that show or that story are really just pulling out something that exists in our own society and accentuating it. And it’s either making it silly or making it threatening or making it foreboding or making it wonderful. Like what if we had warp drive? How would society change if we had a multi-star species, right? So, all of those things can be thought about and explored in science fiction, but it’s hard to do with a contemporary novel. Host: Now I know you’re focusing a lot on the good, but that did make me think, you know, obviously, I definitely tend to stray towards ideas that maybe I could lock on to and understand. But sometimes, if I’m watching a show, and I see something that may be either factually inaccurate or may be, you know, you take that fact and it spins it maybe the wrong way. It kind of takes me out of it. Those are things that might bother me. I’m sure you have a couple of those, as well. Jason Derleth: Oh yeah, there’s this great scene in I think it’s “Armageddon” where they go, and they blow up an asteroid that’s been, I don’t remember what the name of the movie was. They’re using the Moon. They’re having to do something on the Moon in this movie. And they use the low gravity of the Moon to jump over a ginormous cavern. And then they use the Moon, the Moon’s gravity to do a slingshot maneuver to move their ship much faster. Now both of those things are technically close to real, but to do both of them within five minutes of each other, the apparent contradiction, which isn’t really there. Like I said, those are both relatively reasonable things. You could use the Moon’s orbital velocity around the Earth to do a slingshot. It wouldn’t be much, but you could do it. And yes, the Moon has lower gravity, so you’d be able to jump farther. But when I saw it the first time, the juxtaposition of those two things made me think that they were trying to, you know, eat their cake and have it too, right. So, or have your cake and eat it too. But the factual inaccuracies, people don’t go to movies with me often. My wife, she doesn’t like it because I’ll start grumping in the middle of the movie. That’s not possible. I mean everybody likes to joke about the core, right. Host: Oh yeah. Jason Derleth: Yeah, the eight pieces of the ship are all carefully arranged, and then they lose one at a time or whatever it is. Well, if you didn’t need all of those pieces of your ship to function, to live, then why did you bring them with you? Host: Those major things. See this, and I think that’s a good lead into this next topic, because I think you probably experience this maybe a little bit more than most, because of your job as in the Innovative Events Concept Program. I remember just chatting with you a little bit beforehand, and you called it a very mentally demanding job. And I’ve explored a little bit of this program, and it is, I think, and maybe it has to do with, and you can maybe correct me if I’m wrong. I’ve seen so many different technologies come through, you’re just reading idea after idea. Jason Derleth: Yeah, yeah. We generally get between 200 and 300 proposals per year. And those proposals are from anywhere, so we literally have had garage and vendors funded by our program. I know one guy who in his Phase 1, he had his optics bench out in his detached garage and near the Finger Lakes of New York State. And he went on to win a Phase 2, and he’s working with the university, has a real lab now. But it’s interesting because you have to be able to distinguish fact from fiction, science fact from science fiction. But because the stated goal of NIAC is to invest in technologies that are 10 or 20 or even 30 or more years from being used first. You kind of have to have some suspension of disbelief. For instance, we funded one gentleman to talk about how you would build a new space station with an architectural technique called tensegrity, which is a very odd technique invented by Buckminster Fuller back in the 1950s. And I can’t describe what tensegrity is. If somebody’s interested, they should go look it up. You can even buy little squish toys for babies that are tensegrity toys. Essentially, what it does is it allows you to have all of your architectural pieces that are in tension, only in tension, and the tension is all along one line of force. And all of your pieces that are in compression are only in compression. And all of the compression follows one line of force. So, you can optimize your architectural structure very, very finely. And in fact, you can provide the same amount of strength as a steel beam with something on the order of 90 percent less mass of that steel beam. Now that line of force can’t really change. If it does, it’ll squish your tower funny. So, it’s almost never used for anything but art here on Earth. But this architectural person said you know what this would be really good for, is a space habitat. You could make a giant rotating space station and collapse it down into essentially an Ikea flat pack when you launch it. And then it will self-expand when it’s out there. You can then, if you design this thing correctly, add more material, more of the compressive elements and the tension elements and expand the size of the habitat. And he came up with this idea of growing a habitat by doing essentially other people will hopefully someday start in space mining. And the most valuable thing that they will be able to mine from asteroids and comets is water. But the mining process is going to leave a lot of stuff leftover. Well, with only a small amount of processing of that stuff, you could make more tensegrity components. And so essentially, the slag that’s left over becomes raw materials for enlarging your habitat size. And so, he came up with an architecture by the end of his Phase 1 work where with one single Falcon Heavy launch, you could have the internal volume of about half the space station, International Space Station. Now, that internal volume, of course, is all in one piece not divided up by modules and all that because of the way that he drew it. So, it might be less usable, because, you know, as you know, the International Space Station has every surface of every wall is useful. And they have a lot of those walls and a lot of cabins. So, they’re able to do a lot of work. And this would not be as useful for science, but it might be a nice hotel, right. So, he came up with the idea of actually trying to build this thing much earlier than the 50 or more years that I expected it to take. And then selling flats on it to help fund the building of it. And he’s actually, he’s gotten a NIAC Phase 2, and he’s moved on to, you know, trying to finish that up and look for investors, and he’s got a few interested people. Which is way farther than I thought he would get. So, how do you distinguish something that could become science fact 50 years down the road from something that is truly science fiction? And that is mentally exhausting. So, to go through 200 to 300 of these papers every year and then select the 16 or so that we are allowed to fund is my real challenge, my real job for the year. And then of course, running the program, keeping those Fellows, we call them NIAC Fellows functioning and getting them whatever they need and handling all of the paperwork for them is the rest of my job. And by the way, we just made our final selections for the year, and hopefully, by the time that this podcast goes live, you’ll be able to see the press release on what our new concepts are. Host: Wonderful. That’s why, OK, so if I were to summarize this program, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, you’re looking at all of these, all of these maybe what some would call crazy ideas, ideas that might be in its infancy, and you’re looking for results way in the future. You narrow it down, and it sounds like there’s different phases based on maybe maturity, it sounded like? Jason Derleth: So, no actually, I should describe the program in its most basic format because anyone in the United States is able to apply to it, so that’s really important to know. If you’re a civil servant, you can still apply for a NIAC grant. If you’re a university person, you can apply for a NIAC grant. If you have your own small business, you can apply for a NIAC grant. If you’re an individual, you can apply for a NIAC grant, but you have to have a small business to receive the money. So, you would have to start a small business. We do three phases of design. The first is our Phase 1, which is $125,000 over nine months to produce a white paper by the end showing that the idea that you came up with is feasible given a certain few assumptions and a good idea, as in you would want to show us that your new in space thruster, whatever it is, or you know, I’m making this up when I say in space thruster. It could be anything. But let’s take in space thruster, because that’s an excellent example of why NIAC is the way that it is. You show us the in-space thruster, let’s just say that it was a new fusion in space thruster. So, really far advanced concept that may never happen. But let’s think about it from an engineering perspective here, because we don’t ask at NIAC for you to tell us about your thruster so much as what mission your thruster could do. And we do that for a very specific reason. We want to see mission level impacts of your new technology. And so, if you say, “I’ve got this new in space fusion thruster, it’s the best thing since sliced bread, best thing for in space thruster ever been.” And then you go, and you do your analysis, you might find that your fusion thruster works just fine, but it produces a lot of heat. And because it produces so much heat, you need to have gigantic radiators on your spacecraft. And in fact, those radiators mask so much that your beautiful fusion in space thruster is less effective than current chemical compulsion is. And so, we ask for all proposers to provide us with a back of the envelop equation showing something at a system level or something anyway, showing that you are thinking about the mission concept and how this might actually be used. And so, after nine months, a quick turn of the analysis crank showing NASA that your idea actually might work in a spacecraft, OK. Or we are open to aeronautics as well, so in an aircraft would work as well. Then there’s a Second Phase for the best concepts. You can imagine Phase 1 is TRL 1 to 2 starting and 2 to 3 ending, Technology Readiness Level if you aren’t familiar with that, then that’s something you can look up, NASA TRL. TRL 1 is technically, you don’t know how this thing would be used, but you have an idea. So, none of the NIAC ideas technically fit under TRL 1. But because they’re 30 to 40 to 50 years out, sometimes we often will refer to it that way. TRL 3 is you’re ready to start testing on a benchtop to see if the physics work for your idea. And I might get some of these slightly wrong because I don’t refer to the TRL list every day. But please go look it up, and you can see what the TRL list is. And so, a Phase 2 is for the most promising Phase 1 concepts. So, they’ve done that turn of the analysis crank, and it looks promising. The radiators aren’t going to be too large to invalidate, or so large that they invalidate your design, right. So, we pick about six, so we get 12 to 16 new Phase 1’s every year. And every year we get about six to seven Phase 2’s. Phase 2’s are a two-year study with a total of $500,000 spent over the two years. And generally, it’ll raise the TRL another notch. For those that are unfamiliar with the TRL scale, I can tell you that one is your initial concept idea. You’ve had your lightbulb go off in your head. Nine means that it’s flown in space and it’s a proven technology. And so, the range goes from one to nine. And so TRL, we would imagine a phase 2 entering TRL 3 or so and exiting at TRL 4 or so or 5. And of course, the range, each individual concept is different. A lot of folks, when they first hear about NIAC they think oh gosh, well, that’s a nice thing. I’m sure that they’ve produced lots of white papers that are very interesting, and that’s true. A lot of times what we get out of a study is a white paper. But we also have exceptional performers in the program. Just like anywhere I suppose. But I haven’t really had a single Fellow come through that didn’t shine. And our highest performers, you know, in the middle of a Phase 2, we have a midterm review to make sure that the government money is being well spent and not, you know, buying somebody a nice new car or something. So, we had our midterms, this is eight years ago now for our first Phase 2’s in 2012, and we had one of our performers bring three separate functional robots to their midterm. Close to final, not flight hardware of course, but close to final configuration that could be tested for flight hardware. It was really just astounding. I’ve seen potential low gravity rovers. I don’t know what to call them. They’re not really rovers. They’re hoppers. But, you know, performers, Fellows, NIAC Fellows have brought robots that could hop on a comet. That actually are able to hop in full Earth gravity as well, they just don’t hop as far. Maybe two or three inches, which is four or five if they spin them up really fast. So, you know, that particular one was Marco Pavone from Stanford University, and he came up with this really innovative thing. It’s about the size of a cube sat, maybe one and half cube sats on each side, so 15 centimeters instead of ten on a side. And it’s a little box, and he put control moment gyros in there. And he would spin the gyros up really fast and then break them suddenly. Very, very hard. And of course, that transfers the angular momentum from the gyro to the frame. And then the frame pushes against the table and flops over, OK. And depending on how fast you spin those gyros, you can actually have the thing fly. And if you do it on a comet or a small body like Phobos, is what he was looking at, you would be able to move those rovers around on the surface quite accurately and quite long distances based on how they break those gyros. It’s really interesting. And he was coming for his midterm review, and they were walking through the Air and Space Museum here in Washington D.C., because that’s what you do when you come to NASA Headquarters is you stop the day before to go through the Air and Space Museum. And they were carrying their robot with them, and some kid said, “hey, what’s that?” And they said, “it’s a robot that we’re building for NASA.” And they said, “really, can we see?” And within about ten minutes, they had checked with security guards first and they were giving a demonstration of their NIAC concept in front of an Apollo Lunar Lander, and they had a crowd of about 50 people all watching them test their rover for Phobos there on the floor of the museum. It was really great concept. Really fun. Host: Wow. Jason Derleth: So yeah, and so NIAC people are like that. They’re bootstraps type of people. But here these people were doing public outreach for NASA with 50 people watching. You know, just really great stuff. Host: That’s fantastic. What I like about what you’re describing about this program is you’re, it’s called Advanced Concepts because you’re, and I think you spelled it out really nicely, because you were thinking so far into the future of, but there still is, even at the ground level, some element of practicality in what may be considered a wild idea. But it is grounded in practicality. Jason Derleth: Yes, yes, it is, in almost every case. Now there, you know, we try to toe the line. We actually do try to go up to the edge of science fiction. I can give you a good example of that. But before I do that, let me tell you about the third phase of study which we just added it right here. Host: Oh yeah, we missed it, total, yeah, that’s fine. Jason Derleth: Phase 3 is for technology to have real promise and have real interests from other programs or other people. It’s not necessary to have, for instance, the science mission director saying “we will give you money if you have a Phase 3. And we will implement your idea in a future mission.” It’s possible that SpaceX would be interested, and we would count that, or Blue Origin, or some other government agency like [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] DARPA could be interested in following on funding. If you have other people interested in picking up your technology after the end of a Phase 2, you can apply for a Phase 3. And a Phase 3 is two years with $2 million total funding to really eliminate the risks that the other party sees in your technology so that you can then go on and have it picked up, hopefully. That’s the purpose of a Phase 3 is actually bridging the gap to implementation. And on a TRL scale, we would expect you to get to TRL 5 or 6. Which is subsystem testing in a relevant environment, I believe. Although six to seven is often argued about at length during meetings. So, don’t quote me on that TRL definition. So, and we’ve only had two Phase 3’s so far, and both of them were very focused on implementation. So hopefully, we’ll see something in another year and a half about how well they’re doing. So, an example of edge of science fiction thinking for NIAC would be torpor, OK. So, what is torpor? We funded a study a few years back on astronaut torpor. So, you’ve often heard the term in science fiction cryosleep. The basic idea is in science fiction, the astronauts who were on the ship cool their bodies down through a mechanism on the spaceship and go into cryosleep and then they wake up when the computer warms them back up at their destination. This has been talked about in science fiction for decades and decades and decades. No one, as far as we can tell, had ever actually designed a human-rated spacecraft, even at a very preliminary level of design, to find out if that would save mass or not. It is conceivable that because you have this extensive computer system monitoring, and it’s all automated, autonomous computer system, attending to the humans that are in cryosleep, or I’ll get to why we call it torpor in a second, that you have to add so much mass for that, and you have to add so much work on the computers that by the time that you’re done, the system is larger, less efficient and more expensive than just building a normal spacecraft, OK. Nobody had ever done that study. Now what was interesting when these folks from SpaceWorks, SpaceWorks Engineering is the company that proposed this work, Dr. Bradford was the Fellow, the NIAC Fellow. And when they proposed, they were able to quote to us, well, we do torpor every day in the medical community. Someone who has a heart attack at an inopportune time, let’s just say that the local cardiac surgeon is out on Fiji on their vacation, whatever the reason is they can’t get to the hospital until the next day or two days from now. It is a common medical practice now to take this person who has had a cardiac arrest, has a damaged heart, and cool them down, put them into torpor, a cryosleep, if you will. And you can do this with a few drugs, I believe. There are other ways they’re doing it they found relatively reasonably. You can administer some of these drugs just through the nasal cavity, just plug in a breather and the person will go to sleep, and their core temperature will fall two to three degrees Celsius. And that reduces the metabolism by something on the order of 60 percent. And that keeps their heart from continuous damage. The cold helps them as well. And I actually have a personal story about this. My third child was born almost two years ago, unexpectedly, here in the very room that I’m sitting in, at home. And it took us a little while to get her to the hospital, and she had had meconium aspirations, which damages the lungs in the womb, and we didn’t know that. And by the time we got her to the hospital about 45 minutes later, she had had her oxygen saturation in her blood go down to 29, which is brain damaged level territory. Host: Oh wow. Jason Derleth: Yeah, it was very, very scary at the time. In fact, it was possible that she could have died. And that is kind of what the expected outcome is in that situation when you have a pulse ox of 29, sorry oxygen saturation level of 29, you kind of expect the person to have extensive brain damage. Well, it turns out that with newborns, if you put them into torpor for a couple of days after a low oxygen saturation event, that the brain damage that occurs can heal itself. It turns out that the damage is preliminary, but the swelling and the resulting damage from the swelling inside of the brain is what makes the scarring that causes permanent damage. And so, they put our daughter in torpor for almost three days. And I’m happy to say she’s essentially completely normal. There’s no permanent effects that we’ve seen from this event. She’s learning, talking, walking, doing everything loudly and annoyingly just like her siblings. Yeah, so torpor is something we do every day literally at hospitals probably near every listener that’s listening to this. It’s done in multiple countries. And it has been done experimentally for up to 14 days. And so, John Bradford when he proposed he said, what we want to do is take the Mars design reference architecture 5.0, which is a public document that defines one way that NASA could go to Mars and come back with astronauts and do a spacecraft for the planetary transfer that has four astronauts in torpor alternating. Every 14 days, someone new would wake up or they actually, it was something like every five days rotating so that every person slept for 14 days in torpor and they would have three or four days awake and then they’d go back to sleep in torpor for 14 days. Since that is current state of the art torpor, OK. And they said, so one person is always awake in case there’s an emergency and things need to happen quickly. And what we want to do is see what the spacecraft design would look like if we did this and what, you know, we’ll do some work on the torpor as well just to make sure that it’d be OK in space. But the main thing is would a spacecraft actually be feasible, and would it be better? And when they were done with their study, this is a pretty decent engineering analysis of what a ship would look like given the assumptions that they made, and they came out with something on the order of 40 percent less initial mass in low-Earth orbit at the end of their study. And so, is this science fiction, or science fact, or somewhere in between? I can’t answer that for you really right now because there are some pretty serious compromises that the astronauts would have to undergo. They would need to have a feeding tube put into their stomach. You know, it’s called a [Percutaneous Endoscopic Gastrostomy] PEG tube. It’s very normal. There are people that have PEG tubes at home, and they actually take nutrients or vitamins in, or medicines in, through their PEG tube. It’s not a big deal, but it might be a big deal in space. We don’t know. We haven’t done this, right. So, in the end, this is a really interesting study, and probably not something that NASA will do in the future. But it’s nice to have that study available in the literature and quotable and referenceable. And that’s another thing about the NIAC program that’s very interesting. We take all of our final reports and barring any patents or other sort of secret sauce that a company might need to keep secret to maintain a competitive advantage, we actually post the final reports up on the NASA website. You can see all of the released final reports that, you know, www.NASA.gov/NIAC, and then you can click on the completed studies link or studies link. Anything that’s older than about a year should have, has been completed for more than a year, should have its information up there available for download and reading. And what’s, it takes us a while because when we put something on a government website it needs to be readable by a screen reader, and we need to be able to use equations and tables and graphics, and all of those need to be readable by a screen reader. And so, the 508 compliance, as it’s called, to make sure it’s readable by a screen reader is extensive. And we also need to make sure there’s no [International Traffic in Arms Regulation] ITAR violations. We don’t want to be violating a law about we don’t want to, you know, arm our enemies of the state, so ITAR, International — Host: Export control. Jason Derleth: Yeah exactly, export control, ITAR. All of that has to be checked for. So, it takes us some time after the report’s been provided to us, before it’s up on the website. But I think we have over 100 up there at the moment. So, it’s a really neat program doing some really great work that has actually made a difference. We now have a science mission directorate mission called [Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory] GUSTO entirely based on one of the NIAC ideas, which was a radio astronomy can be done from the inside of a weather balloon. You put another weather balloon in, a small one that’s spherical, illuminize half of that small interior balloon, and when the weather balloon gets up to 110,000 feet, you have to have a secondary mirror that has a spherical corrector on it. But your balloon within a balloon is up above 98 percent of the atmosphere or even 99 percent of the atmosphere and can actually do radio astronomy through the two layers of Mylar with very low losses, because the Mylar is essentially transparent in some bands of the radio spectrum. So, for $35 million, they’re going to be able to hopefully in 2021, in December, fly a five-meter reflector for a total cost of $35 million, which is really exciting. Host: Wow. Jason Derleth: Yeah, it’s really cool stuff. Host: It’s across the board it sounds like. It sounds like there’s, I mean you’re talking about multiple different disciplines. You’re talking about, you know, human biology. You’re talking about space stations, like actual structures. You gave an example about propulsion. There’s so many, it seems like your kind of across the board here when it comes to the areas that you’re thinking about. Jason Derleth: Yes, and that’s one of the reasons why, as we started the whole discussion about NIAC, it can be mentally exhausting. Why I don’t read as much science fiction anymore is I’m reading so much science at work. And the television seems to work pretty well for science fiction for me, so. Host: Well, I hate to ask you for more, but I am interested in ones that are particularly interesting for a Mars mission. And it sounds like that one that’s really close to science fiction is something that’s just interesting. But I know of one in particular, and maybe it’s something that’s, I have heard of this before. I think it’s called a Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator. Jason Derleth: Yeah. Host: And it has something to do with, it’s pretty difficult when you’re thinking about a Mars mission, the entry, descent, and landing phase. So, this is a cool technology for that. Host: So there’s several NIAC studies that have been for enter, descent and landing, EDL as they like to say. HIAD, the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator is an actual STMD technology demonstrator mission, TDM. And that was essentially you, instead of using a parachute, which there are a lot of challenges with parachutes, I don’t know if you’ve ever watched the documentary that PBS did on the MER rovers and the parachutes and the inflatable bags that cushion the rovers when they landed, Spirit and Opportunity. But Adam Steltzner, Dr. Steltzner, was the person in charge of the parachute at the time, and they had one of the parachutes when they first inflated in tests just shred completely into pieces. This is after they had, you know, these are the same people that have worked on Pathfinder. So, you know, the package for Pathfinder was almost the same mass as the MER rovers. Why should the parachute have been so different? And so, after they got the shredding fixed, the next test that they did they got what’s called squidding, when the parachute doesn’t fully inflate. And they solved all of those problems and had an absolutely flawless and spectacular landing for both Spirit and Opportunity really truly tremendous mission. But there’s another way of doing a deceleration with aerodynamics, and that is you inflate what’s called a ballute. Essentially, you have a big balloon inflate on your vehicle instead of having guy wires holding a chute out in front of you. And you can inflate them very quickly like the airbags for Spirit and Opportunity, they can be inflated with a rocket motor. The exhaust will inflate these things very, very quickly. And so, the HIAD was a test that we did in Earth’s upper atmosphere up where it’s about Mars thickness where you launch a rocket up and then you fire a secondary rocket, inflate your decelerator at the appropriate level of atmosphere in Earth’s atmosphere and at the appropriate speed so that you can actually test in relevant conditions. And it worked pretty well. HIAD was a great mission. It didn’t work 100 percent, but it did exactly what we needed to do to be able to hopefully do this at Mars someday. Some of the NIACs for this are really interesting. Of course, HIAD was fascinating, and hundreds and hundreds of people worked on it, and it was a great mission. So, I’m not saying that that wasn’t interesting. But one of the most interesting ones I think we’ve had for NIAC is well, you could actually have a magnet replace a parachute or a ballute. And the way that that works is if you have a very strong electromagnet and then you inject some plasma, a charged plasma, into this magnetic field that starts bouncing around, and those charged particles hit the neutral particles that are in the atmosphere of Mars, and they knock that atmosphere apart. So, the neutral particles become part of the plasma. They get broken apart. The electron leaves. You get the proton. Yes, and so those will interact with your magnetic field. The particle momentum exchange will slow your plasma down, and the plasma will pull on your magnetic field lines and then slow your spacecraft down. But depending on the kind of electromagnet that you bring, you can actually make a plasma structure that is very large compared to a parachute or a ballute. And you can use it way up higher in the atmosphere. When the atmosphere is more tenuous, it’s actually larger. And so, you can slow down with a larger, you know, magnetic ballute, if you will, for longer and make it safer for a larger payload to slow down. But it does take a lot longer to slow down, so you have to hit the top of the atmosphere and start using it early and have a shallow or angle of descent and everything. It’s fascinating, and somebody did study. That was David Kirtley of [MSNW] at the time. That is a company up in the Seattle area. And he worked with some Langley folks. Bob Moses was one of the folks down at Langley that worked with him on that. So that was really fascinating, and it appears to be real. This actually works. They inflated a magnetic ballute in a thermal vac chamber and fired a rocket motor at it and had that plasma grow in size and have momentum exchange that they were able to measure. It really looks like it could work. Exciting stuff. Host: It seems like the things that, the examples that you’re bringing up and some of the things that seem to excite you the most, from what I’m gauging, they’re A, just wild ideas, things that are completely out of the box. But it seems like what’s really exciting is there is a level of promise to a lot of these ideas. Maybe not use maybe not in full but just a, it’s enough to make you curious, aha, maybe this is something that could actually help with human spaceflight. Jason Derleth: Oh yeah. There’s a lot of things that have come through over the years. NIAC has had a storied past. It started as an external institute run by the USRA. Dr. Bob Casanova was the program manager outside, and he had complete control over funding what he chose to fund. And he often would say, I’m not going to fund something unless somebody around the table tells me that it’s impossible. I have to think they’re wrong, of course, but somebody’s got to say this is so hard that it’s impossible, or it’s not worth NIAC to fund. So, that ran for nine years. That program ran for nine years. And it was shut down in 2007 with the Constellation Program trying to get back to the Moon, and there was no way to steer that program to help get back to the Moon. We got it restarted again in 2011, but made it open to everybody instead of making it an external research organization, now NASA people can propose to it. And it’s a great thing that we did, because there’s a lot of people at NASA that have these creative thoughts that have no way to get them considered for anything because by golly, we’re going to build Artemis right now, and that’s what we’re going to do. And that’s the right thing to do. But maybe they have an idea where else we could go on the Moon or a different technology that we could do once we get there or how to explore robotically before we send humans, you know, that sort of thing. So, all of the stuff is to me what gets really exciting is the sort of combination, as you’re saying, of really far out stuff but that might be useful right now that it makes you think differently. And I think that’s a big part of what NIAC is, is it helps us all think a little bit differently, be a little bit more excited. Host: When you hear a lot of these proposals come in, I’m wondering what inspires some of these folks to come up with these ideas. Maybe it’s something through their own research that they just put some several elements together. That medical procedure of putting someone in almost cryosleep and mixing that with the structure and massive building a spacecraft. Those are two ideas that just sort of slam together. Maybe it’s from watching or reading science fiction. Do they ever tell you stories of where they get these ideas? Jason Derleth: Yeah, they do, I think. A lot of them have actually come out of NIAC itself. We force all of our Fellows, I shouldn’t really say force. We invite all of our Fellows to get together once a year, and hopefully we’ll be able to do it this year, in person for their midterm report outs. And so, every technology project is supposed to give a report about halfway through on their progress so far. And so, we get everybody together, and we have them give these reports to the program office in front of the whole community. And every year, I’ll be eating breakfast down in the hotel restaurant or something, and someone will come up to me, and they’ll have bags under their eyes and their hair will be a little bit mussed up. And Jason, I can’t thank you enough for this meeting, because I’ve been up since last night, and we’ve been working together with these two Fellows. And I have gotten together and been talking about how to combine our ideas into something really new and useful. And I’m going to go up and shower before the meeting, you know. But I think there’s a lot of stories in the history of science about how innovation happens. And I think there’s something to this sort of NIAC is open to all different technology areas, and that makes a difference. Because when you get these people together, they have to think outside of the box to understand each other’s ideas. They have to think out of their comfort zone. If you’ve been doing in space propulsion for 27 years, or however long your career has been, and you are forced to look at somebody’s new spacesuit, and you see that some of the materials that they’re using for their spacesuit are actually materials that you’ve used for years in the clouding of your engine, your ion engine, or something of the sort, right. You make these connections across disciplinary lines, and it makes people think creatively. There’s an old story about Niels Bohr, who was the person who came up with the way that we think of the atom today with an essential nucleus and electron shells outside. And he was exciting electrons. This is just after Rutherford had really come up with the idea of the electron shells. So, Bohr wasn’t working on the actual model of the atom. He was working on why electrons seem to have specific places that they liked to go around the nucleus. So, he was exciting the atoms, and he would see light coming off as the electron fell back down from one orbit to another, it would release a photon. It would release some energy. And he noticed that the wavelength of that energy that was released was always in a whole number ratio to itself. So, you might see something come off of the wavelength, and I’ll make this up because it’s easier to understand, a one, OK. And then sometimes, though, you would see something come off with a wavelength of one-half or one-third or one-fourth or one-fifth or one-sixth. But, you would never see anything that didn’t fit into that neat fraction of 1/n, 1/n. It always fit into that. And he said, you know what, that’s like a violin string. I love music. He never played instruments himself, but he had a brother-in-law that played the violin. He would invite him over to play the violin as often as he could because he just loved music so very much. And he made the connection. That’s like a vibrating string. A string vibrates in its whole mode, and then its half mode and its one-third mode. You can remember when you were a kid and you played with strings and you made them into lobes by spinning them around and everything. Or if you were in physics and you had a spring and you saw how the vibrational modes were for a string, right. He said this is clearly, the electron is vibrating, and it has to finish a number of vibrations before it can move to a new shell. So, it can only be in distances that have the right number, the right distance for those vibrations to complete. And that’s how the electron shell model of the atom was created is because Niels Bohr loved music. And so, these different disciplines combining together, I think, is where you get the real innovation. It’s just super exciting. Host: Yeah, and it seems like maybe when, maybe, it’s almost a passive thing it sounds like. You know, you just love music, and you have an understanding of a different field and maybe just slowly you just start to realize the connections between these things. Because you’re into these two things that maybe not a lot of people are into. And all these ideas maybe come together in your head maybe better than most. So, I think the lesson here is maybe capitalize on that. If you find something, then yeah, it might be worth pursuing. Jason Derleth: Yeah, always. And having an advocation is helpful for that. But the other key thing, I think, is understanding when something is useful. And that’s something I’m not sure how to do. But when you see something and apply it to another discipline, understanding that what you’re doing is useful and helpful, that’s another challenge entirely. And that’s where the bulk of my work is, is trying to understand what these people are doing and determining whether, you know, in the original program, Dr. Dava Newman was a Fellow, and she came up with this very interesting spacesuit. She said that there are, you can draw lines on your arm. And if you draw them in just the right way, no matter how you move your hand and arm, that line will not change length, OK. You might connect a spot on your wrist up to a spot on your elbow. And no matter how you gyrate or move, that particular line, while it might shift slightly, it won’t gain length or shrink. Skin is flexible. Some parts of it will stretch. Some parts will compress. Obviously, in between the stretching and the compression parts, there’s a line that doesn’t change length. She said, “what if you took a Lycra spacesuit and you stitched Kevlar on those lines of non-extension? I’ll bet you could make a suit, a spacesuit, that didn’t have to be inflated to hold pressure against your skin.” And she did that as part of a NIAC in the first program, and it worked. She was able to make it a brand-new spacesuit that nobody had really thought of before. Lots of people had thought about it. You can actually see pictures of suits like this in science fiction. But she was able to make one that probably would work. And it’s this really amazing and beautiful suit. It’s incredibly difficult to manufacture, I understand. And that may be why we never bothered to do it. I’m not sure. But she, you know, did a really good job. She was a professor at MIT. She did great work. She managed to make some spacesuits that seems to work really well, at least on the ground and in testing. And eventually, she became deputy administrator of NASA. So that’s something too. Yeah, a pretty neat thing that she came up with. And it helped her career as an academic, and it helped her understand space in a different way. So really cool stuff. Host: Yeah. And honestly, for conversations I’ve had on this podcast, this is definitely one that had my mind more, I guess more challenged thinking about these open ideas. You know, I talk to a lot of folks that were talking about real flight hardware, so just taking the time to think about really unique and odd maybe ideas and how there’s a whole program at NASA dedicated to inspiring people to pursue those ideas is truly amazing. Jason, I really appreciate you coming on and going through some of these wild ideas with me. This was really, really fun. Jason Derleth: Absolutely. Thank you so much for the opportunity to have a great conversation like this. I appreciate it. [ Music] Host: Hey, thanks for sticking around. Really crazy ideas we went through with Jason Derleth that actually just might work for a Mars mission. Very interesting stuff. I hope you stay tuned because this is sort of kicking off what we’ll try to do is a Mars episode at the first of every month. So, this’ll be our second. We had Michelle Rucker’s episode last month. Jason Derleth kicks off the second one. And we’ll try to continue it for as long as we can come up with some of these ideas. If you have suggestions, please send them along using the hashtag ask NASA on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We’re on the NASA Johnson Space Center pages of all of those platforms. Pick your favorite one. Use the hashtag #AskNASA, submit an idea, something about a Mars mission if you want or any other topic. Just make sure to mention it’s for Houston We Have a Podcast. Thanks for sticking around. This was the first episode we recorded in quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, thanks for sticking around through some of the little sounds you might have been hearing in the background. We’re all recording from home. So, thanks for sticking with us. This episode was recorded on April 3rd, 2020. Thanks to Alex Perryman, Pat Ryan, Norah Moran, Belinda Pulido, Jennifer Hernandez and Michelle Rucker. Thanks again to Jason Derleth for taking the time to come on the show. Give us a rating and some feedback on whatever platform you’re listening to us on and tell us what you think of the show. We’ll be back next week.

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Twitter Bots Drove the Push to 'Reopen America,' Study Finds

Twitter Bots Drove the Push to ‘Reopen America,’ Study Finds

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The top 9 shows on Netflix and other streaming services this week

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