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Enabling Sustainable Planetary Surface Exploration

11/20/2012 11:59:00 PM

I had the distinct privilege of participating in the 2012 PISCES Forum last week on the Island of Hawaii.  Like the 2011 and 2010 meetings that I attended, this year's gathering focused on developing a research park in Hawaii devoted to planetary analog research in the context of sustainable space exploration.

Dr. Buzz Aldrin was among the delegates participating in this year's PISCES conference, where he gave a keynote presentation on colonizing Mars through a sustainable strategy based upon Aldrin cyclers. With only about 50 people at the conference, there were many opportunities to interact with him closely. We spoke about how his father contributed to the early days of rocketry, what architecture is best suited for establishing a permanent Mars settlement, and what it takes to be an astronaut. He encouraged me to keep pursuing my goal of being an astronaut. Having met Neil Armstrong earlier this year, I am profoundly humbled to have met both Apollo 11 moonwalkers.

Sharing some aloha spirit with astronaut Buzz Aldrin at the 2012 PISCES Forum.

For space exploration beyond low earth orbit to be economically viable, we must learn to utilize the abundant resources that exist on other planetary bodies. For example, by mining water on the Moon, we can extract not only oxygen and water for life support but also rocket fuel to enable deep space refueling. By processing regolith and using advanced construction techniques, we can construct necessary infrastructure like concrete and solar panels from local materials. The less mass we have to lift off the Earth, the cheaper space travel can become.

All of this takes research, development, and testing of robotic technologies in environments on Earth analogous to those found in space. Given its unique geology, geography, and climate, Hawaii offers one of the most ideal settings for this type of work. The very technologies we need to survive in space to ensure we have water, food, air, energy, radiation protection, and waste recovery are the very same technologies that can help us mitigate growing problems here on Earth. As the world's most isolated island group, Hawaii is keenly sensitive to these issues and needs to achieve greater self sufficiency using local resources. Thus, planetary analog work has direct application and benefit to Hawaii as well.

For the uninitiated, PISCES stands for "Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems." It was established in 2007 as an international research and education center dedicated to the development, verification, and validation of new technologies needed for operations on the Moon, Mars, and beyond. NASA has been a close partner and customer of PISCES since its inception, having participated in PISCES field campaigns testing in situ resource utilization technologies on the flank of Mauna Kea in 2008, 2010, and 2012. NASA and the State of Hawaii signed a Space Act Agreement in 2010 and annex in 2011 to pave the way for collaboration in a number of areas, including analog research. PISCES Director Rob Kelso, who had a distinguished 38-year career with NASA serving as Space Shuttle Flight Director and Manager for Commercial Space Development in the Commercial Crew & Cargo Program Office, summed up PISCES as follows:

"Our goal is to become the preferred provider for space agencies and commercial space businesses around the world that are developing technologies to help enable and sustain planetary surface exploration." -- Rob Kelso

The first day of the 2012 PISCES Forum featured a series of keynote addresses and panel discussions with distinguished experts from NASA, industry, and academia. Major themes included "dust to thrust" and "rocks to blocks," indicating how local materials can be turned into fuel or building materials. NASA Chief Exploration Scientist Dr. Michael Wargo spoke on the three R's for enabling human space exploration: Radiation, Regolith, and Reliability. A combination of remote sensing and in situ data, along with terrestrial-based analog research is required to answer questions in these areas to fill Strategic Knowledge Gaps (SKG's) identified by expert groups such as LEAG, MEPAG, and SBAG. Dr. Clive Neal spoke on the importance and availability of lunar resources, and Jim Keravala of Shakleton Energy Company presented his company's ambitious plan to develop space propellant depots from lunar water. Dr. Paul Hintz of NASA spoke on regolith processing to make solar panels, heat shields, concrete, and landing pads.

The second day of the conference was filled with technical presentations on a number of topics related to mining, infrastructure, construction, robotics, mission concepts, and education & public outreach. Several of the talks dealt with how to make concrete from the local basaltic regolith on the Moon or Hawaii. 3D printers that use concrete as a medium are one very interesting technology that could construct infrastructure needed for a lunar base. The students from the Alabama Lunabotics team were there along with their winning robotic miner. Google Lunar X PRIZE team White Label Space also brought its rover to the conference. I gave a presentation based on my UND thesis how humans might work to carry out geophysical surveys on other planets and how the HI-SEAS habitat on Mauna Loa could be used as a base of operations for follow-on field tests.

The press conference held on the second day of the meeting garnered some local and state news media attention with front page stories in newspapers West Hawaii Today and Hawaii Tribune Herald. The Honolulu ABC affiliate KITV 4 News aired a story as well, which you can watch below or here.

During the third and fourth days of the meeting, everyone broke into working group sessions related to PISCES strategy, outreach, and technology. The strategy and technology working groups focused on developing the business and operations plan to carry the PISCES organization forward for the next few years in light of the significant $2.3 million funding investment already made by the State of Hawaii. On June 27, the governor signed into law HB2873 HD2 SD2 CD1 (CCR 146-12), which moved PISCES from the University of Hawaii at Hilo to the State Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism and allocated funds for the 2012-2013 fiscal year. This follows SB0112 SD1 HD1 CD1 (CCR 164-12), which the governor signed into law on May 11 to acquire a FAA spaceport license for Kalaeloa Airport (where I trained as a private pilot) and promote space tourism in Hawaii. In both cases, these bills enjoyed bipartisan support, easily passing both houses of the state legislature without a single nay vote. This is because the State of Hawaii sees the value in promoting a strong aerospace industry as an economic driver, job creator, and incubator for sustainable technologies.

I thank the Hawaii Office of Aerospace Development for their generous support that enabled me to attend the 2012 PISCES Forum.  The conference concluded with an inspiring luncheon keynote by entrepreneur and philanthropist Henk Rogers.  I'll close with his words:

"The most amazing thing to happen to this planet in its entire history is life. It doesn't matter whether you believe it's spontaneous generation, panspermia, or divine intervention. Life is still the most amazing thing that ever happened on this planet. If we found a barren planet and we brought life to that planet, it would be the most amazing thing that ever happened to that planet. I would go so far as to say nothing we will ever do as a species will equal bringing life to another planet. We have the ability to do it now. What are we waiting for? It may well be the reason we exist." -- Henk Rogers

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Location: Waikoloa, Waikoloa Village, HI 96738, USA

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