Science & Health

Inside NASA: From 3D Printing Spacecraft To Augmenting Humanity Itself

What does the guy charged with kitting out NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab do all day? He has to provide tech for the smartest people on the planet, and buy gadgets to enable the next-generation of space-flight. Despite the lofty job description, Tom Soderstrom has still found time to enable a 3D-printed spacecraft, and hopes to one day augment the way our brains work using technology. Get ready for blast-off.

Tom Soderstrom is the IT chief technology and innovation officer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the JPL (as it’s more commonly known), it’s responsible for putting cool stuff on other planets. Think the Spirit and Curiosity Rovers on Mars, the Carbon Observatory orbiting Earth, the Galileo Deep Space mission leaving our solar system and the Juno mission to observe Jupiter like never before.

Other job titles for staff in NASA’s JPL include director of the universe and similar out-of-this-world careers that give individuals operational control of entire planets.

Enter The Zoo

Tom says he sees his job as putting great new consumer technology in the hands of smart people to make their lives easier at work. To do that, the CTIO for JPL bends time around the IT industry to suit him. His theory is that three years in IT is like a decade in the real world.

“One of my jobs is looking at the future. I [map it out] in three-year increments, because that’s an IT decade. I lay out the trends for the next IT decade and then I crowdsource it with an IT innovation seminar and then the people who stay behind become the leaders of those initiatives,” he said.

From there, JPL’s tech-boffin-in-chief builds what he calls an “IT petting zoo” so that NASA staff can try it all out for themselves.

“I created a petting zoo. An IT petting zoo. We buy more or less one of everything that passes the laugh test and then let people who really could make sense of it use it in their environment. It’s all about the use case. You don’t know the use case until you try it,” he said.

If it doesn’t work out, JPL will abandon it and find something that’s better suited.

“We relentlessly drop things that don’t make sense,” he adds.

At the beginning of his career, Tom landed a job at JPL as a programmer. After that, he moved into the world of startups. Fast-paced and hectic, he describes it as being “good stressful” as opposed to the stress that makes some of us want to set our hair on fire.

After a while though, he started to miss space. He went back into aeronautics and started managing civil projects for Raytheon, before finally moving back to JPL in the CTO role. Now he’s at JPL expanding his role to include innovation, and he’s bullish about emerging tech like 3D printing.

What started out as a prototyping mission has now evolved into printing components for spacecraft.

A New Dimension

“A few years ago, 3D printing was on the horizon. Units dropped from $100,000 to $10,000. But it was still not consumer grade,” Tom recalls.

“Nobody bit, so we dropped it. But a few years later, 3D printing was starting to get interesting again, when it dropped to $1000. We brought in a few different 3D printers from different vendors like 3D Systems and Makerbot and we let people check it out in the petting zoo.

“We found that the real benefit for us was to speed up the iteration of brainstorming,” he said.

What JPL used to do was custom manufacture everything. Now, designers can come up with an idea and print it themselves in a couple of hours as opposed to months. Once other staffers started to see that 3D printing was back in a big way, they all started requisitioning them.

“There’s something special about being able to touch things,” Tom says, beaming. He adds, however, that NASA has evolved into more than just a space exploration agency. It’s now a storytelling organisation that wants to inspire people about space again.

“Now our mechanical engineers are printing things for our scientists and saying to them ‘here’s how it works, what do you think?’. Then a scientist could take that to Washington and hand it to NASA and say ‘here’s how it’s going to roll, how does it look?’. The NASA person then hands it to a Congressperson who funds it and says ‘here! put this in your office and show people what you’re doing!’ for the cost of a dollar.”

That storytelling via 3D printed objects goes beyond just getting people involved in missions, however. It’s about showing people things that are literally out of this world.

“There is a meteor that hit Mars, and as we drive around Mars we saw that meteor,” Tom recalls. “It’s interesting because it’s made out of materials that aren’t rock, it’s metal, and it was red coloured. That means there’s rust, which means it has water.

“There is a meteor that hit Mars. It’s made out of materials that aren’t rock, it’s metal, and it was red coloured. That means there’s rust, which means it has water.”

“So, our rovers drove up and took lots of pictures and sent them back, so we 3D printed what they saw and coloured it exactly the same way. When we printed it up it’s about the size of a table, and you can take it around and show it to people. All of a sudden, you can see what a meteor looks like that you can’t anywhere else, because it would burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. Because the atmosphere on Mars is so thin, it just crashed.

“That captures imagination.”

JPL engineers went as far as printing a scaled down version to take out and show people, and they even put Braille on the bottom telling the blind what it was so they could touch and feel the future for themselves.

3D printing isn’t just a novelty at NASA. While designers are using it for prototyping, hardcore scientists printed stuff that ended up on Mars.

“Our Mechanical Engineer, [William] Bill Allen, is one of the guys who designs things. When something goes into space, it has to get packaged and it unwraps itself [once it’s up there]. We gave him a 3D printer through the petting zoo and asked him what he could do with it. He just said to us ‘oh that’s a toy’, but he tried it. In a week he had reprinted his office! Cable trays and an iPhone stand and everything!

“And then what happened is that somebody walked off with his webcam, so he reprinted one. At the same time he was coming up with a design for a super-parachute that opens at 11G,” Tom says, like it’s no big deal.

That parachute turned out to be quite a big deal. It’s still the largest supersonic parachute ever made, and it was used to slow the Curiosity Rover’s flying saucer package into the Mars atmosphere. You may know it better as the Seven Minutes Of Terror.

“The design for that — the thing that actually attaches to the spacecraft when the parachute opens — was designed on a Makerbot. He started figuring it out when he did the joints for his webcam. One thing translated into the other. He worked out how [the parachute] would attach [to the module], so it wouldn’t snap off. We have example after example like that with 3D printing.

So where to next for 3D printing at NASA? Well, Tom says that he wants to create new elements for a safe and more rigid spacecraft.

“The future of 3D printing is combining and creating new 3D materials, and JPL will be a world-leader in that. For example, let’s say that you’re going to create a new spacecraft. If you’re mating two materials, there’s a weakness [where they join]. Instead, you could print it as one solid or in one take, the weakness is not there. We have one guy, Bill Hoffman, who demonstrated he has a piece of material that needs to be magnetic on one side and not magnetic on the other, and he did it with 3D printing. If you can start mixing different materials, you can create materials that don’t exist, that have new properties.

“We gave him a 3D printer through the petting zoo and asked him what he could do with it. He just said to us ‘oh that’s a toy’, but he tried it. In a week he had reprinted his office! Cable trays and an iPhone stand and everything!”

“When we did an innovation seminar on 3D printing, a mechanical engineer said that ‘I no longer have to worry about how to manufacture it when I design it. I just have to design it’. That’s a big deal.

“I woke up in the middle of the night thinking that was a deep, deep statement.”

Augmenting Humanity

JPL employs some of the smartest people on the planet, and Tom’s job is to give them the tools to work smarter and produce better results. The next thing he’s working on is augmenting the brain to think better and therefore work better. It’s what he calls Augmented Humanity.

“The Fitbit and all that are helping us with ourselves. Google Glass and the like are helping augment how we work. What’s missing is something that helps us augment how we think. We’re too interrupt-driven right now. Emails come from everywhere, text messages, so how can we start augmenting the human to think more? Give it about six months and we’ll have what we think that is.”

Tom asks me where I do my best thinking. After a bit of a ponder, I finally decide on the shower. Something about the shower completely detaches my brain from reality and frees it up to think about stuff. For Tom, it’s standing in front of the Christmas tree in his home when everyone has gone to bed. That was the last time he had a good think.

It’s also about having a great idea and capturing it, says Tom. He thinks that wearables like Google Glass v2 might be able to help with that.

“We can use it to repair an antenna…to talk about what we see and record it so it becomes a lesson for somebody else. You see the world through the eyes of an expert. That’s the augmented human.”

Tom is entering a new tech decade, and he’s here at CES looking for the next big thing. He wants one small step for tech to fuel another giant leap for mankind. He hasn’t found it yet, but like NASA, he’s searching.

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