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Inside NASA's 'Skunk Works' lab

Alan Boyle / msnbc.com

Robonaut 2 strikes a karate pose inside Building 220, a center for advanced technology development at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. A robo-twin is about to begin testing on the International Space Station.

With the space shuttle program ending, what does NASA have to look forward to? The future of deep-space exploration is already taking shape, inside the walls of Johnson Space Center's Building 220, the space agency's "Skunk Works" lab for human spaceflight.

This is where NASA once worked on the X-38, a snub-nosed space plane that might have carried astronauts down to Earth from the International Space Station. The project was canceled in 2002, and today the 12,000-square-foot building houses hardware for a succession of projects that are not quite ready for prime time. But some of them may be ready sooner than you think.

Take Robonaut 2, for example. The humanoid upper-body robot was shipped up to the space station in February, and taken out of its box at President Barack Obama's urging. ("Unpack the guy," he told Discovery's astronauts jokingly, but NASA took the request seriously.)

A Robonaut twin is set up in Building 220, and the team behind the project is putting the guy through its paces in preparation for the start of tests in orbit later this month. One of the first tasks is to figure out how the Robonaut and flesh-and-blood astronauts can work safely together in microgravity.

NASA

Mockups of habitats are lined up within Building 220 at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

Nicolaus Radford, deputy project manager for the Robonaut team, demonstrated how the earthly Robonaut was programmed to ease up if a human got in the way. When one of the android's arms knocks into you during a maneuver, it will push against you gently — as if it were a brother trying to elbow his way past you quietly. If you continue to block the arm movement, the robot will go passive in place.

Having robots programmed not to harm humans is important, not only because it will head off the robot apocalypse but also because it will lead to safer industrial robots. That's one of the reasons why GM executives are partnering with NASA on Robonaut 2. "They spend more money on the safety for robots than they spend on the robots themselves," Radford said.

However, the physics of hazard avoidance is different on the space station, where even a little bit of force could send an astronaut floating away. So Radford said Robonaut 2's software will be fine-tuned to reflect that physics. "That's specifically what we're going to be looking at," he said.

Looking further ahead, the team is already hard at work developing a pair of legs for Robonaut, so that it can carry objects from one space station location to another. "In the next 18 months or so, you're going to see legs on a robot walking around the space station," Radford said.

Project Morpheus
That will come as music to the ears of engineers working on another "Skunk Works" project on display in Building 220. Project Morpheus started out as "Project M," a concept that called for landing a humanoid robot on the moon in 1,000 days. Then reality set in, and the project was redefined. "We narrowed it down to focus on lander technology," said Jenny Mitchell, Project Morpheus' systems engineering and integration lead.

The Morpheus team turned to Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace for help in getting a prototype lunar lander off the ground — in fact, a scaled-up version of the rocket-propelled craft that won some of NASA's money in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. The methane-fueled Morpheus lander is designed to bring a 1,100-pound payload, such as a humanoid robot or a small rover, down to the surface of the moon from lunar orbit. What's more, the lander would fly autonomously, without the need for human intervention.

Alan Boyle / msnbc.com

Building 220 houses a series of Morpheus-related test items. In the far background is Armadillo Aerospace's rocket-powered Pixel lander prototype. The larger Morpheus lander sits nearby. In the foreground is a small model lander that was built from hardware-store lighting globes to study how propellant sloshes around the lander's four tanks. And a clear plastic tank at right shows how buffers were built into the full-size Morpheus tanks to minimize the slosh.

Morpheus project manager Jon Olansen said the team is well into the testing stage after spending just $5 million. He said the lander should be ready to demonstrate autonomous flights on high-energy trajectories in the next year.

The project made headlines last month when a tethered flight test went slightly off, sparking a grass fire at Johnson Space Center. Now the team is setting up additional safeguards to reduce the fire risk. YouTube videos provide multiple perspectives on the Morpheus tests.

Morpheus' team members are also widening their perspective on the eventual application of their technology. It isn't just for the moon anymore. "At this point in time, we don't need a specific destination to do this kind of work," Olansen said, "because this work will be needed for any destination."

Desert RATS
That philosophy carries over to next month's Desert RATS exercise, which is due to be conducted in Arizona after months of preparation in Building 220. "RATS" stands for Research and Technology Studies, and past studies have focused on simulating surface operations on the moon or Mars using next-generation space exploration technologies. But now NASA's vision for space exploration is focusing on sending humans to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025. That means the Desert RATS' Habitat Demonstration Unit is being remodeled for a new role.

"This year we're reconfiguring it for the deep-space habitat for an asteroid mission," said Terry Tri, demonstration unit integration manager for Desert RATS.

The wheeled vehicle that was being tested as the prototype for an electric-powered lunar rover is now being looked upon as a make-believe "multimission space exploration vehicle," or MMSEV. In an actual mission, the MMSEVs would not be rovers wheeling around the lunar or Martian surface, but would instead be thruster-powered pods designed to travel through space to make contact with an asteroid under low-gravity conditions.

Alan Boyle / msnbc.com

A rover driver gets ready to climb down from a wheeled vehicle that has been used as the prototype for a lunar rover in past Desert RATS simulation. During this year's simulation, the vehicle will play the role of a "multimission space exploration vehicle," or MMSEV. An actual MMSEV would be propelled by thrusters rather than wheels.

During this year's exercise, the rover drivers will be "pretending they don't have wheels," Tri said.

He said the 19-foot-wide habitat would serve as "the 'mothership,' if you will, that [astronauts] would return to." The habitat's lower floor has a glovebox for handling space samples, a mini-medical station, a telerobotics work station and a repair bench. The inflatable upper floor would provide living space for four astronauts.

This year, NASA held a college-level competition for the design of the inflatable part of the habitat, and the winning entry was submitted by students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The Badger X-Loft can be expanded from a 30-inch-high base into a 13-foot-high dome in about 15 to 20 minutes. Each astronaut gets a desk and a chair as well as private sleeping quarters.

Nicole Roth / UW-Madison

The fully inflated Badger X-Loft is perched atop the Habitat Demonstration Unit inside Building 220 at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

"Basically, everything's modular," team member Jordan Wachs, an engineering mechanics and astronautics and physics major, said in a university news release. "The whole design was intended that any eighth can be swapped entirely with any other eighth." 

As a reward for their efforts, the students will share an $10,000 prize and travel to Arizona to see their Badger X-Loft tested during the Desert RATS exercise. Who knows? In a few years, maybe they'll be plotting NASA's next giant leap, right here at Building 220.

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