A conversation with NASA’s Dave Lavery

09 January 2013

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On Monday, I had the opportunity and pleasure to have a discussion with NASA’s Program Executive for Solar System Exploration, Dave Lavery. During the course of the conversation, Dave answered my questions on where robotic exploration stands within NASA, the mission objectives and future of the Mars rovers, his role in robotic education and more.
The full interview is below.

Eric Wind: What’s your title at NASA and what do you do?

Dave Lavery: My official title is Program Executive for Solar System Exploration, and that basically means is that I’m the person at NASA who has full-time responsibilities for several of the Mars exploration missions. Several of us have that job; responsibilities for different missions.

How much information do you think we can get out of robots or rovers, or are we reaching the limit of what rovers are capable of doing?

I think there’s still an enormous amount that the rovers and robotic systems can do. Right now, realistically, given it’s the only option we have, at least for the time being, we intend to exercise them as much as we can. Certainly the rovers that are there now – the two that are still operating right now, the Opportunity and Curiosity – are both enormously capable and represent the best that we are able to put on the surface of the planet right now.

We still have plans on extending those capabilities further; making them more capable, more intelligent and more autonomous as much as we can until we eventually get to the point where we can put humans on the planet.

Having said that, are they as capable as any human being? No, not yet, far from it. But, they are much better than nothing at all, or waiting until we can put a human there which could be decades away.

What’s the role of people in space exploration currently? Is just building these rovers, or continuing ISS missions, or missions for the moon?

Well, right now, humans are obviously building and operating the systems that we’re sending to the planet. We do have humans occupying the International Space Station continuously.

In addition to that, in terms of where we’re going to next, whether it’s going to be to the moon or onto asteroids or onto Mars; all of that is wrapped up in a redefinition process that we’re going through to redetermine and refine our ongoing human exploration strategy. So, that is actually something that is very much in development right now and we hope to have the agencies overall structure and strategy within the next couple months.

What’s the next big thing for robotics and space exploration?

Well, in terms of hard space exploration we’re working on now, we just landed the Mars Curiosity rover just a few months ago and beginning its own explorations of Mars. I think we just announced over the holidays, that we’ll actually be building a second iteration of Curiosity which will be launched around 2020.

The intent is that we’ll build a rover that is Curiosity’s twin sister, if you will, with the main difference being different size payload on board. It will take advantage of everything Curiosity finds and teaches us, and use that knowledge to help us define science package which will answer the next set of questions that Curiosity will raise.

What is an example of a question that Curiosity has raised?

Well, for example, the primary mission for Curiosity and one if its top-level objectives was to go and find an environment that is capable of potentially harboring life. That is not to say that Curiosity is looking for life. What it’s looking for environments on Mars that could have supported life. All of that is one of the steps for us to get to the question, “Was there ever life on Mars?”

Curiosity’s prime mission was two Earth years long, or one Mars year, and it was going to take about that long to get to a region where we could explore and find definitive evidence of a habitable environment. Well, it turned out that it actually took a month and a half. In the first six-weeks of operation, we were able to find an ancient river bed that Curiosity came across and was able to positively identify it as a region where there was a lot of water over an extended period of time in this region. By that, I mean that we could tell this was a region between two and four meters of water going by at two to four meters per second for many tens of thousands of years. Basically, there was a river here at one point in time, and for a long period of time. When we put together the fact there was a lot of flowing water here over a long period of time, we got that this was a warmer environment, a wetter environment and in addition to everything else we know that was there, it was the definition of a place where life could have existed. All the environmental characteristics are there.

So, Curiosity has found that already. What it will continue to do now is to explore over a larger region, to see how many other places like that we can find in the explorations. Now it becomes a matter of understanding, if at least one place on Mars was like that, then how many more can we find – how widespread a pattern of habitability can we begin to define. That’s what Curiosity is going to continue to do and try to find out just how ubiquitous this region of habitability may be.

One of the things it does raise is it’s going to define this one area on the planet, if we know that the environment was able to support life, then the next step is to say, ‘Okay, now we know where to look and these were the places that were able to support life, or the potential for life, then the next question is let’s go back to those places and actually search for signs of ancient life, if it ever existed.’ And that is one possible — and I’m wording this carefully because the final mission definition hasn’t been finished yet — but that’s one possible payload that the sister of Curiosity could carry in 2020.

Do you think people are still as excited about space exploration as they were 20 or 30 years ago?

What I can say based on recent events, in terms of interest based on landing on Mars and the massive positive public reaction that happened with that, as well as the very significant interested associated with what has been done with the space shuttles, and also just your question “What’s next?” Based on those observations, I think there is still a very strong interest on the part of the public in space exploration. That’s one of the things that NASA has been trying to step up to. You’ve seen all of our other stuff, and you should wait to see what we have coming next.

To that point, I’m sure there are still skeptics. What do you say to people to let them know how space and robotics are relevant to them?

There are several different ways that everything we do in the space program really comes back down to improving life here on Earth. First and foremost, one of the comments that people have many times is “We’re spending all of this money in space,” the reality is we haven’t spent a dollar “in space.” Everything we do is based on people who work here on Earth to design, build and launch these systems. That is a very significant market share in terms of the potential for advanced technology, high throughput jobs that are part of the American economic engine.

In addition to that, in terms of the investment that we make for every one of these activities, the return is the spin-off terrestrial applications. Depending on the studies you look at, the return is somewhere between 7-to-1 and 9-to-1. In other words, for every dollar we spend $7 – $9 are returned back into the U.S. economy in the form of spin-off products that can be used for other terrestrial application. The return in that sense is for future markets and future business opportunities for future products that would get consumed by the public on a very regular basis.

Those are both the practical reasons. Beyond that, the thing that it really does; it really feeds directly into our need to explore and to understand beyond our own personal experience. It basically gets to, as a nation, we have a history of being explorers. We are always trying to find and seek out what is beyond the next hill. That is part of what we are trying to do in space, as well. We are trying to understand what is beyond our Earth and what is out there, and are these places of interest or are these places that we can go. In the short term, that may mean going virtually through the eyes of a robotic system. Eventually, it will be sending people to these places. It’s addressing all of that.

We heard and enjoyed an anecdote you told in a previous interview, about Colin Angle building a robot called Tooth with just a few hundred dollars in Radio Shack parts. What role do you think DIYers have in space exploration or robotics, if any?

Well, the community of – what we used to call – hackers, in terms of robotic systems, still has an enormous role to play. One of the wonderful things about robotic systems right now is while there are some very advanced capabilities that are being developed in labs of universities and research organizations, the technology is still accessible enough.

People who are interested enough or who have a shop at home or garage, can get deep into the technology very very easily and very affordably. That allows people to make some very significant advances to, number one, just build their own machine and understand how they work and to get inside the technology, but then it has the potential to take different components and put them together into new ways and actually raise new additional technologies that can be spun back into these larger projects. It’s all absolutely right there.

I’d like to touch for a moment on robotic education. First, how did you get started in robotics?

For me, in my case, it was a situation where I had wanted to work in the space program ever since I was very young. Like everyone growing up in that particular time, my first thought was I wanted to be an astronaut, but I found out when I went into high school that my vision was so bad. At that time, the way you got to be an astronaut was you had to be a military test pilot first. My vision was so bad that I couldn’t be a test pilot and then I couldn’t be an astronaut. So, I said if I can’t do that then maybe I can just work on the machines and go into space with them as my proxies. Then I started studying artificial intelligence, became trained as a computer scientist, did graduate work and got a job working with robotic systems. I came to NASA on the robotics technology program, and then later the planetary robotics program, and that is sort of how I worked my way through it.

Basically, it was a desire to, first, go to space but then if I couldn’t physically do it myself then I would have my machines go there for me.

What’s been your role in advancing robotic education?

One of the things that NASA, across the entire agency, has done is get very involved in several robotic education activities. The biggest involvement we’ve had would be in FIRST Robotics. That is something I actually started 18 years ago when I was running the robotics technology program for the agency, and became aware of it first and became involved personally. I realized very quickly that these students who were going through the FIRST Robotics competition programs were the very students we were looking for to help fill the pipeline of robotics researchers that we were going to need for the future.

So, I brought the FIRST program back to my research organization and got the rest of NASA involved to the point where we sponsored one team 18 years ago, we now sponsor over 300 teams and ever NASA field center is involved. We are now personally in touch with tens of thousands of kids every year through our programs.

What would you tell kids is the importance getting into engineering or robotics?

The first and highest message is engineering, technology and science careers are just plain fun. These are areas where you have the chance to be creative, to be innovative and do things that no one has ever done before, and basically bring a whole new capability or technology to the world. You can have an enormously fun time doing it. Really, it’s a career you can have creating new things. It’s not something that you have in other markets. That’s the biggest part of it.

Beyond that, if you do what you do well, then you can be paid for it very well. Look at some of the wealthiest people, not just in this country, but across the world. The icon would be the Bill Gates’ of the world, who made their money because they created a new thing that the world wanted and the world needed. You’re not just limited to make your fortune to being an entertainer or playing basketball, but you can be very well rewarded for being innovative.

Just one last question. You said in a past interview that your name has been on a rocket every 26 months. How many rockets has your name been on exactly?

Well, my name, or finger print, or thumb print, or what have you, is virtually on the Mars missions I’ve worked over the years.

The first one I worked on was the Mars Pathfinder mission, which was launched in ‘96 and landed on the Fourth of July 1997. I worked on the Sojourner rover that was on-board that lander. After that, basically I’ve had some role either direct or indirect with every mission since then. The ones that I particular that I had a very hands-on, participatory role in were the Mars Polar lander in 1998 – which did not work. Obviously, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2003. The Spirit finally turned off a year and a half ago, and the Opportunity is still going. Then, Curiosity, which was supposed to launch in 2009 but launched in 2011 and only recently landed.

Beyond, I also had much more rich roles in things like Mars Climate Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, the MRO in 2005 and Phoenix in 2007.

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Eric Wind

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