You might have heard that NASA lost a test spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, August 9. Called Morpheus, it was a prototype for an unmanned craft to land softly on the Moon. NASA is working with Armadillo Aerospace, a small Mesquite, Texas company with fewer than a dozen employees, to develop Morpheus. NASA’s Project Morpheus website says it “represents not only a vehicle to advance technologies, but also an opportunity to try out ‘lean development’ engineering practices.” Armadillo places a strong emphasis on a rapid build and test cycle, and NASA seems to be following their example. The Morpheus project is considered lean and low-cost by NASA, having spent less than $7 million over the first two and a half years.
Designed to carry 500 kilos to a soft landing on the Moon, Morpheus burns methane and oxygen, which are considered “green” fuels, since they can be created from carbon dioxide and water. In fact, methane is a waste by-product of the Sabatier Reaction hardware used on the International Space Station to recover water from exhaled carbon dioxide. The water is then used to produce the oxygen required by the crew. The 450 kilos of methane produce by the ISS each year would be enough to fuel a Morpheus Lunar Lander. As NASA notes, methane and oxygen can also be made from ice on the moon or Mars.
As you might expect, the key to the success of an unmanned vehicle is the software. Both the internal controls on the spacecraft and the Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) system are software-driven. NASA will test the next iteration of Morpheus in a 100 meter-square hazard field that includes five potential landing pads, 311 piles of rocks and 24 craters that mimic an area on the Moon’s south pole. The ALHAT system will use a variety of sensors and algorithms to safely land in an unknown debris field, in the dark, without human guidance. It’s a neat trick, and it will depend on iteratively developed software and hardware like that being tested with Morpheus.
For a while now, we’ve been hearing that Agile and Lean approaches to product development can be translated to fields other than software. It now appears that, while Agile isn’t rocket science, rocket science seems to be benefiting from Agile and Lean.