In our cover story on the local private spaceflight pioneers at Armadillo Aerospace, we mentioned that the team's contract work with NASA included testing a set of legs for a lunar lander based on an Armadillo design. At the time, NASA's big plans to return to the moon were all getting scrapped, and that lunar lander contract with Armadillo sure didn't seem like it'd amount to much.
But Technology Review has the word on "Project M," a just-announced NASA scheme to "land an operational humanoid robot on the moon in 1,000 days." The plan is to combine the Armadillo-built lander with the "robonauts" NASA unveiled earlier this year into one thrilling beat-the-clock mission to land on the moon, walk around and carry out a few experiments designed by students, and to do it 1,000 days from now.
Around the private spaceflight industry, one of the big knocks against NASA is that none of the agency's recent work has done much to get the public psyched about space exploration -- especially kids who might find themselves inspired to a career in science. Now, says the agency's "Project M" memo, "NASA has the opportunity to once again inspire the nation, amaze the world, and make the impossible possible."
Folks at Armadillo always struck me as pretty ambivalent toward NASA when the agency came up in conversation, so I wanted to get their take on the thrilling robo-news. I got Armadillo's vice president Phil Eaton on the phone, and he told me they've known about the plan since late last year and had been asked to keep it quiet till now. And while, sure, they're glad to get the business, this kind of "flagship project" isn't really Armadillo's style.
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"Project M" calls for a lander like the one in the video above to propel itself from lunar orbit down to the moon's surface for a smooth landing. Eaton says that while NASA has remained committed to building a lander with a single engine, he's hoping they'll come around to a design he says flies more reliably, with four or eight engines. NASA's the customer, of course, but Eaton says they're still at odds over some basic design pieces, like whether or not the lander even needs legs to stand on. (Years of rocket tests have convinced Eaton that Armadillo's rockets will be just fine without landing gear.)
Eaton says fellow Armadillomen Neil Milburn and Russ Blink have gotten to see the robonauts in person -- from the waist up, anyway. While they can handle tools alright, says Eaton, "I don't think that they're quite there as far as the legs are concerned." Rolling a robot around the surface would be no problem, but NASA's plans are for a robot that walks. "The reason for that -- and I'm gonna keep my position to myself here -- but they're trying to keep themselves positioned for the next step" -- to get a real, live person back up there.