Episode 1: Build It - Faster, Better, Cheaper

Season One | Episode 1

Build It: Faster, Better, Cheaper

Deep space exploration can be a high-stakes venture and any failures can be costly, setting you back years. In an era of significant budget cuts, learn how NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Lockheed Martin innovations made spacecraft faster, better, cheaper and changed the future of building spacecraft for deep space exploration.

We "flash forward" with a segment looking at what that future may look like 50 years from now. An expert discusses how digital transformation using AI and machine learning algorithms to process high-rate data, and even self-healing structures, will be instrumental in accomplishing the missions of the future.

Thank you to our guests on this episode of Lockheed Martin Space Makers for their time and expertise:

Rob Manning from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Calvin Craig and Andy Speicher from Lockheed Martin

Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Host: Welcome to Lockheed Martin Space Makers, the podcast that takes you out of this world for an inside look at some of our most challenging and innovative missions. My name is Ben, and I'll be your host. This season, we’ll explore the future of space with past and present missions that are shaping our path forward and chat with experts about what they think the space industry will look like 30, 40, even 50 years from now. Now let’s “go” for launch! 

[00:00:35] In the 1990s, the space industry reached a tipping point, a kind of make-or-break moment. NASA had been doing missions for decades before that era, and over time, those missions became increasingly more expensive. NASA knew it couldn't keep operating at the status quo, especially with newly faced budget cuts affecting their programs. That meant missions set to explore our solar system or planets, like Mars, would not be possible if they couldn't find ways to reduce the cost dramatically. NASA and the entire space industry had to figure out how to do more with less. 

Companies like Lockheed Martin and organizations like NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, JPL for short, had to find ways to build spacecraft faster, better, and cheaper. This is why deep space exploration in the 1990s was called the Faster, Better, Cheaper era. You can usually have two out of the three, but not all three, which made this bold initiative somewhat controversial. Faster, Better, Cheaper would be a considerable challenge with high risk, but with great risk comes great reward.

Companies like Lockheed Martin and organizations like NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, JPL for short, had to find ways to build spacecraft faster, better, and cheaper. This is why deep space exploration in the 1990s was called the Faster, Better, Cheaper era. You can usually have two out of the three, but not all three, which made this bold initiative somewhat controversial. Faster, Better, Cheaper would be a considerable challenge with high risk, but with great risk comes great reward.

The lessons learned from this era have been foundational to how we do space today, and we'll explore how some of these groundbreaking missions may shape what is to come in the next 50 years. Let's look back into an era of space shaping the future, starting with Rob Manning, who works for JPL, NASA's research and development center for deep space. 

[00:01:57] Rob Manning: I am currently Jet Propulsion Laboratory's chief engineer. 

[00:02:00] Host: and Calvin Craig from Lockheed Martin. 

[00:02:06] Calvin Craig: I am the director of systems engineering for the Lockheed Martin Space businesses area. 

[00:02:09] Host: They'll give us an inside look of what it was like to work on those missions during that era. 

[00:02:13] Rob Manning: To understand faster, better, cheaper it's important to understand the era that preceded it. NASA had a series of very large and expensive missions. There was a real sense that each mission was the last boat out of town and so scientists rushed NASA and said, “And we want to fly this. If you're gonna go to Mars or Jupiter, you need to carry these instruments. You have to carry my instrument. You have to do this.” And so, there's a sense that these things got heavier and heavier and more complex, and the price went higher and higher and higher. 

[00:02:42] Calvin Craig: In 1992, Dan Goldin, who was the administrator for NASA said were gonna do many missions and we're gonna do them faster and we're gonna do them for a lot less money. And the better part came from the idea of we're gonna, we’re gonna go places that maybe we haven't gone before, 'cause if you can imagine if you're only doing one mission every five years or something like that, you can only pick one specific spot to go. So no matter how good the satellite is and all the things that it does, it still can only collect data from that one point in the solar system. So, the idea was. let's not Put all our eggs in one basket. 

[00:03:16] Rob Manning: Yeah, and there some way to chop these eggs into smaller pieces and allow us to do more per-mission by having more missions that will lower cost? At the same time, he was challenging all of us in our industry to figure out ways to do things at lower cost. 

[00:03:32] Calvin Craig: Stardust was one of those missions and that mission was scoped so the spacecraft and the sample-return capsule were budget-capped at about $70 million. 

[00:03:42] Host: NASA chose JPL to manage a new program called discovery. It was a series of missions focused on science. Stardust was one of those missions in that series. And Lockheed Martin was contracted to build the spacecraft at 5% to 10% of the budget they had in previous missions.

[00:03:59] Rob Manning: In a faster, better, cheaper era, because the risk was seen to be owned locally, and we were encouraged, all of us were encouraged to be innovative. Such that the mission works, and we come in on budget and on schedule. We had a lot more freedom back then, to innovate. 

[00:04:15] Calvin Craig: As I went through that program, it became pretty apparent that we were doing things that hadn't been done before in a way that they hadn't been done before. The whole idea was that we were going to launch in 1999 and fly through the tail of a comet, take samples of it.

[00:04:31] So there's a mechanism/instrument on the spacecraft folded up inside the sample-return capsule. The sample-return capsule opens up. There's an arm that extends and it has a grid of what's called aerogel in it. We used to call that liquid smoke, basically, because that's kind of what it looked like. It was like you captured smoke in almost like a liquid or solid form.

[00:04:52] And what would happen is it would slow these comet particles, very small comet particles, right. We're talking sub-millimeter comet particles from a relative velocity of around six kilometers per second to zero, right. ‘Cause it has to stop it. 

[00:05:07] Host: Wait, did you catch that these tiny particles are moving five times faster than an armor-piercing round fired from a gun. That's fast. Then this gel has to catch these particles in a way where it doesn't destroy it. 

[00:05:21] Calvin Craig: And so, you're talking about a lot of energy. That's being dissipated because you're slowing down something that's going extremely fast. And so, this aerogel had to cushion that and not alter the particle that it was capturing. So that sample-return capsule had a thermal protection system on it that we had to test out and that kept it safe as it went back through the atmosphere and parachuted down and bring those samples back to the Utah desert in 2006.

[00:05:46] Stardust set multiple world records. I'll say, I call them world in quotes, right. Because these are really things that are done outside of our world, but it set the record for deepest in the solar system on solar power. Now that's since been broken by a couple of missions, but at the time the solar cell technology was not very advanced, right.

[00:06:05] Was less than half as efficient as what we're flying today. We had to survive on a very little bit of power. So now restricted on budget and time. We actually only had 170 Watts that we could use. So, think about that. That's three light bulbs in your house that we could fly the satellite on. I took six months to design [laughs] the sample-return capsule avionics. And then my supervisor came to me and said, "well, what do you know about solar cells?" I said, "not much." He explained to me what he knew. It took him about 20 minutes, and he said, that's what I know. He said, "I need a solution for this because we don't have enough power."

[00:06:36] So I came in with this idea of, "Hey, we could reconfigure the solar arrays dynamically in flight. Instead of kicking me out of his office, he said, "well, you know what? Go downstairs and run a test with this qualification solar panel." We had and some Hollywood lights that were really bright lights and see if it's gonna work or not. And so, we did that and eventually, you know, long story short, we flew it and got us there and back. You know, it's not like I was the only person doing this, right. I mean, everybody on the team had to come up with these innovations or else we weren't gonna make it. We either, weren't gonna launch on time. We weren't gonna perform the way that we needed to perform to make the mission happen, or we weren't going to uh, meet our budget. And this gets back to another key of why this customer teaming relationship was good was because both of our management teams understood the idea that innovation was gonna be key. Right. We couldn't do things exactly the same way that we'd done them before 

[00:07:26] Host: These discovery class missions were competitive. To help drive innovation, the space industry, academia organizations, and NASA would often form teams to compete against each other. So, for Calvin, at Lockheed Martin, JPL wasn't just a customer. It was a team partner. 

[00:07:42] Calvin Craig: It wasn't just about a customer giving us requirements. It was a team that we were building between both the customer and the contractor in our case, Lockheed Martin. But that teaming arrangement actually was what enabled us to turn the satellite from clean sheet of paper in June of 1996 to a launch in February of 1999, which is very rapid in in a spaceborne application.

[00:08:06] Host: At the time, it usually took around seven to 12 years to build most spacecraft. Lockheed Martin and JPL built Stardust in half that time. Stardust was an ambitious discovery mission that would provide the science community with valuable information about our solar system. 

[00:08:22] Calvin Craig: The biggest thing that they were hoping to learn was a window into our past a window, into the formation of the solar system and how different things may have been formed from comets or did comets seed life, or how did that all come about?

[00:08:35] I can tell you that part of the mission as we flew through the comet, we didn’t realize that comets were as active as they are. I mean, literally had jets coming off of the comet nucleus all the time. So, we took a lot of pictures obviously, as we went by the comet as well. And so even before we had brought the samples back, we really had revolutionized mankind's understanding of what comets do and how they behave as they're orbiting the sun or whatever body they happen to be orbiting.

[00:09:02] Host: Stardust's unique ability to capture particles moving at extreme rates of speed and return them to Earth in pristine condition was kind of, in a way, a proof of concept to solve a problem much closer to Earth -- "space junk." Remember how those tiny particles captured by Stardust's aerogel were moving five times faster than an armor-piercing bullet?

[00:09:21] Now try to visualize a spacecraft in Low Earth Orbit having to avoid "space junk bullets" traveling around 15,000 miles per hour. And that's precisely why these objects are posing a significant problem. In fact, the International Space Station had to conduct three debris avoidance maneuvers in 2020 alone.

[00:09:41] The US Space Force now tracks around 25,000 orbiting objects using Lockheed Martin's Space Fence radar, which can detect space junk down to the size of a marble. But we're still pouring hundreds of millions of dollars a year to protect spacecraft from space junk collisions. Until now, we've primarily played a defensive game, but could we take a more offensive role against space junk in the future?

[00:10:04] In the future we could have re-usable boosters launch into low Earth orbit and deploy massive arrays. Kind of like space nets, composed of advanced materials similar to that aerogel we used in the Stardust Mission, but this used to collect pieces of space junk. This array would orbit until the net was full, fold or roll up into a capsule, and then return to Earth with a bounty of precious metals.

[00:10:25] It’s even possible that space junk salvaged could be utilized by colonies on the moon and Mars, where materials like aerospace-grade aluminum and titanium are scarce. What was once a major problem for humanity might become a valuable resource to support colonies on other planets. I mean, we already spent the resources to get it out there; now, all we have to do is capture it and send it on to support ongoing missions. Solving our space junk problem will take the same innovative and determined spirit behind the faster, better, cheaper era.  Stardust proved to be a successful mission in more than one way.

[00:11:04] It was a ground-breaking, innovative spacecraft that was built faster at a fraction of the cost. However, missions would become increasingly more difficult as they kept pushing the limits of faster, better, and cheaper. Along with the other organizations within the space industry, NASA, Lockheed Martin, and JPL would have to learn how to work better as teams to meet these new demands.

[00:11:25] Rob Manning: Every time we try to do a new mission. The budgets were tightened up. NASA was trying to find a sweet spot. How low can we go? How much, how low these budgets can be and, and still. Push the scope envelope, every single mission opportunity. But on the other hand, at some point, you've got to be careful because just think about all these missions to get anything to work at all requires thousands, hundreds of thousands of things that have to go.

[00:11:49] Right. It's unbelievable. All it takes is one mall thing, even with a redundant architecture, it takes one thing to cause this the whole system to come to its knees and fail. And we have to be careful of crossing the line between confidence and hubris, a very important line. And all... none of us are good at knowing the difference between the two. our business requires us to be confident. We have to be brave. We have to be willing to try hard things. 

[00:12:22] Host: What I think Rob means about the thin line of confidence and hubris, is that you want to believe that you have the ability to do what you're setting out to accomplish. But, that line of pride that blinds us to the pitfalls is not always clear. This is especially true when you're trying to find the bottom line of success and failure. 

[00:12:41] Calvin Craig: And I'll say that it became much more like a single team so much so that when we were doing, like mission operations, for instance, JPL could fly the spacecraft, Lockheed Martin could fly the spacecraft. Most of the time, Lockheed Martin was prime out of their mission operations area, but JPL could take over and fly the spacecraft at any time from their mission operations area out in Pasadena, California. And I think that the thing that really helped us with that was everybody was focused on the mission. We've got a mission to do as a team. We've gotta go collect these samples from this comet. And at the same time, I should, I'll put a little bit of background on this, right? ‘Cause faster, better cheaper is kind of maligned, I'll say in the industry. Now, if you, if you hear people talk about it, they'll kind of say, oh my gosh, you know, what a mistake That was because we did have some failures and two of those failures were our sister spacecraft.

[00:13:27] So we had, um, we had Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter that were being developed at the exact same time as Stardust. We had, we had three launches within like three to four months if I recall correctly. So, it was a really hopping team and we shared a lot of components between the different spacecraft and it just so happened. Stardust was successful, the Mars spacecraft were not.

[00:13:50] Host: The unsuccessful missions to Mars that Calvin was talking about was the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander.  The Mars Climate Orbiter was lost due to a navigation error caused by a variance in the propulsion system. The system was written in English engineering units instead of the NASA-mandated metric units.

[00:14:08] Rob Manning: The biggest mistake that we collectively made. All of us, everybody, And I was there. We didn't appreciate how important it was for the navigators to know exactly what residual forces those thrusters were imparting, because it turns out over time. It's about equivalent to a force of a toilet paper square on your hand. And so that's how small the forces are that they were, they were worrying about. What we didn't appreciate is just how important is get that number right. 

[00:14:36] Host: Imagine holding a single square of toilet paper in your hand. It's incredibly light and its weight is practically imperceivable, but that tiny amount of force over time was just enough to nudge the spacecraft off its course. Instead of orbiting Mars, it burnt up in the atmosphere. A few months later in December of 1999, they would lose another spacecraft, the Mars Polar Lander. While trying to land -- it crashed on the surface of Mars. The teams think that the most probable cause of the failure -- was the descent engines turned off too early -- because of a lander leg switch that made the spacecraft think -- it had already reached the ground when the legs deployed. 

[00:15:16] Rob Manning: Both Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander were very go- they got very close to working. They did. We just didn't have enough people and time to pull it together. Nevertheless, there was a lot of pressure. And Dan Goldin at the time was eager to push the envelope, waiting for the failures. The travelers, I got them all in a row in one year in 1999. 

[00:15:34] Host: You remember how I said in the beginning that the faster, better, cheaper era had its high risks, but also its high rewards? Well, these mission failures were part of the risk of pushing the limits to make things affordable. And it was expected. NASA's administrator at the time, Dan Goldin, said that, “If the gain is great, the risk is warranted. Failure is okay as long as it's on a project that's pushing the frontiers of technology.”

He wanted engineers to take a calculated risk and push the limits. Mr. Goldin believed that if they were playing it too safe, they weren't learning anything. However, what wasn't expected was to have all of these failures in a row, all in one year. This was a huge blow to the teams and the organizations involved. Obviously, they didn't want failures, but it's inevitable when you're talking about how incredibly difficult it is to send spacecraft to Mars.

[00:16:26] Calvin Craig: These two failures happened literally like back-to-back, I mean, within a couple of months of each other. And so here you are cruising along doing these really adventurous, really great missions. The team is just riding a high of having accomplished these things and then all of a sudden, boom! You're hit with these two failures in a row, and it's like a punch in the gut and this affected everybody. It wasn't just us at Lockheed Martin who built the satellites. It wasn't just JPL who had contracted and teamed with us. 

[00:16:53] Rob Manning: Think about this. We're a bunch of engineers, a bunch of people were not just institutions, but a bunch of real people. We're trying to imagine these complicated systems working and we write software, we've got simulations, we inspect things, we test it, repeat it. but all comes down to ability of us as human beings to imagine outcomes, what could go wrong?

[00:17:12] What could go, right? How does the whole thing work? And often times if we don't have the time to think about those things and to do more a little bit, we could miss things. And so, time and number of people required to think and ball over things, which is not there. And so, we were off by in terms of team size, maybe, you know, 20%, maybe 25%.

[00:17:34] I don't know but not for very much, we could have done this. Things still very cheap with a little bit bigger team, a little bit more time. And I think the outcome have been very different. The Lockheed team, which was so devastated and the JPL team, by the way, we were…the emotional state of affairs. among our community was just miserable. People were sad. They could barely talk to each other. It was, it was really rough. 

[00:17:57] Calvin Craig: There were people who left the company because it was hard. Right. We poured three years of blood, sweat, and tears into these spacecraft. And when they fail, you kind of have, it's, it's like a life evaluation event, right. You kind of say, okay, what am I doing? I just wasted three years of my life

[00:18:17] Host: Even with the teams going to great efforts to reduce the cost of making these spacecraft, they still cost millions of dollars and years to build. With that in mind, how do you go back to the people who funded these missions and tell them what went wrong in a way that builds trust and grows the relationship? 

[00:18:34] Calvin Craig: One of the things that you have to do is you have to own your mistakes, right? And where you make a mistake, you have to own it. It was very much a conversation of here's what happened. Here's where we made a mistake, you know, by and large, what I will tell you is at the working level, there was never any finger pointing that went on.
[00:18:47] We didn't say, “okay, well that was your fault. This was, you know, this was our, fault." it was, it was basically like own your own mistakes, but we're not here to point out each other's, you know, role in this. And I think that's one of the things that allowed us to continue on because we set about kind of re-evaluating how we were doing things as a team and said, “Hey, you know, what? We need to maybe do some more risk reduction testing, maybe figure out exactly how is the spacecraft going to operate in a holistic manner.”

[00:19:15] So we started doing more of what we call “test like you fly.” We would do a test to make sure that the vehicle as it thought that it was flying. So, we would fake it out, if you will. While it's on the ground. And we would run these tests to make sure that the vehicle was going to behave exactly. Like we thought it would in those flight-like conditions.

[00:19:32] And we amped a lot of that up. We did a lot of simulation. We had a whole program that we started around that to say, “okay, you know, we know what caused that failure, but we wanna make sure there's no. others." And so, we did that once again, as a team, right? We actually had, we had test leads on the team from JPL. We had test leads on the team from Lockheed Martin.

[00:19:52] Host: Lockheed Martin and JPL had to work quickly to refine their testing practices and better integrate their teams because they had to prepare for the next mission to Mars. NASA's Mars Odyssey built by Lockheed Martin was launched shortly after those failed missions in 2001.

[00:20:08] It turned out to be a complete success. And in fact, still doing science missions around Mars to this day. However, at the time it was still an unproven spacecraft sailing through the depths of space on its way to Mars. Lockheed Martin found themselves in a precarious situation because this was their last interplanetary spacecraft.

[00:20:27] That meant business as they knew it was over if they couldn't win another bid with NASA. Like a fighter against the ropes with two black eyes from those failed missions, it was now Lockheed Martin's do or die moment to survive. They gathered the best they had and prepared to bid on another mission to Mars. 

[00:20:44] Calvin Craig: Are they gonna be okay with contracting with us again, since we just lost two of their satellites, because even though we had this good working relationship at the working level, you never know how that's gonna be viewed at the very high levels of a selection like this.

[00:20:55] And one of the things that we did was we leveraged that faster, better, cheaper experience to say, okay, how can we leverage the good things and leverage the lessons learned at the same time to bid this appropriately. Number one, where, where we're not going to, you know, over run the program substantially, but number two, where we're actually gonna be able to accomplish what we needed to accomplish, but the capability of the spacecraft was monumentally advanced.

[00:21:19] This was an order of magnitude, more capable spacecraft. And I will tell you that at the end of the day, this satellite has provided more data than all the other interplanetary missions humankind has ever launched combined. So, I mean, this is a huge mission. 

[00:21:32] Host: Lockheed Martin capitalized on their mistakes by learning from the valuable lessons, failures often teach us. And when you look at it through that lens, it's like you have an inside look at what you need to do to succeed. Lockheed Martin won the contract to build the spacecraft for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, also known as MRO. They would end up building one of the most advanced interplanetary spacecraft of that time.

[00:21:56] Rob Manning: Definitely, I got a sense of, especially this MRO was really pushing the envelope technologically.

[00:22:00] Calvin Craig: Very complex satellite.

[00:22:01] Rob Manning: All new avionics systems.

[00:22:03] Calvin Craig: Brand new processor.

[00:22:04] Rob Manning: All new use of field programmable gate arrays. They had a whole new solar state recorder.

[00:22:09] Calvin Craig: Brand new avionics set.

[00:22:11] Rob Manning: Complex architecture, new radio.

[00:22:13] Calvin Craig: Eight science instruments on the satellite.

[00:22:15] Rob Manning: Much bigger telecommunication systems, great big antenna.

[00:22:18] Calvin Craig: 10-foot-high gain dish on this.

[00:22:20] Rob Manning: This spacecraft is nothing short of a spy satellite around Mars with all the complexity. Yet they did it on a slightly bigger than a faster, better, cheaper budget, you know, 38%, 40% bigger budget, but it was worth every penny because that mission has been unbelievably essential to the- to the exploration of Mars. 

[00:22:39] Host: The MRO mission, marked the end of the faster, better, cheaper era. NASA's administrator, Dan Goldin said that from these failures in 1998 and 1999, they had “found the floor below which cost could not be driven without too much risk.” With these lessons learned cost rose accordingly, but they were now smarter at managing the risks of doing things faster, better, and cheaper. 

[00:23:04] Rob Manning: You don't need a lot of extra to make sure it works. MRO was just right? First of all, the relationship was very different with JPL, with MRO Lockheed team invited JPL’ers and not to oversee them, but to see what they were doing, learn what they're doing, throw comments in, not necessarily to direct them, but really understand what they're doing what their process is. And their process. JPL really said, wow, we love these guys. And when we saw something we disagreed with, we would sit and argue about it technically, but it was a very powerful relationship. It was more of a team model It has built on mutual respect. What we ended up feeling through JPL is that we're dealing with the best of the best.

[00:23:41] Everything that has come after Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which was which so followed, Mars Global Surveyor and Odyssey spacecraft, and Odyssey Orbiter, two other wonderful, Lockheed missions, just pushed the boundaries what was possible in terms of the quality of science.

[00:24:01] Host: Lockheed Martin was pushing the limits technically with the state-of-the-art Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. And now, Lockheed Martin is pushing the boundaries of technology and innovation once again with a program called Pony Express. We talked with the chief architect for the program.

[00:24:17] Andy Speicher: Hi, my name is Andy Speicher. I'm an engineer at Lockheed Martin and my current position as a chief architect. My role is really to put together architectures that solve customer problems and that provide the usefulness to our nation.

[00:24:32] Host: Andy helped us unpack what this program does and what the future might look like with the support of pony express. The name and the mission of this program derive its inspiration from something you may have learned about in your history class, the original Pony Express. In the mid 1800s, the pony express, pioneered a communication and delivery system built around a relay of riders and horses that extended from Missouri to California.

Inspired by these pioneers Lockheed Martin's pony express will revolutionize a new era of space-based computing, enabling artificial intelligence, data analytics, cloud networking, and advanced satellite communications with a new software-defined architecture. To put it more simply Lockheed Martin's pony express is faster, better, and cheaper. 

[00:25:17] Andy Speicher: We got that timeframe from 26 months to deliver the spacecraft down to nine months, delivering the payload. And then a very short time later, the spacecraft was ready for launch.

[00:25:28] Host: A typical pony express satellite can easily hitch a ride to space with other spacecraft being launched, making them cost-effective and ideal for prototyping.

[00:25:37] Andy Speicher: Part of this is what sort of sensors can we make that we can shrink down to fit in a small satellite as we've got it. I mean, we can certainly launch larger satellites, but those just cost a lot more. Our first satellite Pony Express 1, was literally the size of a shoe box and that included everything to run the spacecraft, our payload, and running the payload.

[00:25:56] We look at Pony Express 2, that's double the size. So, our payloads really benefit from some of the technology that Lockheed Martin has developed across our corporation, like taking what would normally be electronics, the size of a briefcase and shrinking it down to something the size of a card, essentially, a business card.

[00:26:18] Host: These tiny powerhouses, or should I say power horses are highly versatile satellites that will have enormous potential for the future of space communication, research, and more. Andy explains that each Pony Express satellite is kind of like a new phone, equipped with the latest hardware but completely devoid of apps or personalization. Once that satellite is orbiting Earth or the Moon or Mars, operators on the ground can upload software, kind of like apps on your phone, that will customize it for a specific purpose.

[00:26:48] Andy Speicher: Pony Express is to provide a set of hardware in space that is totally software reprogrammable, such that when a mission changes or we wanna try a new concept of operations for some customer mission, we can just upload a new application.

[00:27:03] So, just like on your smartphone, we have a, an infrastructure on board that we already flew and we'll fly again. That allows us to upload new apps, just like your cellphone. So, when a mission changes, you develop a new app, you upload it and you don't have to do things like patch software. You're really just putting a new application on board to process data in a new way.

[00:27:24] Host: Pony Express will provide customers with a wide range of customization and versatility. Using the smartphone analogy, think of the thousands of uses we have utilized phones for with the apps tapping into its existing hardware, making the possibilities for the Pony Express satellites endless.

[00:27:40] Andy Speicher: Pony Express is like a Swiss Army knife satellite, where you've got sensors and communication capabilities and processing capabilities and the ability to change all those missions based on the hardware you've got on board is absolutely kind of an open canvas.

[00:27:54] Host: In the future, we could deploy Pony Express version 2,473 around the Moon. You could have it perform science missions scanning the Moon's surface to assist with lunar colonization. Let's say some of those missions are venturing into dead communication zones like the dark side of the Moon.

[00:28:10] Andy Speicher: Being able to just upload new applications is a newer construct for satellites anyway, where you've got just the ability to, hey, just change that app.

[00:28:20] Host: And with a new software update to the Pony Express satellite that was once performing a scanning mission with its optical cameras is now supporting communications in those dead zones utilizing its communications hardware.

[00:28:32] Andy Speicher: I think that's certainly a possibility to talk to inhabitants on say the surface of the moon and maybe they're on the, the backside of the moon. And if you have a network of small satellites that can relay that communication, then you can certainly have a lot better shot at uh, more real-time communication.

[00:28:48] Host: You could even have a constellation of these satellites around Mars supporting a space cloud network that would connect colonies living on the planet back to Earth and even colonies on the Moon.

[00:28:58] Andy Speicher: the Lockheed Martin space cloud could actually process data in a fashion where we can take the data and break it up into chunks and move that data around to other spacecraft that might have a lot more compute resources available in this space cloud since there's dis-aggregated computing and also dis-aggregated memory. So, if my memory fills up, but I'm still collecting a lot of really good data, I can just run it over, you know, the cross-link over to another satellite that has a lot more memory, available.

[00:29:23] Host: And the really cool thing is that with a new software update, you can now have these satellites take on extra duties to include weather forecasting.

[00:29:31] Andy Speicher: If we have that network of satellites around some other planet or the moon, it could be monitoring for things like solar storms or weather on that planet. And you can have the capability to alert inhabitants on that planet that, “Hey, you know, we've got a severe storm heading your ways." And to take that even further to explore beyond our solar system, you know, just trying out new sensors and new calm techniques and new onboard processing and processors is definitely something that could be leveraged in space exploration beyond our solar system.

[00:30:04] Host: The speed and affordability at which these satellites can be made and their versatility in missions via software updates make Pony Express an exciting innovation that will help shape our future. And just like Pony Express, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was pushing the limits of technology during the Faster, Better, Cheaper era.

[00:30:29] Jumping back into our story, the team had just built the most advanced interplanetary spacecraft of that time, which launched in 2005. JPL and Lockheed Martin were more unified than ever before. However, the strength of their relationship was about tested with one a looming decision that would decide the orbiter's fate. 

[00:30:48] Calvin Craig: On the other side of Mars orbit insertion. Now, we have to do what's called aerobraking. Aerobraking was an interesting way to basically limit the amount of propellant we had to carry on board the satellite, because remember, first you have to accelerate, you have to get off the earth to get to Mars. Um, great, halfway done.

[00:31:06] Now, you have to actually slow down because you're gonna just go screaming by the planet. If you don't slow down and that's what Mars orbit, insertion is all about. Or when you're doing a Lander, it's a direct landing, but either way you have to slow yourself down tremendously to get captured in the Mars orbit.

[00:31:21] But in order to get into your final orbit, you have to do this thing called aerobraking. And so basically what we would do is we would touch the top of the atmosphere. Every time we went around the planet. And every time we touched the top of the atmosphere it slowed the satellite down a little bit. And a little bit more and a little bit more and a little bit more until eventually we were in a circularized orbit where we needed to be well in doing that we would switch back and forth between a low gain antenna, which had a large field of view.

[00:31:46] So if anything anomalous happened, we could still hear the satellite if you will talking to us, but it was a very low data rate. And so every time we go through an aerobraking pass, because it was a dangerous maneuver, we would switch to the low gain antenna. So, we could track the satellite. Well, then when we came back out, we'd switched back to the high gain antenna and there's a mechanical switch that does this every time.

[00:32:07] Rob Manning: This is called a waveguide transfer switch. This is like a piece of plumbing. It routes, a radio frequency in a square tube from one point to another point, it's like a railroad switch that changes between tracks.

[00:32:18] Calvin Craig: So, we do that about 500 times at the very end of aerobraking, we switched back and we didn't get the signal that we wanted off the high gain antenna.

[00:32:25] Rob Manning: Never in our wildest imagination did we dream that this, that this switch could get stuck in between the tracks [laughs]. And it was really a shock to us that when one day we did the transfer and, all of a sudden, [click] it stuck, it stuck, it didn't quit... It was closer to one track than the other track, but it was still not quite there.

[00:32:48] Calvin Craig: We weren't seeing a lot of the data that we thought we could see and the signal level was way down and we couldn't figure that out.

[00:32:55] And there were some people on the JPL side who really wanted to say, okay, well, we just need to retry the switch, because if we retry the switch, then surely, you know, it's just, it's gotta be an error where the command didn't get to the switch. And so, we'll retry the switch.

[00:33:09] Rob Manning: Calvin and others came up with this idea, an alternative plan, basically do the same thing in in much safer way. And we were like, wait, why didn't we just do that from the beginning?

[00:33:18] Calvin Craig: But what had happened is that switch had gotten stuck 22 degrees off the stop, basically. it was supposed to swap 90 degrees between the two spots and had gotten stuck 22 degrees off the spot. And had we re-commanded the switch it could've gotten stuck in the middle and we could have lost the mission.

[00:33:33] Rob Manning: Calvin and the team, that's how, that's, how they thought. They simply- they asked questions. They were bold enough to ask questions that were once forbidden, because they were taken for granted and asked the questions in a different way. And we said, why didn't we think of that before?

[00:33:47] Calvin Craig: It was one of those really fortuitous times where that teaming relationship allowed us to make the right decision at the right.

[00:33:54] Rob Manning: This is a great thing, when you put engineers together and who have a real problem who are unafraid to talk unafraid to share their ideas, but also not arrogant. And don't command with pre-existing ideas and willing to listen. That's when things really click and that's when teams become real teams. And that's when success is just around the corner. 

[00:34:16] Host: The trust between the teams had helped them make the right decision when trust matters most. Remember how earlier we learned that the Mars Polar Lander crashed on the surface of Mars in 1999? Well, Lockheed Martin had built another Lander shortly after, and it was supposed to launch with the Odyssey Orbiter in 2001. But because of those failures, they had grounded the spacecraft so that they could focus on the Odyssey Orbiter. Well, now it was time for an opportunity at redemption. 

[00:34:44] Calvin Craig: In 2007, we got a chance to actually launch that Lander and it was called Phoenix. And the reason it's called Phoenix is because it was rising from the ashes. Right?

[00:34:51] We did a lot of testing on the ground and that's where we found out about the fact that. maybe the cruise stage didn't even separate from the landing stage. So, for instance, on those connectors, we put heaters on those connectors so that they actually would be at a temperature that we knew they would separate, coded persistence into the software so that if it was the landed leg issue that we thought at the very beginning after the failure had occurred, if it was that issue, then we would protect against that issue as well.

[00:35:18] Host: After 294 days of sailing through the depths of space, Phoenix was ready to make its entry into Mars. This would be a defining moment for Lockheed Martin.

[00:35:27] Calvin Craig: Most of our critical events, for some reason, now they always happen in the middle of the night. I don't know why that is, but it always seems to wind up that way. And so, we're all there at one o'clock in the morning.

[00:35:36] Rob Manning: When we land our missions on Mars, now the whole world is watching and in fact, much of the press is looking at us and they say, “Well, the reason we're here is to get good video shots of all you guys when your mission crashes on Mars.” I say well, thank you, I appreciate your confidence in us.

[00:35:50] Host: With the world watching, the flight teams gathered at both the Lockheed Martin missions operations center and JPL. Phoenix begins a terrifying entry into Mars's atmosphere with the hopes of landing safely. Here's the real audio from that day. I'll jump in to explain what's happening as we listen. Oh, we've added some sound effects to give you an idea of what it might sound like if you had a ride on spacecraft. And, it's just cool..

[00:36:15] Speaker 5: Atmospheric entry on my mark. Five, four, three, two, one, mark.

[00:36:23] Host: The Phoenix Lander races into the atmosphere around 12,000 miles an hour.

[00:36:27] Speaker 6: We have now entered the atmosphere and we're starting to slow down.

[00:36:31] Host: It's heat shield protects it from burning up under the extreme heat.

[00:36:34] Speaker 5: … I'm one minute past the entry point, we still have a signal via direct. Via Odyssey.

[00:36:38] Host: It slows way down to around Mach 1. The parachute deploys slowing it down some more. [clapping, cheering] The heat shield is jettisoned away exposing the lander.

[00:36:53] Speaker 5: Heat shield trigger detected. Ground relative velocity 90 meters per second.

[00:37:00] Host: Its legs are extended.

[00:37:02] Speaker 5: The separation detected. We have reapplied the signals. Gravity turn detected. Altitude 600 meters, 500 meters-

[00:37:10] Host: It separates from the parachute and thrusters on the lander slow it down enough to land.

[00:37:13] Speaker 5: 100 meters-

[00:37:15] Speaker 5: 50 meters, 30 meters, 20 meters, 15 meters standing by for touchdown. Touchdown signal detected. [Cheering] We landed it! 

00:37:28] Host: And just like that Lockheed Martin and JPL made history once again.

[00:37:33] Calvin Craig: We actually landed on Mars with the lander design that we had from the late nineties, with some, some small tweaks to it that we learned through the testing small, but important.

[00:37:43] Rob Manning: only later did it rise from the ashes as Phoenix. And I'm so glad it did because Lockheed deserved that landing.

[00:37:49] Calvin Craig: And then the cherry on top was that because of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's unique pointing ability and very high-resolution camera that we were flying on. That we were actually able to take a picture of the Phoenix Lander on the parachute, as it was parachuting onto the surface of Mars. And that was just basically a validation that that whole entire program had now produced satellites that could land.

[00:38:13] On the planet could take unbelievably high-resolution images and return all this data back to earth and learn more. But it was really through once again, that team of people on both the JPL and Lockheed Martin side that made that possible. I firmly believe that without both sides, we could not have accomplished nearly the things that we accomplished together. 

[00:38:34] Host: Lockheed Martin would continue to iron out processes and improve their technologies. It's incredible to think that they had gone from a deep space program on the brink of ending to now being a part of every NASA mission to Mars. Counting the Mars 2020 mission that puts Lockheed Martin at 21 missions to Mars. In fact, Lockheed Martin has built more Mars-bound spacecraft than any other us private company. InSight was their most recent spacecraft to land on Mars in 2018.

[00:39:03] The faster, better, cheaper era, not only tested the grid of Lockheed Martin and these other organizations, it drove innovation in a way that pushed the limits of deep space exploration.

[00:39:13] Calvin Craig: You know what the whole faster, better cheaper program is really a learning from failure idea. Now sometimes we went, we went a little too far, right. And that's what those failures told us. We said, okay, you know, now we found the outside of the envelope. So now what you're looking at is through that. Valley of a couple of failures and coming back out on the other side, you're now able to produce satellites for 25% of the cost that you were before you went through that. And had you not gone through that, you would not have achieved that amount of cost savings. I am 100% confident in that statement. So that to me is what faster, better cheaper really did for us.

[00:39:46] Rob Manning: Faster, better, cheaper did force us to remember our obligation to the customer and, and ultimately the taxpayer. If ever, you can put the risk and send the risk down to the team again and empower them to do their job and make sure they are prepared to do the job and still challenge them. You still have to challenge them, have them explain why you think it's gonna work. It's their job just to be able to explain it if they can give them the space to try.

[00:40:11] Host: The faster, better, cheaper era ultimately pushed innovation to dramatically reduce the cost of spacecraft and. their missions. And those lessons learned and innovations have helped us get to where we are today. It's no secret that the space industry is going through another technological revolution. So, this is an exciting time for space makers and really all of humanity. And just like the era before us, what we are doing now is shaping our future.

[00:40:36] We end today's show with our flash-forward segment, looking at what the future may look like 50 years from now. We talk with an expert about digital transformation using AI and machine learning algorithms to process high-rate data and even self-healing structures will be instrumental in accomplishing the missions of the future. Joining me today is Johnathon Caldwell. So, what is it that you do here at Lockheed Martin? 

[00:41:04] Johnathon Caldw...: Yeah, I'm Jonathan Caldwell. I'm the vice president of business innovation transformation and enterprise excellence here at Lockheed Martin. Space.

[00:41:11] Host: I thought it'd be good to start this topic of digital transformation by unpacking how technology is already transforming our day-to-day routines and making things more efficient for us.

[00:41:23] Johnathon Caldw...: Yeah. I'd say when you think digital transformation, it's best maybe to just put yourself into your daily life, think about the things you use every day from your phone, which isn't. really A phone per se anymore. It's your own personal computer. It's the place where you do your banking. It's the place where you get directions to the concert tonight.

[00:41:41] It's the place where you figure out, oh, I'm gonna go out to dinner and I'm gonna take some of my friends. So where are we gonna go? And will they have space for us? Um, it's a place where you connect with your friends and your family. All of those things are the digital transformation. Now you think does all of that stuff really happen on this device?

[00:41:58] In my hand? No, of course not. There's a huge infrastructure. There's the internet underlying technologies like GPS, which bring you the time and position that give you the blue dot on your phone. It's the security technology that underlies the banking transactions. It's the cloud, you know, this amorphous, you know, digital infrastructure that lives in th- out there kind of in the ether that, you know, most folks would say, I don't really understand. it, But I live with it every day and it helps me do my life, uh, in the modern era.

[00:42:30] Host: So where does Lockheed Martin come in with using digital transformation to help shape the future of the space industry?

[00:42:37] Johnathon Caldw...: Maybe you've heard of this thing called the Karman line. The Karman line is that boundary the altitude above the earth, which if you get past that altitude, you're in space.

[00:42:46] And you've broken the, the threshold and you've become, you know, if you're a person, you become an astronaut. So, I like to think of this transformation of our business as redefining the Karman line. It's about taking the technologies that are terrestrial the things on earth that we enjoy every day and putting them into the missions that we run from space.

[00:43:07] And in that way, we kind of blur that line about what's here earthbound and what's out in space. We're changing the way we think about our business. We're used to doing cutting-edge technology for the world or for the war fighter or for the scientist. Now we're gonna use those same cutting-edge technologies inside the business.

[00:43:31] We use the latest in manufacturing techniques with automation, with 3D printing, we use artificial intelligence and machine learning in testing the systems that we build. So, if you're gonna hop into a spacecraft and go to Mars, which is outrageous, right? When you think about it, how far away Mars is, and it's still not terribly friendly. So how are people gonna live there? How are they gonna work there? How are they going to create their own atmosphere, grow their own food? How are they going to repair their spaceship on the way all of these things are gonna take more than just regular human ingenuity. So, we have to use things like artificial intelligence to help people do their job better so they can focus on the survival and uh, finding their way in that new environment.

[00:44:18] You can't take all the materials you would need to build a society to a planet like Mars. How are you gonna build that in place with the materials you have? You need techniques like 3D printing. Um, you need things like, um, cognitive and generative design, because you might not have all the special skills you need to just build whatever you have to have.

[00:44:40] You can't bring a thousand engineers to Mars with you. You might need to do that real time on the fly and solve problems. And these new technologies will help us do that.

[00:44:50] Host: Yeah. With that being said, do you see any foundational technologies at Lockheed Martin evolving to help shape our future?

[00:44:57] Johnathon Caldw...: One of the cornerstones that Lockheed Martin is connect. We talk about connecting people. We talk about connecting the war fighters and civilians. So, as you think about the future of space, the things that we're doing today to build ubiquitous connectivity around the earth, through programs like the SDA - Space Transportation Layer Tranche-0, to protected, always on communications for the president to our tactical communications, to the war fighter in the field, or whether it's the concepts.

[00:45:27] Like how do you keep connection and data flowing to astronauts who were at the moon who were exploring? Well, if you're gonna go to the moon, you're gonna need to know where you are. And you're gonna need to know when you are, especially if you're in a world of high-rate data. The data you see is broken up into little packets and travels, many different routes to get to where you need it to go.

[00:45:47] You don't even see any of that, but we're building the underlying infrastructure that will make that same transparency of data flow work just as well in cislunar space, as it does in earth space. I think all of these concepts really have data as the underlying assumption, that data is around us everywhere.

[00:46:07] And that data is what will power the technologies. And so, our ability to use and understand the data to make sense of it. That's probably one of those key foundation blocks that we have to work harder on.

[00:46:18] Host: Okay. It seems that data is a foundational element in this digital transformation, can you give us a few examples of how high-rate data might come into play in the future?

[00:46:29] Johnathon Caldw...: So, let's take a couple examples for space. If you're on the moon or whether you're at Mars wanting to know things like how effective are we using our water? Are we getting the right amount of sunlight for our solar power? You wanna know things like we have medical records and they're safe and maybe the digital doctor that's there supplementing the, the several real human doctors that, that digital doctor has all your data and is looking ahead for what might happen to your health rather than being reactive.

[00:46:57] That we can take care of our health in a proactive way. When you're millions and millions of miles away from the earth, you probably want to have proactive care. And those are the kinds of technologies that will be necessary to really take that deep space exploration from being the realm of science fiction. To being the realm of everyday experience.

[00:47:17] Host: Yeah, that's a good point. I guess I really never considered data playing such a foundational role.

[00:47:21] Johnathon Caldw...: Yeah. I'd say there's another subtlety there, it's the right data to the right people at the right time. It's no good if you try to bring terabytes of data to someone when they can't use it. Right. Just give me what I need right now.

[00:47:35] And so technologies we've developed here at Lockheed Martin, like HiveStar and, and our advanced 5g systems are about understanding and making sense of the data, turning it into information, and then getting just the information that the end user needs to them when they need it. That's kind of that next evolution of important technologies.

[00:47:57] And that's what we're researching, figuring out how to bring the right. data At the right time to the right people, let's take an example. Like the Orion spacecraft, you're gonna have six astronauts flying to the moon. They're not gonna be able to monitor every piece of data on their spacecraft, that spacecraft is far more complex than prior deep space spacecraft. So today we use artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms like our T-TAURI to help process all the sensors on that spacecraft. In fact, in a recent test, we processed over a billion data points over a 20-minute period to help understand the health and safety of that spacecraft as it's going through test.

[00:48:37] Now, it's one thing for us to do that test on the ground. While that spacecraft's flying every minute it's flying, it has all this data being collected and processed to know if the spacecraft is healthy, that it's able to keep the astronauts safe and that they're doing their mission as intended. And that's where tools like machine learning algorithm's coming into play, where T-TAURI will be a tremendous benefit.

[00:48:59] Not only in understanding the state of the spacecraft, but then potentially to helping them fly their missions down the road.

[00:49:06] Host: Yeah, that's interesting. So how do you see artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms? Like T-TAURI supporting missions of the future?

[00:49:14] Johnathon Caldw...: I think if you look in that farthest in future things like structures that can be built from materials in place, but that can be built to be self-healing.

[00:49:24] And I'd like those technologies that you might need, because you're not gonna be able to bring in a repair crew and your life depends on it. Think about having a digital twin of everything you see represented in the physical world and the ability to pull in all the data, again, to be proactive rather than reactive.

[00:49:39] You wanna know that the building you built to protect your colonists, that it's structurally sound. And if something happens and it heals itself, you still wanna know that it healed itself and that you can take that into account. And so whether it's large, it systems satellites, deep space exploration if it's like Orion,

[00:49:57] the underlying data, having it, being able to interpret it and then being able to expand on human capability through things like machine learning algorithms to multiply the effect of people is the future of space.

[00:50:12] Host: For my last question, I was curious to know if there's anything that you are personally excited about seeing when you think about the future of space?

[00:50:19] Johnathon Caldw...: You know, I would love to see the virtual cycle of innovation that started with space 50, 60, 70 years ago, that led to us developing technologies, which in turn, got put into society and made society better. I would love to see the technologies we develop, come back and make our world a better place. I love the visions of seeing people out in a CIS lunar economy, doing tourism on the moon and maybe being on the outposts of Mars.

[00:50:46] Things like that might require us to understand our own body. So, I think the opportunity for a virtuous cycle of science and biology around what does the human body look like? How does it withstand the harsh effects of the deep space environment? If that catalyst could help us understand more about how to fight and cure cancer, how to make our bodies healthier, how to make the environment that we carry with us sustainable.

[00:51:11] Those are really exciting things. That's the intersection of technology and biology. I think that's really exciting, what if our technology starts to look more like our biology is there's that whole field of how to use the best of what nature has already put together in the many years of our planet. What does that convergence look like? And I think the next 50 years we'll just see that drive even further. It's exciting!

[00:51:35] Host: You've been listening to Calvin, Craig, Rob Manning, Andy Speicher and Johnathon Caldwell. And they are space makers. Whether you're a software engineer, systems, engineer, finance, or HR professional, we need space makers like you to make the seemingly impossible missions a reality. Please visit this episodes show notes to learn more about NASA, JPL, and the missions they mentioned in this episode or the careers available at Lockheed Martin.

[00:52:03] If you enjoyed this show, please like and subscribe so others can find us and follow along for more out-of-this-world stories from Lockheed Martin Space headquartered in Littleton, Colorado. Join us on the next episode as we introduce you to more space makers.

[00:52:24] Space Makers is a production of Lockheed Martin Space.

It's executive produced by Pavan Desai.

Senior producer is Lauren Cole.

Senior producer, writer and host is Ben Dinsmore.

Associate producer and writer is Kaitlin Benz and Audrey Dods.

Sound design and audio mastered by Julian Giraldo.

Graphic design by Tim Roesch.

Marketing and recruiting by Joe Portnoy, Shannon Myers, and Stephanie Dixon.

These stories would not be possible without the support from our communication professionals, Tracy Weise, Natalya Oleksik, Gary Napier, Lauren Duda, and Dani Hauf. Thanks for joining us and see you next time.