Mike Sander of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
As part of our research for part two of the cover story “Space Monkey Business” (Pasadena Weekly – February 25, 2010) we interviewed Mike Sander of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Quotes from this interview were used in “We Robot” published the following week.

Our February 17 interview appears after Sander’s biography, which is impressive:

Mike Sander leads JPL’s efforts in support of NASA’s Exploration Initiative. He was project manager of the Mars Science Laboratory project, director of JPL’s Technology and Applications Directorate, deputy director of JPL’s Space and Earth Science Programs Directorate, and project manager of JPL’s Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C/X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar project.

Joining JPL in 1963, Sander has worked in various capacities in management and project organizations, including management of JPL’s Mission Control Center . His early career was spent processing science data from the first missions to Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and beyond. From 1980 to 1985 Sander spent five years at NASA Headquarters in Washington, first as the deputy director of the Life Sciences Division and then as director of the Shuttle Payloads Engineering Division.

He has a bachelor’s degree in physics from Occidental College, is a three-time recipient of the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal for his work on the Voyager mission, Spacelab One and the Spaceborne Imaging Radar C project, is an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and an elected member of the International Academy of Astronautics.

Pasadena Weekly interview with Mike Sander

Michael Collins: With the Obama Administration essentially delaying or cancelling the Constellation program, will this affect the Exploration Systems and Technology Office?

Mike Sander: Probably. We’ll probably end up involved in some other things. In fact, the kinds of things people are doing today are possibly not the things we’re going to be doing a year or so from now. I think what we’re seeing at the moment is the classical sort of American dialogue between the Administration and the Congress and I think that the guidance at the moment, what is law, is the Constellation program and in over the course of the normal budget process they will figure out what are the right things to do with human space flight. It’s been crystal clear, I think, in speeches and in writing that there is no backing away from human space flight but I think there’s a change in tone, an emphasis on innovation and technology that’s part of this budget story. I think that in one real way, JPL has always been about pushing back the frontiers and doing things that are more technically assertive and this, in the long run, I think will work well for the agency and JPL’s part of the agency.

MC: Upon the February 2004 announcement of your office, you spoke of how exciting the vision was and what an opportunity for the country it presented. Has that changed since the proposed new change in direction?

MS: At the time, Constellation was announced it was almost purely a human spaceflight program and what I thought an opportunity for the laboratories, or the staffs of the laboratories, to be participating in a human spaceflight program. That stretches our technical wings in a very real sense. The scale of the human spaceflight projects was typically much larger than the typical robotic space project. Learning how to do business in just a huge human space project environment I think has been a lesson. Another thing that I look forward to has been supported by our experience of the last four years has been working much more closely with other NASA centers. JPL has done many missions that have been contributions to other NASA centers and JPL being part of missions done by other NASA centers. The amount of teamwork and the breadth and the depth of the teamwork at the agency has really raised the bar on that kind of integrated activity. There’s some learning to be done, you know, in order to work across the country in a very technically challenging environment and make that successful and Constellation has made a big contribution to the agency just in that alone.

MC: Do we know what the proposed budget by the Administration is for you folks in your office and how would you contrast that to this year’s 2010 budget?

MS: (laughs) It would be nice if my office was actually of scope that the Administration would pay attention to it but we are a very very small part of the overall program. The budget shred-down doesn’t get to our level. We’re as interested as anyone is trying to understand as this budget process rolls out and the dialogue between the Hill and the Congress and the Administration continues. So it’s hard for us to try and second-guess how it’s going to affect us directly. The one thing that I think has been made clear to us, and really to everyone participating in Constellation, is that the current formal direction is to continue business as was signed into law in the appropriations budget and so we don’t expect any profound impact in the next three, four, five or six months. That’s going to be how long it’s going to take to get some clarity to emerge out of this out of this new direction. It just takes a while to put some structure to it. Once we see that structure, we’ll be able to distill how that effects the people working on Constellation.

MC: How many folks work for you?

MS: Overall at JPL right now about 150 or so that work in two major chunks of activity. One is Constellation, pure and simple, you know, working on mostly system engineering aspects of the program. And then the other; and very very few people were working specifically on individual items associated with Orion or Ares. We’re mostly in the program office System Engineering. The other chunk is a group of folks who have been working on various of the technology projects. There are 22 technology projects that have been carried forward by the exploration program. We are the lead on one and participate, I think, on 16 others at various levels. So it is almost inevitable that the technology program will be retooled but in fact if anything, of while the technology of the things people will be working on will change, it’s very clear out of this budget, the amount of money that has been proposed by the President’s budget to be spent on technology is going to go up. I think the staff at JPL will be high potential for them to be involved perhaps at even higher levels than today.

MC: Can you describe one of the projects right now that you are working on that you find exciting? Now I know that you must find all of the projects you’re working on exciting, but what would be one of the Constellation projects you’re working on right now?

MS: For example, one of the technology activities which we really delighted in and has shown some of the creativity that some of the JPLers are capable of is a very large robot called Athlete, which is a six-legged robot with wheels at the tips of each leg. It was intended to be, let’s call it the ‘heavy lifter’ for laboratories on the Moon. What has been demonstrated in field trials – the agency has put together what is called “analog field tests.” Another name for it is called “The Desert Rats Activity,” colloquial. There are out in Arizona going over terrains that are lunar like, lava flows and so on. For two weeks, they basically set up camp and tried different kinds of robots coupled with human-occupied vehicles and Athlete was an integral part of that activity. Athlete showed a whole new style of mobility system. People had been thinking about six-wheeled, ‘rocker-boogey’ it’s called, extension rovers like Spirit and Opportunity – we’ve built several and we’ll be flying one more of that mobility system but the Athlete mobility system; I would say that it’s a breakthrough in terms of its flexibility and capability. By participating in the exploration technology program, we’re able to create it, test it and put a couple of generations of capability in place, take it out in field trials, work cooperatively with other similar products with other NASA centers to see how all of these humans plus robots working together can carry out an exploration campaign. That’s really been extraordinary.”

MC: This will sound simplistic: when the Constellation initiative began was it reliant on astronauts setting the experiments in motion.

MS: In these field trials, it’s probably the most interesting and powerful example. I think we see, or saw, was the opportunity to really actualize the synergy of what people bring to the table along with what robotic systems can bring to the table. I think that over the years, people have said ‘it’s either black or white’ – it’s either robots or it’s people. I think that what we’ve shown in these field trials, and what clever people have been thinking about for the last few years; people and robots can work together to accomplish more than either can do alone.

MC: What can robotic systems do in deeper space that humans can’t?

MS: Let me give you an example how in a lunar exploration scenario. You know robotic systems might work with humans. There has been speculation and now there has actually been some data that the dark craters on the Moon actually have some concentrations of water. And people have been speculating ‘well, gee, if we could somehow recover that water we could turn it into hydrogen and oxygen. We could turn it into fuel and use it for a variety of purposes for an in-situ resource utilization. But the craters in which the water was speculated to accumulate have a temperature of about 50 degrees Kelvin (-369.4 ºF). They are perpetually shadowed. The Sun never sees them or hasn’t shined in those craters in millions of years. So they are very very cold and they, like most craters, are very rugged and steep. So one scenario, say, is you’ve got people on the crater rim setting up a camp, setting up an exploration base and then you send robots down into this very hostile environment, this perpetually cold environment and explore and scout for the availability of the water. So that’s an example. Typically, you might see the robots being used as scouts, used for going places where you don’t want to put people at risk but at the same time you want people in the vicinity and acting as an extension, if you will, of the human explorers.

MC: You don’t get involved in all the life-sustaining systems or systems to protect astronauts against radiation, do you?

MS: Typically JPL does not get involved with that. On the next Mars mission, the Mars Science Laboratory, there will be an experiment that was put together at the behest of the human spaceflight program to measure the radiation on the Mars surface. So in that sense the human program is making some measurements that are of high value to the Mars program. They have also, for example, put some instrumentation in the heat shield of the Mars Rover to measure its erosion as it goes through the atmosphere. That’s also an important measurement to characterize the heat shield material in an actual entry scenario so those are the kinds of things that the robotic program can do to help the human program.

MC: During the Cold War, and subsequent to it, manned exploration of space was considered valuable in that it inspired the nation’s youth to pursue science and space exploration as career choices. That’s one of the arguments for continuing the manned space program. Now, with so much technology dominating our culture through any number of devices, do robotic systems designed to explore space serve that purpose? I know it’s not your job to inspire our youth, but do you have any thoughts on this?

MS: Well, actually, I think JPL and I think all the centers at NASA take very very seriously not only the opportunity but, I would say, the mandate to reach out to both the local community as far as their resources allow them to engage and show them what’s being done with their dollars and what are the kinds of things that are being uncovered and discovered. I know that JPL pays an awful lot of attention to our websites to make sure that the most current returns from all over the solar system are available to the public. There’s a whole community of museums that are tied into JPL and some of the other NASA centers so that when there’s really exciting happening, they can project screens for when the public wants to attend those events. The centers also hold open houses. JPL has somewhere usually between thirty and forty thousand people show up at an open house. I personally am part of that because it is so much fun to see how excited the kids are. They lie down and they have model Rovers that roll over them and to hear them get excited about it, see them wander around and talk to various JPLers about careers. It’s really a very high energy event – it pumps me up for about a year to participate in events like this. That happens at other NASA centers as well so I think the agency takes very seriously the notion that part of its mandate, part of it has to do, is convey its excitement of exploration, of discovery and science and complex engineering to the next generation.”

MC: Do we in the media or the public miss anything when we look at JPL and NASA?

MS: Exploring space turns out to be a hard thing to do. We’ve worked really really hard to make all these missions very successful. What you see are 98% successes and very few outright failures or problems. It gives the impression of being easy. But in fact it isn’t easy; it’s extremely difficult. We selectively take on things that are very hard to do. That’s what JPL’s job is and that’s what the agency’s job is. And in taking on these very hard things to do, I think we create both the need for highly educated, highly motivated people and we produce technologies and capabilities that I think really enrich the public and the data and view of our solar system, the view of our planet, the view of the universe that comes out of these missions. I think it is extremely exciting and it’s totally available to everyone. All they have to do is hit a website.