In a building at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, about 40 engineers and scientists are tackling the practical challenges of space exploration -- like designing astronaut clothing for long missions, converting trash into fuel, and harvesting extra-terrestrial resources.
"It's really a return to NASA's roots, the very early days of how NASA designed new technology" says Jack Fox, Chief of the Surface Systems Office at Kennedy Space Center. "We believe in a hands-on approach: just try something out, and if it works, great. If it doesn't, put it aside and try something different."
The Swamp Works team is housed in the refurbished Apollo flight crew training building, where astronauts once familiarized themselves with the lunar module and learned how to use the lunar rover. Scientists are now trying to solve some of the problems faced by those astronauts -- like dealing with space dirt.
"Dust got everywhere. It clung to everything," says Fox.
On one side of the building scientists are developing technology to banish dust electronically.
And in the Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations lab, engineers are figuring out how to deal with the sandblasting effects of rocket exhaust during landing and lift-off on the moon and other planets. They're also building a machine to excavate space dirt, or regolith. NASA one day hopes to send astronauts beyond the moon, to an asteroid or Mars, and the Swamp Works team is developing a robot that can excavate other planets for water and other resources.
The RASSOR (Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot) looks like a small tank. At each end is a fearsome toothed drum, used to scoop up the regolith. It can also raise and lower its arms to climb over rocks.
Drew Smith, who helped design RASSOR, explains the counter-rotating drums would allow the robot to dig on another planet like the moon.
"Since we don’t have a really large mass on another planet we have to be able to cancel out the excavation forces or it would just spin its tracks and not go anywhere."
The robot weighs about 180 pounds, but on the moon that's only about 30 pounds of force.
The engineers are building a regolith test bed -- essentially a giant sand pit -- which they'll fill with 120 tons of "simulant" or imitation space dirt, so they can test the robot.
Philip Metzger, a physicist at the Regolith Operations Lab, says harvesting resources on other planets could lighten the load of spacecraft blasting off from earth. "By using the resources of space -- of the moon and the resources of Mars, we can reduce the mass of a Mars mission by a factor of between three and five," says Metzger.
NASA aims to eventually send a version of the RASSOR into the craters of the moon to excavate lunar ice deposits. Metzger says anything they design to work on the moon should also work on Mars -- although operating the robot remotely poses a problem: "On the moon there's only a 2.7 second time delay, so you can tele-operate, but on Mars it’s too far of a distance to tele-operate. So robotic autonomy is one of the key technologies we’re trying to develop," he says.
Companies like Caterpillar are interested in robot autonomy for terrestrial mining. "Mining’s moving into places humans can’t go here on earth," says Metzger, adding that space mining companies have also expressed an interest in licensing the technology.
Meanwhile, in a separate building at Kennedy, NASA employees and Lockheed Martin contractors are assembling the spacecraft designed to take astronauts to an asteroid, Mars and beyond. The green welded aluminum pressure capsule of the Orion crew module is being transformed into a functioning spacecraft inside the Operations and Checkout building. Orion's first unmanned foray into space is slated for September 2014.