“Consider that Penn State’s larger mission of education and research and service to the nation is perfectly in line with the pursuit of space exploration.”
— Michael Paul, Team Lead for the Lunar Lion project
In case you didn’t know, Penn State is going to the moon.
The Lunar Lion team — composed of Penn State students, faculty, and engineers from the Applied Research Laboratory — will be participating in Google Lunar X PRIZE competition. The competition will provide $30 million to the “first privately funded teams to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon, have that robot travel 500 meters over the lunar surface, and send video, images, and data back to the Earth.” Penn State is the only American university participating in this competition, and its status as an academic institution presents unique challenges as well as advantages to the University Park-based Lunar Lion team.
I was able to sit down with Lunar Lion team leader Michael Paul to discuss everything from the project itself to his views on the evolution of the aerospace industry, to Penn State’s role in the future of space exploration:
Onward State: Tell us a little about your prior history before coming to Penn State.
Michael Paul: I came here [to Penn State]from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL) where I worked in the space department and was privileged to work on three different NASA missions in eight years. When I got to APL, I caught the bug of exploring the solar system. Every time that we send a spacecraft to a new part of the solar system, we encounter discovery. We learn things that we hoped to learn, but we also learn things that we hadn’t expected and that we wouldn’t have learned at all if we hadn’t sent a spacecraft there to investigate it. Our mission to the Moon, the Lunar Lion, will bring that excitement to Penn State and the world.
OS: Do you have a proudest moment from your time at APL?
MP: I sent the last command to the Messenger space craft on launch day as it began its multi-year journey to the innermost planet and later had the privilege to be in the control room as Messenger sent back its first close-up images of the surface of Mercury.
OS: Could you describe to us the technical details of how the Lunar Lion will operate, in layman’s terms?
MP: We will launch the Lunar Lion on a commercial launch provider, rather than build our own launch rocket. After about five days of cruise from here to the Moon, we will command the spacecraft from our control center in University Park to fire its own rocket engines to slow down and then descend and land on the Moon, much in the way that the earliest robotic landers operated in the 1960’s.
The Lunar Lion will take video and images during its descent and landing, and will send those images home, and the Penn State team will share them with the world. After sending all that data home, the Lunar Lion will take off, using the same rocket propulsion system it used to land, and fly 500 meters, land again, and return a set of video and images from our second landing site.
OS: Your project is unique in that it’s partially staffed by Penn State undergraduates. Could you elaborate on their role with the Lunar Lion?
MP: The students on the project have taken on a range of tasks from designing the power system and the propulsion system to writing software for attitude control of the craft. This project is a close collaboration between professional researchers and students so that we can rely on the experience to ensure mission success while teaching the next generation how to execute exciting exploration missions. Working on the Lunar Lion has already helped Penn State students land their first jobs in the space field.
OS: One of our staffers, Chad, wanted to ask you: Is this secretly a mission to have the first legitimate satellite campus?
MP: This project is certainly expanding the footprint of the university – you might call this a “distance learning” opportunity: a very long distance.
OS: The Google Lunar X competition is one to send the first privately funded robot to the moon. Can you tell us a little about the challenges presented by having to obtain private funding?
MP: While it will take a lot of work to raise the funds to complete this mission, I think that our team is best positioned in the competition to raise those funds and win the prize. All of our competitors are companies – Penn State is the only university that decided to lead a team in pursuit of this mission. Those companies are challenged by the need to show a return on investment to the people who fund them.
In our case, the return on investment are the participating students who will become the leaders in their fields in years to come; is in the research and development itself; is in the strength that we are building for the university through this program. It’s an ambitious mission, an audacious proposition, that a university can explore the Moon without NASA pointing the way and providing the funds. But it’s a challenge worthy of Penn State and one that we can rise to and show the world the quality of this university.
OS: In your opinion, what is the role of NASA in the future of space exploration?
MP: The things that NASA has done are amazing – not just the manned missions to the Moon, but also the robotic exploration missions like Voyager, Cassini, MESSENGER, and the space telescopes like Hubble and Swift. And NASA is still, right now, doing amazing things. NASA’s Kepler space telescope has identified over 100 planets around other stars in a small patch of the Milky Way, with 4 more identified this week in their star’s “habitable zone.” This is an exciting time to be alive! When I was a kid, we didn’t know if there were other planets outside our own solar system, and now, one relatively small NASA mission is showing us where they are and teasing out of the data what they might look like!
NASA will always have a role to play – but the Agency is going through a critical transition. It’s hard to say how long this will take, or what NASA’s role will ultimately be. I hope that NASA continues to produce amazing discoveries. This transition has provided an opportunity for the growth of private enterprise, an opportunity for Penn State to move into this area and make an impact on the world. Hopefully NASA will learn how to do more with less and take advantage of the strength of private industry.
OS: You say that now is a critical point in the development in the aerospace industry. Can you elaborate on what we should expect to see in the next ten, twenty years?
MP: We’ll see a dramatic reduction in the cost of launching a spacecraft. SpaceX is leading the way in this revolution in the industry. We’ll see the number of human beings who have gone to space multiply tenfold – about 500 people have gone to space in all of human history. Virgin Galactic has over 500 customers lined up for their suborbital flights, which are scheduled to begin next year, and their competitors will increase that number as the years go on.
We’ll also see other nations, such as China, India, and Japan, grow in their capacity to execute challenging space missions. I expect that the democratization and commercialization of space will help the United States grow in economic and global strength, so that we can maintain the technological lead that we have created through our investment in NASA.
OS: Up to this point I wouldn’t have associated Penn State with space exploration, so I have to ask: “Why Penn State?” What does this university have to contribute to the space industry?
MP: Penn State has a long history of research into propulsion systems, a very strong Aerospace Engineering department, an excellent College of Engineering, and a top-notch Astronomy and Astrophysics program. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Penn State also has well-established ties to industry and the ability to build partnerships where it will best serve the university as we pursue this mission. Also consider that Penn State’s larger mission of education and research and service to the nation is perfectly in line with the pursuit of space exploration.
By pursuing this mission, we will grow new strengths and expand the prowess of Penn State. If this were easy, if this were something that we had already done, it might not be worth pursuing. No one has landed a spacecraft on the Moon in over 35 years. We are taking advantage of this opportunity to establish Penn State as the go-to university for this growing commercial space industry, and we will grow with it. Penn State is one of the leading universities in corporate funded research as well as a leading university in government-funded research. We’re the 9th largest research university in the country overall in terms of funding at $800 million in the last fiscal year.
OS: Lastly, as is our tradition, we at Onward State would like to ask — what is your favorite dinosaur, and why?
MP: My favorite dinosaur is Pteranodon — one of the fliers. ‘Cause it flies.