Project M History and Driving Philosophy



Project M was conceived last fall in the Engineering Directorate at the Johnson Space Center. There were several things swirling in the environment at the time. One was a simple management desire to coordinate the technology efforts going on across the Directorate. We were already doing significant work advancing LOX/LCH4 propulsion systems -work funded at multiple centers by the Exploration Technology Development Program (ETDP). We were already leading the development of the Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology Project (ALHAT), also funded by ETDP. We also had this magnificent machine we had built with General Motors, Robonaut 2 (R2), funded primarily by GM. Coordinating those and other disparate efforts and focusing them toward a project with tangible milestones seemed sensible in order to leverage the greatest return from those investments.


Second, we had seen the value of non-traditional partnerships. At that time last fall we were still not able to discuss our work with GM due to our confidentiality agreement, but we were extremely proud of the partnership and what we had accomplished. More pertinent we saw the unexpected benefits and expertise that was gained. We had also been working with Armadillo Aerospace for a few years. Again, it is a partnership where we were in many ways learning how to execute quickly and seeing the power of fast iteration. We wanted to develop other non-traditional aerospace partnerships because we had learned and benefited greatly from these relationships.


The third thing in the environment last fall, was the Augustine Commission deliberations and the emerging space policy of President Obama. It was clear we were going to lose the manned moon mission. It couldn’t be afforded as currently imagined and 2028 was the new date. That is too many Presidential administrations in the future to be relevant or meaningful. Orion was still six years away at least. We knew even then Cx was going to change. We never expected Orion to go, but the launch vehicle was clearly out of favor and change was coming. We were frustrated. We saw what we had built and accomplished in the Engineering Directorate at JSC and knew we could do better. The talent was there; we just needed to unleash it.


The fourth consideration was the intangible piece of NASA, which is its ability, perhaps unique ability, to inspire and instill national pride. We are a technological society falling behind in graduating engineers and scientists. We felt it was our responsibility to create a mission worthy of capturing the minds and imagination of the youth of the country. I have had the privilege of taking scores of visitors to see R2. The machine never fails to awe the most cynical, to put a smile on the most jaded, and to instill wonder in everyone that interacts with it. A humanoid robot walking on the moon will inspire students and demonstrate our technological prowess. We also thought quite frankly, President Obama might agree that it is a compelling and worthy mission for NASA to conduct.

The fifth item on our minds was the people themselves. As line managers we are responsible for delivering products to our customers, but we are also responsible for developing the capability and talent in the organization. We know hands on work is how engineers are developed. You can’t provide proper oversight of a prime contractor if you have not ever done the work yourself. We wanted more projects that provided hands on opportunities in order to develop the expertise required to take humans beyond LEO.


Out of those five ideas and desires Project M was born - the audacious goal of putting a humanoid robot on the moon in a 1000 days. A hands-on project developing a new generation of engineers who will then be capable of taking NASA anywhere. Developing core technologies - LOX/Methane propulsion, ALHAT, and humanoid robotics that are relevant and extensible to a multitude of NASA missions. A compelling machine and technology.


A thousand days drives our creativity, it fires our intolerance for obstacles and unnecessary process, and if accomplished it changes the conversation about what is possible.


The core technologies were already funded, all we really did was put a project wrapper around them and coordinate them toward a common objective. We begged and borrowed. We found excess capacity in the agency. We found hardware. We moved people to create a dedicated meeting area. We leveraged off of existing work and piggy-backed off other project’s testing. We got help from other centers, many of which were already working with us on the individual technology efforts. But we also made new relationships across the agency and found expertise and capability internal that we didn’t know existed.


We found external partners that contributed their own money or we traded something they wanted. A great example is a start-up in Boston called Boston Power. They have some great battery technology. In exchange for a prototype battery for the robot, NASA provided an engineer to help with their battery management software. Sometimes we at NASA don’t realize the value of our expertise and capability that we take for granted.


We did “hardware store engineering” like a scaled propellant slosh test made of light globes, colored water, nuts and bolts, and lumber from the hardware store. That test allowed us to confirm fundamental slosh modes, anchor our simulation, develop a better full scale slosh test, and give engineers an intuitive feel for the physics. We didn’t sit and debate it, we didn’t analyze and re-analyze, we simply built and learned.


We focused on building hardware and software, but we also developed integrated schedules, bottoms up cost estimates, established a management review rhythm, and all the other products of a disciplined project. Perhaps more important and lasting, we are building a relentless and pervasive culture valuing tangible results, speed of execution, teamwork, and the proper, balanced application of rigor and process.


In seven months we have accomplished a great deal and I am very proud of the team. We have taken great leaps forward. We have also begun to build a team that can do anything. A team that can solve problems with $80 worth of hardware store components, a team (and management) not afraid of smoke coming out of the lab once in a while, or of putting a hole in the ground. A team self-empowered to make something happen today.


We have nearly reached the end of our cobbled together funding and charge code allocations and I often get asked is the project still alive. I get asked by the team are we really going to do this, especially when nothing about the future seems clear. I know the technologies we are developing are valuable to NASA, I know the mission is compelling to the country. I know this kind of project is the right thing to do. But my honest answer is I don’t know. I don’t know if we will get the resources we need. I don’t know if we’ll be given the chance. But we will make the most of what we do have. We will continue to trade and barter and scrap for resources. We’ll argue for charge codes. We’ll find capacity wherever it might be. We won’t sit on our hands and lament the state of the Agency and wait for some revelation to appear. We will continue to push back the darkness until they chain the doors and take away our hacksaws. I think that is what the American people expect of all of us.



Matt Ondler
Project Manager, Project M
July 6, 2010