Shooting for the Moon:
NASA's Project Morpheus

Photo courtesy of NASA/Kris Kehe

Space buffs deflated by the end of NASA's Space Shuttle program take heart: Project Morpheus is here. Aptly named for the Roman god of dreams, the Morpheus vertical lander is helping to keep the dream of interplanetary exploration alive at NASA.

Developed in Houston by engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX, in collaboration with private-sector partner Armadillo Aerospace, Heath, TX, the vehicle is a real-world test bed for new propulsion, guidance, and control technologies that will make it cheaper and easier to land on the moon, Mars, or even an asteroid.

The team fills the Morpheus lander's tanks with liquid oxygen. Photo courtesy of NASA/Kris Kehe

But Morpheus is about more than rocket science. NASA engineers are using this project to test-fire some new ideas in lean development. As the government scales back its ambitions and funding for space exploration, the project is borrowing expertise from the private sector that will lower the cost of future lander projects – and thereby permit more of them. The trick is establishing a viable middle range for performance and design requirements, while promoting a private-sector-style sense of urgency and innovation in the agency's engineering culture.

Projects like Morpheus "help us find better and cheaper ways to do things, to challenge our existing processes, to innovate," says Steve Altemus, director of Johnson's Engineering Directorate.

Altemus says the challenges of today's budgetary constraints have opened the door for unique opportunities. "We've built a functioning spacecraft in less than a year by making good use of commercial partnerships and resources that we already had on hand," he notes.

Design and Performance Innovations

Although designed to haul about 1,100 pounds of research equipment rather than a human crew, the Morpheus lander could be the next vehicle to land on the moon. The project is testing all the key subsystems associated with a future manned spacecraft: avionics, software, guidance/navigation/control; power/power distribution, structures, propulsion, and instrumentation. Engineers are using the lander to try out new propellants and propellant sources, as well as new automated landing sensors that avoid surface hazards such as craters or rocks – technologies that could be useful in a wide range of other spacecraft.

Morpheus in flight at the NASA Johnson Space Center. Photo courtesy of NASA/Joe Libby

The novel propellant is a blend of liquid oxygen and methane, which is  cheaper, lighter, and has a longer shelf life in space than liquid hydrogen and other common propellants. Methane is especially useful as a space fuel. Engineers believe that future propellants could be produced from sources that can be tapped in space during a mission, such as dust from the moon or waste gas from the International Space Station.

The craft's hazard-avoidance technology will improve the efficiency of landings by using real-time laser images of a planet's surface conditions during descent to select a safe place to touch down.

NASA was working on these technologies separately in the laboratory before they were incorporated into Morpheus. But the lander gives engineers a chance to interface them, study how they work together, and refine them until they are ready for prime time.

jumpThe Morpheus Lander could be the next vehicle to land on the moon.

Learning to Be Lean

Aspiring to the tenets of lean development, NASA is taking inspiration from industrial partners. Rather than doing everything from scratch, the Morpheus team is looking for ways to use existing materials and resources, take appropriate risks, and drive decision-making down to the lowest possible organizational levels.

The ingenuity and fast prototyping capabilities of private firms such as Armadillo Aerospace are critical to that effort. NASA's previous collaboration with Armadillo, the Pixel Project, was a test bed constructed from spare parts. It flew 17 tethered test flights and three free flights, providing information that led to many of the technological advances and process improvements shown in Morpheus.

"At NASA, lean development calls for starting small, and building up fast, understanding that it's better to do hands-on tests of a design in the early stages so that it can fail, and the failures can drive improvements," says Johnson Space Center spokeswoman Brandi Dean. "That's not an entirely new concept, but for many NASA engineers who have spent their entire careers to this point working on established programs where any change has the potential to introduce life-threatening problems into the system, it represents a culture change."

But it's a change embraced at the highest levels of NASA. "We have been trying to re-live Apollo for 40 years now," said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver at a recent gathering of space enthusiasts in New York. "But today, we not only have a more developed private sector, we also have the ability to work more effectively with our partners, as we are showing on the International Space Station. And we have the ability to go to many places, hopefully working in new and innovative ways. By developing these capabilities, lowering the cost, investing in technologies that will allow us to actually fly more missions, NASA can make a contribution that will be long felt."

Michael MacRae is an independent writer.

We've built a functioning spacecraft in less than a year by making good use of commercial partnerships and resources that we already had on hand.

Steve Altemus, director, Johnson Space Center's Engineering Directorate


August 2011

by Michael MacRae,