Within 30 minutes of sitting down at a picnic table at NASA’s Langley Research Center, Nathanael Miller had scoped out an entire mission. The aerospace engineer wanted to send radiation and magnetic field sensors to space on a small satellite, and fast. All he had to do was develop a plan with Ryan Norman, sitting across from him. Norman was already working on his own mission, called RaD-X, to measure cosmic rays in the stratosphere.
Together, they whipped up the specifics of Miller’s first fast-moving project, called the Rapid Response Radiation Survey, or R3S. The mission was on its way. Together, the two projects would help solve a big aviation-industry problem: predicting just how much radiation high-flying airline workers are exposed to while they work.
Just three days after the picnic-table meeting, 32-year-old Miller presented the mission concept to NASA’s bigwigs with the money, who funded R3S just a week after that. Within 28 days–the length of a lunar cycle, or a global zombie virus outbreak–they had closed a deal with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to launch it aboard a small satellite. R3S will launch later this year, after its engineers spent just four months working on its design.
If you know anything about NASA, you know that’s not usually how things go down. Every action takes a stack of paperwork and permissions, and projects can take years or decades to get off the ground. R3S could only happen so fast–and, actually, happen at all–because of a new technology-acceleration program called Lab 77, headed up by “early-career” employees at Langley like Miller. They have seen enough of the world to know that business outside NASA doesn’t work the way it often does inside the compound. They also don’t want to be 45 by the time their first mission reaches space. So they started Lab 77 to see if they can take cool technology that’s sitting on shelves, like R3S’s sensors, and quickly incorporate it into cheap small-satellite missions.
“It’s comparable to buying a house versus buying a mailbox,” says Miller. R3S, for instance, lives aboard a “satlet” platform called HISat. HISat satlets (say it three times fast) are small satellites, developed by a company called NovaWurks, that function on their own but can be snapped together like Legos, and their payloads are made to work together. On miniature orbiters, of which HiSats are just one variety, the nascent tech can do science while also showing its space-readiness, which means it can later be incorporated into other, larger-scale missions.
The Origin of Innovation
The lab, Miller’s idea initially, was born out of frustration. Once, after he worked for a year and a half designing a mission, the agency decided they couldn’t build it. There wasn’t enough money; the risk was too high. Bummer, right?
But what if, he thought, they found a way to do it faster, cheaper, and well–but maybe with a little more risk? He began thinking about rapid-turnaround work models–“agile development,” as Miller cribbed from a popular Silicon Valley strategy. Could something like that work at NASA? He thought maybe. “The space technology mission directorate is all about finding different ways of skinning the cat,” he says. “Ways that leave you with more meat and less fur.”
Before he could work on finding out, he needed a name (after all, it’s still NASA). “So I asked my intern his favorite number and I wrote down mine, and Lab 77 was born,” says Miller.
With the blessings and funding of higher-ups like Mike Gazarik, then-associate administrator of space technology, and Clayton Turner, Langley’s Chief Engineer, the lab has grown. Right now, Lab 77 is actively working on six missions. In addition to R3S, they’ve got the nanosatellites that assemble themselves in space, sensors that measure barometric pressure over the ocean to improve weather predictions, and tests of how different materials fare when they “de-orbit,” or fall back through the atmosphere.
The program is led by the scrappy youth of the the agency, millennialz who just will not sit still and wait their turn. Forty to fifty people work day-to-day on projects, with around 200 on the mailing list waiting to jump in when the time is right. Which they can do: Lab 77 is not an actual lab, but a loose association of people who mostly work on these projects during down-time from their main missions. That also helps with socialization and empowerment for younger employees–something Langley is trying to improve.
“NASA struggles with an aging workforce just like all the other organizations in the industry,” says Joshua Kinne, an aerospace technologist at Langley (Disclosure: He’s a friend of mine who alerted me to the existence of this no-webpage organization). “With the influx of early-career employees we’ve had in the last five years or so, center management is interested in making sure the voices of younger folks are heard.”
Langley holds events to get those youngsters together to gab, since they’re often siloed in their own little labs working on their own projects with their middle- to late-aged coworkers. At one of these events, Kinne met Miller, who told the story of Lab 77 and its itsy bitsy satellites. Although Kinne didn’t have much open time–or “white space,” as NASA calls it–on the calendar, just a few hours a week was enough to participate.
How and Why It Wurks
In their white space, Lab 77ers advance “technology readiness level” (read: make something more reliable) so that stuff is ready to go to space. An innovation has to go through bench testing, lab testing, and environmental testing before making it to tests in orbit. “There’s a highway that takes you from a thought to a successful space mission,” says Miller. “Space is incredibly hard to deal with. So we don’t take magic and put it onto that highway and send it into space until we have knowledge that it works.”
But there’s a “real hitch in the giddy-up,” says Miller: the “valley of death” between lab and space. Technology can get stuck in that valley, languishing and unknown, the Sheriff Woody of NASA.
Lab 77’s mission is to find those sad, shelved toy stories, and then find someone–like the R3S stakeholders–who has petty cash and is interested in maturing the technology. The Lab 77ers thus have to cut across missions and “directorates,” NASA’s way of organizing its departments. “We’re getting good at making that connection over and over and over again,” says Miller.
For an idea to end in a smallsat mission, the engineers begin with attempts to find all its flaws. “We call it ‘mission natural selection,'” says Miller. “As soon as we have an idea, we try to kill it. Most of them die in their first round.”
But if it survives, if a team of people exists to support it, if the technology is feasible, and if someone within NASA has a need, they will continue.
The disrupting ninjas of NASA–to steal again from Silicon Valley–see the lifecycle of an entire mission in a few months, and interact with projects holistically in a way they wouldn’t on larger missions, where mechanical engineering happens far from electrical engineering. And because that often goes down outside their everyday work, they also make friends and LinkedIn connections who may be future leaders at NASA.
For Miller, Lab 77 comes down to one thing: “It’s really about increasing the awesome,” he says. NASA is great–or, as Miller says in NASAspeak, “for generations has maintained absolutely stellar record.” But NASA–and the stiff arms of governmental science generally–could benefit from Lab 77-style agility.
Does Miller see the Lab 77 model revolutionizing the space agency? “On the advice of counsel, I decline to make any comments,” he says, and laughs. He declines the same exact way to forecast Lab 77’s future.
But he will say that it’s an approximately three-year experiment. Time’s up later this year. Then, the team will turn their lab notes over to leadership, who will see how missions like R3S went down, hold up, and can help the agency. The grownups will look over processes and results to see whether the kids have done all right. And perhaps consider having all their pitch meetings at picnic tables.