CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The public got an unprecedented inside peek this month at some of the technologies NASA is developing to push humanity's footprint out into the solar system.
For the first time ever, NASA invited the public to attend its Innovation Expo, a traditionally employees-only event showcasing the work of agency engineers and scientists. This year's expo, which was held here at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Oct. 16 and Oct. 17, was designed to teach people how NASA aims to get boots on Mars by the end of the 2030s.
The expo featured a series of panels with scientists, industry experts and a former astronaut. Among the participants were people from NASA’s Commercial Crew program and boundary-pushing Swamp Works laboratory, as well as representatives of spaceflight companies such as United Launch Alliance, Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp. [Humans on Mars? Buzz Aldrin Thinks So (Video)]
Expo attendees learned about NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket and Orion crew capsule, which the agency is developing to get astronauts to Mars and other deep-space destinations. SLS and Orion engineers were on hand to talk to guests.
Other experts talked about technologies that could help astronauts endure the long journey to Mars. For example, chemical engineer Griffin Lunn explained how his lab is using bioreactors to help convert urine into water. His booth was very hands on, featuring pH experiments designed to help children understand the research and an inflatable green alien offering guests samples of the Veggie plant-growth experiment that was performed recently aboard the International Space Station.
Also on display was a prototype of NASA’s humanoid robot, Robonaut 2 (R2 for short), which is currently assisting crews aboard the ISS. The prototype on display allowed guests to learn more about R2 and the role robots like it could play on the journey to Mars.
In addition to the booths, several guest speakers gave lectures on a variety of topics, from risk mitigation to exploring the solar system to virtual reality. Planetary scientist Phil Metzger — who was formerly based at NASA's Swamp Works lab but now works at the University of Central Florida — talked about his own research, which involves developing technologies to utilize resources in space.
Newly retired astronaut Nicole Stott was also on hand, giving a talk to a packed audience about her time in space. She said being at KSC was like coming home, since she worked for over a decade at the center prior to joining the astronaut corps.
Stott spoke about the importance of teamwork and diversity, joking she wouldn’t want to work with a crew that was exactly like her. She showed a photo of her astronaut class, saying: "Today is innovation day, and this photo speaks to innovation. There are 17 different people in this photo, who all wanted to be an astronaut and all got there in different ways. It takes all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds to make a successful crew."
Audiences also heard about the future of human space exploration and SLS from Chad Brown of KSC. Alex Menzies, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, talked about how virtual reality will play a role in space exploration. Menzies works on project OnSight, which uses a holographic tool (Microsoft Hololens) to help control NASA's Mars rover Curiosity and visualize its environment, and will one day be used by astronauts on the ISS.
NASA relies on innovation and collaboration to reach its goals while dealing with a tight budget, agency officials have said. Getting the public interested in, and excited about, NASA's activities is also a key priority, which helps explain why the agency opened the doors to the Innovation Expo this year