NASA JSC's Failed R-5 Robot Project Refuses To Explain Itself

Keith's note: On 17 November 2015 NASA issued a press release titled "NASA Awards Two Robots to University Groups for R&D Upgrades" regarding NASA JSC's R-5 robot. At the time I asked "Is JSC's R5 Droid Worth Fixing?". I sent NASA PAO a simple request asking "How many applications/proposals were submitted? Which schools submitted proposals?" PAO replied "Thanks for reaching out to us. To answer your question, it's not our practice to share information about the number of proposals we received or which proposals were not selected. The two university groups were chosen through a competitive selection process from groups entered in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge. The NASA challenge was limited to U.S. university participants in the DARPA Robotics Challenge finals." (see Never Ask NASA a Simple Question)

Gee, all I wanted to know was how many organization submitted proposals and NASA refused to tell me that simple number. What now had me wondering was why NASA was so shy about providing such a simple answer. I did not ask who had applied, simply how many universities had applied. Hmmm ... could it be that only two universities applied? If so, how did it happen that they knew to apply? Did NASA drop hints to potential submitters? Do recall that the R-5 robot has been somewhat of a failure and JSC would just love to pull something successful out of this mess.

R-5 is not the droid you were looking for.

Developed in secrecy by NASA JSC, R-5 competed in the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials 2013 and tied for dead last. Indeed, the R-5 was not even able to get out of its own way in some portions of the competition. NASA never really explained what this robot was for or why it developed it to have a female shape and form.

After a period of silence, NASA decided in 2015 to haul out their failed R-5 droids out of storage and see if anyone could fix them. Since NASA could not/would not fix them, why not ask if others can help? Not a bad idea. So they asked universities to help them fix the broken robots.

When the two university teams were announced (no doubt highly capable). I wondered how many others had applied and what the interest was in this sort of thing on a national level I was also interested in how hard NASA had worked to actually find the best teams. Mostly I was interested in the number - so I asked PAO. And I got the odd non-response response that PAO provided me.

Not getting an answer I submitted a FOIA request on November 2015. Actually I submitted it twice since the NASA online FOIA submission website was broken that day. Here is the text of my FOIA request:

"On 17 November 2015 NASA Headquarters released press release 15-222 titled "NASA Awards Two Robots to University Groups for R&D Upgrades" which states "Humanoid robots will be helpful to astronauts on our journey to Mars, so NASA has awarded prototypes to two universities for advanced research and development work."

NASA press release 15-222 also says "The two university proposals selected are: Robust Autonomy for Extreme Space Environments: Hosting R5 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, led by principal investigator Russ Tedrake Accessible Testing on Humanoid-Robot-R5 and Evaluation of NASA Administered (ATHENA) Space Robotics Challenge -- Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, led by principal investigator Taskin Padir The two university groups were chosen through a competitive selection process from groups entered in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge. They also will receive as much as $250,000 a year for two years and have access to onsite and virtual technical support from NASA. STMD's Game Changing Development Program, which is charged with rapidly maturing innovative technologies that will one day change the way NASA explores space, is funding the research."

I intend to write an article about the R5 robot and how NASA is using external teams to fix its problems and improve its performance. I am also writing about the educational research base in the U.S. that is interested in doing space robotics research.

In order to write this article I am requesting that NASA provide:

1. A list of all of the educational institutions and/or companies who submitted a proposal to NASA in response to NASA solicitation SpaceTech-REDDI-2015 NNH15ZOA001N-15GCD-C2 -- "GAME CHANGING DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM, HOSTING OF HUMANOID ROBOTS AND VALIDATION OF TASK PERFORMANCE FOR THE NASA SPACE ROBOTICS CHALLENGE APPENDIX to NASA Research Announcement (NRA): Space Technology - Research, Development, Demonstration, and Infusion - 2015 (SpaceTechREDDI2015), NNH15ZOA001N APPENDIX NUMBER: NNH15ZOA001N-15GCD-C2 THROUGH AMENDMENT 2" -- as posted at

2. A list of other educational institutions and/or companies provide by DARPA or other government agencies considered for an award under NASA solicitation SpaceTech-REDDI-2015 NNH15ZOA001N-15GCD-C2

3. The criteria used by NASA to select awardees and the scores awarded to each proposal during review by NASA.

4. A list of all R5 related technical documents provided by NASA to Northeastern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the purpose of performing their R5 tasks and links to any of these documents that are online.

5. copies of the proposals submitted to NASA in response to SpaceTech-REDDI-2015 NNH15ZOA001N-15GCD-C2 by Northeastern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

6. Copies of any MOUs, Space Act Agreements, and/or statements of work between NASA and Northeastern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology related to their contract awards to work on R5 technology.

I am editor of and accredited by NASA as news media and request that reproduction fees be waived by NASA in the production of the above-requested items."

I got a letter in PDF format back from NASA on 20 November 2015 via email asking me to prove that I am a member of the news media, to provide a detailed justification as to what I was going to write about, and "If there is likely to be a contribution to public understanding, will that contribution be significant? A contribution to public understanding will be significant if the information disclosed is new, clearly supports public oversight of Agency operations, including the quality of Agency activities and the effect of policy and regulations on public health and safety, or otherwise confirms or clarifies data on past or present operations of the Agency."

This is a little odd since NASA identified me a long time ago as editor of NASA Watch. Indeed, at one point a few years back NASA required that I have a full FBI Security check to get a NASA HQ press badge (they are no longer issued). I wrote this request precisely as I have written others. Indeed, in some cases, all I have had to do was sent an email inquiry to a NASA PAO office at a field center, they just automatically assume that it is a FOIA request and reply with the requested information. Many PAO FOIA responses have been unusually fast. But not any more. NASA is not creating needless work - not only for news media - but for its own FOIA staff to re-certify the obvious.

So I replied back by email on 20 November 2015:

"Are you guys going to make me do this every time I make a FOIA request? I had to submit this one twice because your system did not work properly. Now I have to prove I am serious about writing an article that people will read? Like ""Freelance" journalists who demonstrate a solid basis for expecting publication through a news media entity shall be considered as working for that entity" and " Is the focus of the requester on contributing to public understanding, rather than on the individual understanding of the requester or a narrow segment of interested persons? The requester must demonstrate how he/she plans to disseminate the information. The dissemination of information must be to the general public or a reasonably broad audience. (Dissemination to a wide audience is not merely posting the documents on a Web site, but using his/her editorial skills to turn raw materials into a distinct work.)"

DUH - I have been covering and publishing articles about NASA for 20 years on some of which have been cited as references in congressional testimony. Wired magazine saw my initial post on NASAWatch and just posted an article wherein I am interviewed on this precise topic. Oh yes, I PUBLISH MY OWN STUFF -- so I can assure you that what I write will be published. The bulk of what I requested should be in a folder on the project manager's desk or computer. Since this procurement was just completed that activity's files should be similarly collected in a central location. If NASA requires manpower to do that, then that is and of itself newsworthy - especially given all the IG and GAO reports about how NASA can't manage and plan its programs. Based on this letter I am now writing an article now on how NASA uses FOIA to create work and thereby thwart simple inquiries about NASA projects that refuse to release simple, basic information about what they are doing. I initially asked a simple question and you guys could not answer it - and the reason why this was refused was simply bogus - hence my further requests."

NASA FOIA replied by email on 20 November 2015:

"Thank you for your response. FOIA requests are addressed on a case-by-case basis; every request. Fee waivers are based on the documents and a decision to grant or deny can be deferred until the documents have been collected and reviewed."

Which is nonsense since they modify their FOIA response process all the time.

I then responded via email:

"I do not understand your answer. I am not certain how a detailed determination can be made about the documents I requested on such short notice - i.e. 24 hours - especially when I am told that program officials have not replied to earlier requests by NASA personnel in response to my initial requests. I will write a detailed response to your letter and send it to you - and post it online on on Monday. This letter reflects a process that creates work for everyone involved and is designed to inhibit the process of meeting FOIA requests - not to facilitate that process. As I noted before a lot of this should be within instant reach of the people running the program. If extensive work is needed to get that information to meet a FOIA request well ... as you asked in your letter, THAT inability to access routine contract information is what I will be writing about and THAT will be of interest to a wide audience. Also .. in the best interest of saving taxpayer dollars, one would think that once a news organization/journalist/media representative has been vetted by your office as being legitimate that this vetting would not have to be done again and again - a process that inevitably costs tax dollars. Describing the cumbersome and stalling process of meeting a FOIA request is, in and of itself, of intrinsic news value and will be of interest to a wider audience. This interaction has simply given me a broader context to frame my initial interests."

The FOIA office PDF letter from 20 November 2015 said: "if we do not hear from you within 20 working days from the date of this letter, we will consider that you are no longer interested in this request and we will close the file on your case." By my calendar that means I had until 21 December 2015 to respond. Note that I said "I will write a detailed response to your letter and send it to you - and post it online on on Monday." That would have been 23 November. Well Thanksgiving got in the way.

Just as I was pulling that response together I got an email from NASA's FOIA office again with another PDF formatted letter dated 9 December 2015. It included my email of 20 November in which I said I would be responding (i.e. I had not responded to their request for a response - only told them that I would be responding). They decided not to give me 20 days that they said that I'd have and sent me this response, a copy of the solicitation (which I had already posed a link to) and a censored chart. Oddly they quoted me when I said that I would be proving the reply that they had requested. In other words they did not wait for the reply that was coming. They do not even follow their own rules even as they wave them in your face.

I did not end up empty - handed. In their 9 December letter they said:

"Your response did not provide information to substantiate your request for either the fee category status or a fee waiver. Therefore, we placed you in the 'other use' category of requesters and began processing your request. In accordance with 14 CFR 1206.507(c)(4),other use requesters receive the first two hours of search and 100 pages of copy/scan without charge. We completed a search within the first two hours. The following details our response:"

I got one semi-blacked out "redacted" chart and nothing else. They simply refused to even tell me anything - including how many universities had applied - an answer that would have, in no way, revealed ANYTHING of a proprietary nature.

Oh yes, I now have 30 days to protest this.

What can I tell from the redacted chart (below)? Due the the size of the blackened box there may have been other proposals - hard to tell how many since some universities/teams may have longer/shorter names than others. There is no indication if there were other pages that have not been provided either. In essence NASA just wants me to go away and does nto feel that it needs to be accountable to the media - or the public - when transparency is sought on a routine NASA procurement.

(larger image)
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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on December 14, 2015 4:53 PM.

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