Drones On Mars: How NASA Can Reach Underserved American Communities

Keith's note: On Wednesday I listened to Administrator Bill Nelson testify before a Congressional Committee. During the course of the hearing every single member chimed in about the importance of NASA to their state (and vice versa) and twisted Nelson's arm for a site visit. As the hearing wore on it was obvious that this was all transactional - they people who give things to NASA want things from NASA. That's just fine if your representative from your space state is on the committee. But what happens when a community, or a sector of the economy, or an underserved community has no one to champion their cause? No arm twisting. And if NASA is focused on keeping lawmakers happy, they are not going to spend a lot of time on a bunch of people who do not matter in the whole transactional legislative dance.

We've all heard the phrase "flyover country". Some accuse east and west coast elites of using the term derisively to refer to the 3 hours of boring terrain they have put up with as they fly over it to get to their destination. Others use it as a self-identifier or even a term of endearment to suggest that they are ignored by political leaders of both parties who have a different set of concerns than those that they have to deal with every day.

Much of what is "flyover country" is rural agricultural in nature. No rocket ships are built there. NASA never visits. But people in flyover country hear about rich people wanting to spend millions to fly in space while they and their neighbors back on Earth are suffering through post-pandemic economic troubles. Newsflash: most people out in the real world i.e. not in the space bubble have not spent a whole lot of time studying the differences between "commercial" vs "civilian" or "government" space - so all of this talk of rich people in space is synonymous with "NASA". And what has NASA done for them lately? Oh and now they want to spend billions to go back to the Moon. Didn't we already do that?

One would think that someone at NASA is thinking about how to work through this problem and make the agency more relevant to the real world who pays the taxes that buy all of the rocket fuel. Of course NASA and the space economy is immensely relevant. But NASA has done such a poor job that you'd never know this. So why not pick something that NASA does that easily resonates with everyone - something that they personally experience - and learn from - and enjoy - and derive benefits from? I have a thought: drones. To be specific: Drones on Mars.

Drone sales nationally and globally continue to soar. In terms of agricultural applications, drones continue to play an ever-expanding role. larger drones can lay down fertilizer and insecticides much more efficiently than humans, they can use GPS to provide highly accurate maps of fields to guide individual farmers with precision agricultural methods. The current agriculture drone market is already predicted to be worth $32.4 billion. So just as learning to plow with a horse was replaced with learning how to drive a tractor, and scientific application of fertilizers, the use of drones is now becoming an essential aspect of modern farming. Indeed, this is the sort of thing that students interested in a farming career would likely be considering as a topic to learn about in school - and in the field. And guess what one of the most popular Christmas gifts have been for the past several years.

4-H is perhaps the pre-eminent agricultural organization - one that reaches across the nation and down to individual states and communities and to individual students and farmers. If NASA was interested in an education partner to bring the value of its various programs to the agricultural and educational communities, then 4-H is a natural place to start. in 2016 4-H had a 4-H National Youth Science Day "Drone Discovery Challenge" where "More than 100,000 K-12 students across the country experimented with engineering, coding and design."

I checked the current NASA Space Act Agreements page and there are no agreements listed with "4-H" (or "4H") in the title. Yet there was apparently some sort of agreement between NASA and 4-H back in 2016 ("NASA, 4-H Launch Expeditionary Skills For Life"). And this press release from 2019 refers to the third in a series of events
"NASA Invites Media to Third Annual 4-H Youth Development Day"
at NASA Glenn Research Center which was sponsored by "Glenn's Office of Education and Ohio 4-H Youth Development program, delivered through the Ohio State University Extension, inspire students to become interested in STEM by engaging participants in NASA-themed STEM education experiences.". And then there is "Iowa 4-H and NASA Iowa Space Grant Consortium STEAM Academy", "NASA 4-H Virtual Science Sessions (Nebraska)", "4-H specialist works with NASA to develop youth curriculum" (Wisconsin), "4-H and NASA Partner on Space Age STEM Curriculum (USDA)", etc.

So there has been - and may still be - a relationship between NASA, 4-H - and USDA - even if NASA's own website makes no mention of a Space Act Agreement that supposedly enables these interactions. And when I looked through the NASA STEM Engagement website there was nothing obvious to suggest that they have or know about NASA/4-H interactions. If you use the NASA.gov search engine for "4-H" (and "4H"") searching you get no results mentioning the organization whatsoever. So it is obvious that NASA is not aware of its own cool stuff (once again).

Meanwhile, NASA has a drone helicopter flying on Mars. Its a big deal. President Biden just can't stop mentioning it in his speeches. And Ingenuity is still working well beyond its planned research timeline so it will be used as part of Perseverance's roving activities. To be certain Ingenuity flies based on predetermined plans and using its own sensing abilities. So it is not piloted in the same exact sense that drones are piloted on Earth. But the similarities and overlaps are obvious. And at least (to me) the synergies with terrestrial applications are obvious. When my friend John Grunsfeld, then the AA for Science at NASA, first pushed to incorporate this small helicopter on the Mars 2020 rover he had hope that it could serve as a bridge between SMD and NASA Aeronautics - just like MOXIE served as a bridge to NASA HEMOD. Well, only after the rover was on Mars did NASA decide that the helicopter on Mars was something that SMD, Aeronautics, Technology, and Human Spaceflight Mission Directorates should be promoting. They did, but only after the fact, and only to a minimal degree. Now its no big deal so only the Mars people - and the President of the United States - talk about it. Just think: this was a Wright Brothers-like moment on another world (their names were invoked) just a few months ago. Now flying a helicopter on Mars is old news and boring.

But Ingenuity could have - and perhaps still could - serve another role. As mentioned above drones are now an important part of modern agriculture. They are also popular gifts for a wide range of people and age groups. And they are a thing that students - be they interested in agriculture or engineering - need to be familiar with when career choices are concerned. NASA has a bad habit of preaching to the choir when it comes to outreach - they pick populations and places where NASA people are most familiar and focus their education and outreach there. As a result vast swaths of American remain underserved when it comes to NASA and space technology. Yet every single taxpayer in these underserved areas pays the taxes that keep the whole NASA space party going.

Interest in space is far more pervasive than NASA is capable of understanding since they have no interest in looking in unexpected places to see if it is there. It is also staring NASA in the face - yet NASA does not see that interest because NASA has decided that some places just are not full of space fans - even if they are. As such it would not be surprising to learn that a lot of people - especially young people - in underserved areas - such as rural agricultural communities - don't think about space much. Even though they use GPS to navigate, satellite TV to access the outside world, and walk beneath huge, clear skies filled with stars and satellites. It is understandable that they do not see NASA as part of their present - or their future.

But wait - the same skills that students in a rural community may be using to pilot drones - and what these drones do - are highly resonant with how NASA flies the Ingenuity drone on Mars. Think about that for a moment. Kids in a small town are learning the same skills needed to fly drones on Mars. There is a connection - a real one. There could be a job for them at NASA some day. So why isn't NASA jumping on this? I know John Grunsfeld is frustrated by this. And without getting into names of people at NASA now, I know that there is similar frustration at senior levels.

NASA needs to have Space Act Agreements in place before they can do anything with the external (real) world these days. OK, so that is the way it is. NASA SAAs use boilerplate language. They are easy to write. I have written several for non-profit organizations that NASA signed. They can take years to implement or, in one case, 11 days. It depends on the complexity, issues raised, whether there is a high level internal champion, and whether someone is writing checks. There is no reason why NASA and 4-H, for example, could not sign a non-reimbursable SAA that deals with drone technology and education. 4-H already does events that resonate with what would interest NASA. In terms of time, it would take a small amount of civil servant time to do the NASA side of things. Several large aerospace companies have donated to 4-H so it should not be all that difficult for them to attract additional funding and support for awards, scholarships, etc.. Aerospace companies would have a vested interest since drone technology is the next big thing in military and civilian aerospace.

Imagine a follow-on to the 2016 4-H event - except one with overt NASA affiliation. Now the challenge is to fly drones or perhaps modify them so that they can perform similar tasks to what Ingenuity is doing on Mars - and what Dragonfly will one day do on Titan. Pre-programed and autonomous flight, hyperspectral imaging, recon, geodesy, etc. "Fly A Drone Like NASA Does". I am certain that you could rope in scouting organizations and wire in a merit badge to all of this. Perhaps some of the farmers could have a competition to cut NASA logos (both meatball and worm logos) in their fields using GPS-guidance from drones such that they can be seen from orbit.

And this does not need to cost a lot of money. But of course, NASA only does things that cost a lot of money, so it is expected that this would be their natural response. If done properly it should cost NASA very little. Indeed, if external collaborations were something NASA embraced then they'd pivot their staff toward supporting such activities and task them with removing road blocks so external groups could do these tasks in a way that benefits all involved. Done properly the vast proportion of the cost would not be borne by NASA.

If NASA wanted to get creative they could use their Hollywood Rolodex (it exists) and get a notable celebrity from a SciFI show like one of the Star Trek series to cut some youtube and NASA TV promos. Indeed, why not ask Matthew McConaughey to put his brown Carhart jacket on again, revisit his ex-astronaut, drone-hacking, corn farmer "Cooper" character from "Interstellar" and get him to make some public appearances for this effort.

NASA's main problem when it comes to explaining its value is that they buy stove pipes by the truckload. They set them up for every program, mission, field center, or directorate so as to protect their turf. But in so doing they isolate themselves from other NASA efforts and stifle collaboration. That leads to duplication. But it also isolates NASA from the external world and new ideas and real world concerns. It is time to zero base the stove pipes. NASA needs to re-engage with itself and the real world that pays the bills. Bill Nelson touched on his agricultural past in Congress the other day. Jim Bridenstine talked often about his. Drive 30 minutes outside of JSC, MSFC, or KSC and what do you see? Farms.

NASA Needs to open its eyes to the world right outside the gate.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on June 24, 2021 5:03 PM.

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