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Faculty Focus: 'To the Moon and Back' Featuring Michael Paul

by and on January 30, 2013 6:00 AM


The Faculty Focus feature is a weekly question-and-answer spotlight on the administrators, instructors and all Penn State employees who keep the university running.

This week, Laura spoke with Michael Paul, a space-systems engineer at Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory and Lunar Lion team leader, who talked about the future of space exploration and Penn State's role in it.

The original article that appeared in Town & Gown, written by Lori Wilson, is below. Onward State sat down for a Q&A with Paul, too.

When history-makers such as Charles Lindbergh and Neil Armstrong set out for the unknown, it is likely that neither focused on much beyond the successful completion of their mission. But, one has to wonder that if somewhere in the back of their minds there were visions of the future — of a world forever changed by what they were accomplishing in that moment.

Within the walls of Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory, a team of students, faculty, and researchers are sharing in the same bold vision as those of Lindbergh and Armstrong. Competing in the Google Lunar X Prize, the Penn State Lunar Lion Team is in a race to send an unmanned spacecraft to the moon and back by 2015. The successful completion of their mission not only holds larger implications for the university but also for the community and beyond.

The Google Lunar X Prize is sponsored by Google and conducted by the X Prize Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity, whether through health care, the environment, or, in this case, space exploration. A total of $30 million in prizes, which are being funded through Google, are available to participating teams who complete the mission in the allotted time frame.

Michael Paul, a space-systems engineer at Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory, is the team leader in charge of the Penn State Lunar Lions, which formed in 2010 and are currently composed of 40 team members. Paul’s devotion to the mission stems from his own personal curiosity about mankind’s place in the universe, a curiosity that began at a very young age.

“I have been interested in space since my dad took me to see Star Wars when I was five,” he recalls. “My dad still takes me and my siblings out to look at the night sky.”

His curiosities about space followed him through undergraduate and graduate studies, eventually landing him a position as a spacecraft-systems engi- neer with NASA’s Messenger mission to Mercury. Because of his work with NASA, Paul says he is now hooked on exploring the solar system.

“When I worked on the Messenger mission, I realized just how much more there was to learn and to discover,” he says.

With this sentiment in mind, Paul and his fellow teammates hope to inspire renewed, widespread interest in space exploration. And as the only team participating in the X Prize to put its university’s name on its mission, the Lunar Lions also hope to put Penn State on the map as a driving force in private space exploration.

The competition challenges privately funded space-flight teams to successfully fund and send an unmanned spacecraft to the moon. Penn State’s vehicle, the Lunar Lion, will be carried by a com- mercial vehicle and placed on a trajectory to the moon. Following five days of cruise, the Lunar Lion will execute a controlled descent to the lunar surface. The spacecraft, which will travel between two specified landing locations on the moon, will capture photographs, videos, and data while on the moon’s surface and communicate that back to mission operations at Penn State. The spacecraft must then return to Earth’s surface.

With the goal of an incentivized prize, the X Prize Foundation hopes to inspire a new generation of space exploration, with the idea that competing teams will bring fresh ideas and innovation to bear on the challenges associated with the mission. Competitions such as the X Prize reflect what is being called the new space industry, in which private companies compete in a commercial market to enhance space technology — making costs leaner and encouraging growth in the industry.

Not to diminish what national space programs have already accomplished over the past 50-some years, the X Prize is meant to complement, not compete, with public space agencies. The advancements made during the competition allow NASA and other space agencies to save money and expand the capabilities of future manned and unmanned missions to the moon.

“I expect that NASA will con- tinue to provide world-changing science, will still lead the charge with its astronauts, and will still be the gold standard of exploration,” says Paul. “The new space industry will follow NASA’s lead, just as trappers and miners followed Lewis and Clark into the American West. In the same way, I think that in years to come, people will look back and say that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin laid the groundwork — we’re fortunate to be living in a time when the story of what follows is unfolding. It’s an exciting time to be alive!”

For Paul, the Google X Prize signifies a change in the space industry, and an opportunity for Penn State to be a driver behind that change.

The Penn State Lunar Lion team is one of 25 teams registered for the competition. The team, which is truly a university-wide effort, collaborates with colleges and campuses across Penn State, such as the College of Engineering, the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, the Smeal College of Business, and more. Outside of Penn State, the Lunar Lions also are partnering with a group of students and researchers at Lehigh University. The overall team is made up not only of engineers and physicists, but marketers, journalists, and business developers.

Michael Policelli, a second-year graduate student in aerospace engineering at Penn State and senior team member of the Lunar Lions, had originally set out on his job search exploring options as a materials scientist. Many of the jobs were industrial, and none of those piqued his interest.

“I learned about new space companies and was like ‘Wow! This is fast, this is innovative, this is the pace I would want to work at,’ ” he recalls. “I was always interested in space, but when I was growing up, space was something that only na- tional governments did. With the way the space industry is changing, it suddenly dawned on me that space was something that I could do too.”

Maria Matthews, who is completing her PhD in physics at Penn State, is involved in business development for the mission. Although new to the team, she is blown away by the ambition of her fellow team members.

“This project is like a magnet for ambitious people,” she says. “Everyone is just so enthusiastic about this and willing to work for it. I think those involved realize this isn’t just good for the university, it’s good for all of Pennsyl- vania, especially if we can attract businesses to come in and invest and locate here.”

Matthews, who also is motivated by her personal interests in space exploration, joined the team after completing graduate school.

“Space exploration has always held a pull for me,” she says. “When I was leaving grad school, I had to sit down and seriously think about what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. There’s nothing that came close to getting into the space industry. I can’t think of anything I would rather do — by a long shot!”

As the team works to convert the mission concept into design, prototypes of the space- craft will be built. A lot of legwork has gone into building the blueprint of the spacecraft, which has been an experience in and of itself. In March 2011, Paul, along with about a dozen Lunar Lion team members, visited NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland to par- ticipate in a weeklong study with the center’s Collaborative Modeling for Parametric As- sessment of Space Systems (COMPASS) Lab. The lab is a multidisciplinary, collaborative engineering team whose purpose is to analyze integrated vehicle systems and provide con- ceptual designs for space-exploration missions.

“The NASA Glenn experience got us to the point where we know we have a spacecraft that will work,” says Paul. “The strategic part- nerships formed will also be very helpful to us in the actual construction of the vehicle.”

Currently, the team is in the early stages of designing a rocket-powered prototype, which will lead it to the next step on its path to the moon. This prototype will build on the control-system software that has already been developed for another prototype, the Y6 Copter. According to Paul, this software represents a critical stage of the mission’s progress.

With the construction of the vehicle being a challenge, the team also is tasked with developing a strategic business plan to fund not only the vehicle’s assembly but also the engineering services necessary to get the spacecraft to the moon and back. Much of the team’s time is now devoted to securing these funds and developing partnerships with corporations to support the mission’s needs.

“Millions of dollars are needed to pay for the students and the research to work on this project,” says Paul, “in addition to paying for the resources and facilities needed to build the spacecraft here at Penn State.”

Despite the fact that the team has a lot of work ahead of them, Paul says the members are still on track to meeting their goal of getting their spacecraft to the moon by the end of 2015.

“Securing and maintaining the necessary fund- ing will be key to keeping on that schedule,” says Paul, “and we are pursuing this funding within the Penn State community and by bringing new people into the fold who have an interest in pushing the boundaries of space exploration.”

Although the task seems monumental and the spacecraft itself is still in the conceptual phase, team members are motivated by the bigger picture. They not only want to put a “Nittany Lion” on the moon, but also Penn State on the map within the new space industry.

“This mission will prove what we are capa- ble of as a university,” says Paul. “It will show that the expertise we have here at Penn State has been around and will be around. And it helps those students who have ideas to be able to actualize them because of the connections we’ve established through this mission.” Locally, the team has connected with the

Discovery Space Center in downtown State College, participating in programming to educate area youth on the Lunar Lion mission and its progress. Members of the team have visited the center to discuss different parts of the mission, highlighting how the many aspects of science will help to send the spacecraft to the moon.

Tammy Miller, who is the director of communications and public-outreach liaison for the Lunar Lions, explains the impact the partnership with Discovery Space Center has had on people of all ages in the local community.

“In this particular partnership, one of many planned across the state and beyond,” says Miller, “we have the opportunity to share the passion we have for the project and help people become a part of something close to home that has far-reaching, life-changing implications. The partner- ship with the Discovery Space has been tremendously rewarding as we have been able to educate others on all levels of development as we continue on our journey all the way to the moon!”

The project shows the many hands that go into successfully completing a lunar mission, which for the Penn State Lunar Lions is about much more than the Google X Prize. The benefits to the university, future Penn State students, the community, and, potentially, the local economy have proven to be the driving force behind the team’s passion for the project.

“The Google X Prize is not only an opportunity to respond to what has become a change in the space industry,” says Paul, “but it helps to grow the future leaders in our field, while at the same time grow the university and the community.”

Echoing this thought, Policelli says, “It’s a full push on the behalf of the lab and the university to really build this business here. It’s exciting to think that this spacecraft will go to the moon, but the more exciting thing is that I’m not going to be the only one doing this. I get to help generations be able to share this dream that makes space exploration a more viable career choice.”


Laura Nichols is a news reporter and @LC_Nichols on Twitter.

Lori Wilson is a freelance writer living in State College.
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