NASA Needs a Hand Unloading Payloads on the Moon

Our interviews with NASA engineer Paul Kessler and HeroX CEO Christian Cotichini will guide you through the challenge.
Derya Ozdemir
The photo credit line may appear like thisHeroX

NASA wants you to get your best game on and seek a solution for one of its lunar-related problems, again: HeroX, a social network for crowdsourced solutions, just launched a brand-new challenge on account of the NASA Tournament Lab and NASA's Langley Research Center (LRC): "NASA's Lunar Delivery Challenge."


NASA's Artemis program aims to land the first woman and the next man on the surface of the Moon in 2024 and achieve a sustained human presence on the Moon in the next decade. But first, it has to tackle a series of obstacles to achieve this goal.

Today, NASA is urging you to find a way to unload payloads that will be arriving from Earth to the lunar surface with the goal of building a moon base, per the press release provided by HeroX.

The lucky citizen scientists will win up to $25,000 in total prizes to up to six teams, and they might even score an opportunity to meet with NASA engineers to present their ideas!

Moving containers from zero- to low-gravity: What are the challenges?

What NASA needs is a lunar cargo handling system that is versatile enough to handle payloads ranging from small scientific tools to large rovers. This system needs to be able to unload them from various spacecraft, but NASA and its partners face many difficulties in moving shipping containers from zero- to low-gravity. 

"One of the biggest challenges is that you have to fit them on a launch vehicle, and the launch vehicle has a certain size of fairing that you can put things in," Paul Kessler, an Aerospace Vehicle Design and Mission Analyst at NASA’s LRC who is trying to come up with the issues that might arise during missions to the Moon and Mars, said to Interesting Engineering (IE) during an online interview. 

"Then you also have to consider the fact that mass is a big player. It costs a lot to send mass in space — both in dollars, but also in fuel," Kessler told IE. From launching the vehicle to landing on the lunar surface, mass plays a crucial role in every phase. 

The extreme conditions astronauts are going to face on the lunar surface require diligent planning as well. Surprisingly, there are similarities with Earth's desert regions, with a few space-age tweaks. The make-up of lunar material, joined by the intense situations astronauts will endure, make a stay on the Moon much harder, explained Kessler.

Moreover, since the Moon doesn't have a major atmosphere that would limit extreme temperatures by transferring heat around the planet, it suffers from thermal fluctuations. When you add all those to obtaining the power needed and operating on a planet which has one-sixth of Earth's gravity, you get yourself a challenge that will baffle thousands of people around the world. 

NASA wants to tap into the collective intelligence to come up with creative solutions

This is where the magic of crowdsourced solutions comes in. HeroX and NASA are no strangers to one another — the former has hosted some of the biggest crowdsourcing challenges like Space Poop Challenge and Lunar Loo Challenge, which both got record participation.

Now, as NASA looks for an innovative way to tackle one of the most challenging logistical efforts ever, HeroX is again providing its platform for the space agency and for millions of citizen scientists.

"What’s really amazing about the work we do with NASA is that they have rocket scientists, and even they don’t have all the expertise and creativity that they need. . . . They see the crowd as a collaborative resource, and they identify areas where breakthrough ideas can make a meaningful difference," said Christian Cotichini, co-founder and CEO of HeroX, to IE during an online interview. 

NASA has thousands of scientists, but it is yet to discover what your mind can accomplish — maybe, you are yet to discover that, too. By encouraging people from all backgrounds, NASA and HeroX are able to unravel outside-the-box ideas that differ from the traditionally engineered solutions.

'Accepting a NASA Challenge' 101:

Future inventors only need to click the orange button on HeroX's website to sign up for the challenge. Don't forget to read the Challenge Guidelines to learn about the requirements and rules.

On a more personal note, Cotichini actually gave some exclusive tips for IE: "For a lot of the challenges, especially for the larger ones, we will run a webinar early in the cycle to let people ask questions and get direct feedback from NASA. Attending those, listening, and asking the questions is a great thing to do."

"If you think about great innovations out there, they are really about ‘I heard about how this problem was solved here, and I think that could apply here.’ [Innovation] is a mixing of solutions.  So it’s more about thinking it through — maybe [by] asking friends and building teams," Cotichini told IE.

The most successful submissions were often built by teams, according to Cotichini who also said, "You can not only work on it alone but also recruit five or six other people and work together by dividing the problem. Or you could join a team that’s already working on the problem."

Don't be intimidated — this is where non-experts thrive

You might be thinking you could never come up with an idea that hasn't already been thought by NASA's thousands of scientists, but don't get discouraged easily.

According to an analysis that NASA did on crowdsourced solutions, more than half of the winning ideas came from non-experts, said Cotichini. Moreover, NASA is always encouraging more people to pitch in their ideas — they want to hear from everyone since this is not an engineer-specific challenge. Paul Kessler's take on this issue will certainly clear any doubts you might be having. 

"It can be very intimidating since you have the big name NASA, and NASA is bigger than life sometimes. We need to take some risks — exploration requires risk — and we need to have a passion and move towards that," said Kessler to IE. 

If coming up with new ideas and "seeing if they stick" is your passion, you shouldn't be discouraged if 90% of them don't, explained Kessler. "90% of my ideas don't stick, probably even more. But there are one or two ideas that just might.

"We just have to keep trying. Being a part of making history and being a part of something much bigger than yourself is really wonderful. This is their opportunity to put their ideas in."

So you think you got the solution? An opportunity to further humanity is waiting for you. This is where you should get started.


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