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Podcast: Space Exploration and Artificial Intelligence

Podcast featuring Dr. Wanda CurleeProgram DirectorSchool of Business and
Dr. Robert Gordon, Program Director, School of Business

How is artificial intelligence supporting space exploration? In this episode, Dr. Wanda Curlee talks to Dr. Robert Gordon, the Program Director for Business at APU, about how SpaceX, NASA, and other organizations are using AI. Learn how artificial intelligence is being used to collect and process massive amounts of data, assist with rocket design and troubleshooting, calculate complex mathematics, support space logistics, pilot and monitor space flights, and much more.

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Dr. Wanda Curlee: Welcome to the podcast Innovations in the Workplace. I’m your host, Wanda Curlee. Today we are going to be chatting about artificial intelligence, space logistics, and supply chain in this space area. There is a lot of activity now within NASA and SpaceX. The International Space Station has been staffed for many years. Space logistics is an absolute necessity.

My guest is Dr. Robert Gordon, who is a Program Director at American Public University in the areas of military management, reverse logistics and government contracting and acquisition. He also has many years of experience with supply chain and industry, including Disney, Crystal Cruises, Sea Corp, Viking Cruises, to name a few. Robert, welcome back to Innovations in the Workplace. And thank you for joining me.

Dr. Robert Gordon: Thank you, Wanda. It’s always good to be here. I think that we have a very exciting topic this week, and I really look forward to discussing it with you and obviously, with the audience.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Absolutely. Absolutely. We just saw a commercial rocket take two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station and come back safely. It is exciting to see this partnership. However, I would expect supply chain for space must be quite intricate and interesting. How do you see artificial intelligence helping with predicting the supply chain needs for space?

Dr. Robert Gordon: Well, artificial intelligence definitely plays a role and artificial intelligence is clearly being utilized in the design phase of the manned and unmanned flights that we’re dealing with the International Space Station. Clearly, there’s a lot of information that needs to be reviewed. And what people don’t remember is that for all these successes that have happened recently, there’ve been many failures in the past.

So every time there’s a failure, an incident, be it an unmanned flight or a test flight, there’s a lot of data that needs to be crunched through to really come up with what is the solutions to avoid those problems in the future.

And this is where AI is very helpful, because there’s so much data now with the telemetry that’s gathered from these rockets that people need to take a look at it and crunch through it to figure out and precisely identify the area of failure.

Keeping in mind that it might not be a single point of failure. You may be looking at a multiple incident or a cascade that causes the problem. So artificial intelligence helps go through that data, find the information, make those design corrections and keeps things moving along.

[Podcast: The Past and Future of Artificial Intelligence]

Obviously, people are involved as well and people are reviewing it, but with all that information, one of the things that you see with SpaceX is that they’re very fast about being able to recover from an incident.

In the past where it was months to years, they are in weeks to months. If they have a problem, they work it. They figure out what the problem was and then they make the correction. So artificial intelligence is clearly helping with those flights to get us to these manned flights by looking at the successes and the failures of the unmanned tests, as well as the unmanned flights.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: That’s quite interesting, because I know NASA has had its problems in the past, and I’m sure they learned from it. And they may have even used artificial intelligence 20 years ago. But artificial intelligence now is so much faster than it was in the past.

And of course, as you said, the human has to do the value-add. They’ve got to make the final decision. Artificial intelligence can give you patterns and visuals and recommendations. But again, as you said, it’s finally the human that does that. So do you think SpaceX used artificial intelligence to help design its rockets as well?

Dr. Robert Gordon: Yes. In the design process, clearly they’re using artificial intelligence to look at different options and different models. I know in particular there was one test flight that was a failure. They went back and they made one single adjustment to one mathematical equation before the next flight. And then that flight went smoothly. So sometimes it’s a matter of figuring out precisely the area or the problem. It may seem very small.

They indicated that the calculation error wasn’t considered a problem, but they made the change to make sure that it eliminated that potential. So really humans are certainly looking and monitoring this and helping, but when it comes to these very difficult mathematical calculations, AI is certainly being involved in looking at, not only the possibilities, but also the probabilities.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Wow, that’s fascinating. So how are supplies dealt with for flights with people? How about unmanned flights and does AI play a role in this?

Dr. Robert Gordon: Yes, absolutely. What’s happened is that, and again, the successes of this manned flight has overshadowed all the successful unmanned flights that occurred before this. Before the rockets and the systems were approved for human flight, there had already been a number of unmanned flights that were going to the International Space Station with SpaceX rockets. And for a lot of that, again, there’s artificial intelligence being involved with the design, but also to some degree with troubleshooting, as well as also with to some degree with piloting and monitoring.

Even in the crew Dragon that carried the individuals up to the space station, the crew acknowledged that the entire system and rocket and the entire voyage could have been done on the ground. Although they were clearly there to be there to help if there were any problems or unseen issues. If a standard mission goes as it should, everything could be done by the ground and between the people on the ground and artificial intelligence, they could just go on like an unmanned drone.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Hm, interesting. So do you see manned flights decreasing and unmanned flights increasing? Or will it be still a mixture?

Dr. Robert Gordon: It’s going to be a mix. It’s going to continue to be mixed. However, I do see that the manned flights will increase and the reason being is now that there’s another potential provider to send items up into space through SpaceX, there’s going to be a lot more opportunity for people to go up there and come back.

Remember in the past, the Russian Space Agency had the lock on human space travel with their Soyuz capsule. And so not having any other options makes launches difficult. Now that SpaceX is a player in the game, it’s going to increase the opportunities.

In addition, remember that SpaceX is working on the entire concept of reusability of rockets, which is something that other nations haven’t been able to conquer, particularly on the manned flight. So the opportunity cost there to send people up and down from the International Space Station, given the reusability of the rockets and the equipment, makes it a lot cheaper than the single-use rocket.

And so I suspect with the lower costs is going to come a greater demand and greater number of people going back and forth between the International Space Station. And if you listen to Elon Musk, he has the opinion of going to Mars, which will, obviously, increase flights as well.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: I can’t imagine doing supplies and logistics for Mars. That would be an interesting concept.

Dr. Robert Gordon: Yeah, very interesting. I read some things recently that SpaceX was saying that they’d need about 100 of their heavy rockets to go to Mars to carry the supplies necessary to put a small base there. So if you can imagine, okay, one rocket or call it two or three rockets, are going to carry maybe a dozen people. But now you’re going to need 100 other rockets for all the supplies and equipment and everything else to support them during that time, it gives you an idea of the importance of the logistics.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Right. And you wonder how they would get back home or if they are moving to Mars permanently.

Dr. Robert Gordon: Well, it would be a pretty long-term thing. Because I understand that when the planets line up the void is, I think it’s 10, 12 months transit time. So it’s not a short trip at all.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Right. So what has been the biggest innovation in space logistics recently? And why is this important?

Dr. Robert Gordon: I touched on it already, which is the innovation of reusability. Right now by opening up the entire reusability concept for rockets, for the capsules, for all the elements involved at space travel, really is going to cut the cost.

Because if you think about it, if you were to have to sell tickets on a plane that would fly from London to LA once and divide the cost of everyone on the plane between the cost of that plane, obviously, it’s going to be millions and millions of dollars per person for a ticket.

Now when you look at rockets, which no longer are just a one-shot issue, you can reuse a rocket over and over again. There’s rockets that are currently in use that are reaching the double digits in uses. So obviously, that decreases your per unit cost, which that makes everything a lot cheaper and everything a lot more reasonable to do other things.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah, that is true. Because the plane is used over and over, so I can see where the reusability of rockets also makes it quite affordable, so to speak.

So space logistics for the ISS or International Space Station, I imagine is quite intricate. How is AI making the job easier? And we talked a little bit about long-term planning is needed. So how does AI help with the long-term planning?

Dr. Robert Gordon: Well, on the long-term planning, obviously, it’s another tool that people use in order for modeling for different systems, for different tests. There’s also already on the International Space station, there is a AI there to assist and to speak to the astronauts up there, to assist with different tasks.

And so that’s already in progress. And the intent there is that, as these AIs become better trained and better knowledgeable about the systems on the International Space Station and interacting with the astronauts, it’ll become a more helpful tool.

Just as AI started out, people try to make AI to play chess. In the beginning you had simple chess programs that simply played chess and they got better and better. And so now AI chess programs can beat human grandmasters.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Interesting. It makes me think back to the movie, “2010: A Space Odyssey” with Hal. It could be at some point there is a Hal on the International Space Station or in the rockets that go to Mars.

Dr. Robert Gordon: I would agree. I think that it’s going to become part of the array of items that are going to be available. I think that it’s going to be a tool. It’s going to be a system that really is going to help astronauts in many different ways.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: I would agree, even if it’s just a chat, because I can imagine sometimes there’s downtime and you may not have anybody to chat with. So chatting with a chat bot would be all right.

Dr. Robert Gordon: And that’s one of the things they’re looking at as well. With the artificial intelligence, they’re not only as a tool, but also as a potential companion. Because as we discussed on that very long journey to Mars, you’re going to have a lot of people that are going to be in a very small area for an extended period of time. And so having another interaction may be very important to individuals given the circumstances of being in a very confined space for extended periods of time.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah. So AI sometimes works with IoT, and I’m wondering if AI is working with any IoT on the International Space Station, such as 3D printers to help space logistics.

Dr. Robert Gordon: Well, certainly, there’s already at least two 3D printers up on the International Space Station, which are being linked back, obviously, to the space station, but also to on-ground. And the big opportunity there with the 3D printing is the fact that you can create new parts as needed given the situation on board.

So if, for example, something were to break and you didn’t have a spare, you’d be able to get the engineering diagrams from NASA who would then be able to create that and print that item on the International Space Station, which could then be used to enact the repair. So it creates the opportunity there of having these items available in a short period of time without having to take up the precious commodity of space.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yep. That makes sense. And I can think in the future like on Star Trek, you have a replicator that makes you food. I can see that happening in the future. I don’t see it happening in five years, but maybe in 10 to 15 years where AI can, through a replicator, make you food.

Dr. Robert Gordon: Well, that’s entirely possible. And there are some 3D printers that can print food already. Now generally what ends up happening is a 3D printer will print food that needs to be cooked. So it’s not quite as efficient as a replicator, but it is showing that the need of the IoT, because you’re going to need to interface a lot of different things.

For example, as you mentioned, cooking. You would have to interface then the 3D printer that’s going to be creating that food. It’s going to have to then integrate to an oven or microwave or some device to cook the items. So you’re going to have everything linked via the internet.

Dr. Robert Gordon: And then if you go backwards in the supply chain, all the materials going into that food would need to be refrigerated or stored somewhere. So you’re going to need a, call it an IoT refrigerator, that would be connected to some device that would move those products to the IoT printer that would then print the food, which would then move it to the oven or microwave that would cook the food. And then to do your replicator concept, you would then have to transport that from the oven or area to the place of serving the individual.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Oh, it’s almost like a restaurant, so to speak.

Dr. Robert Gordon: So to speak, exactly. It’s the same concepts, same supply chain, except going to be all integrated with the internet of things, because all the devices are communicating and being aware of what the next step is and what the entire process is.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: In the past, only nations have been able to afford space exploration, but now there are several private enterprises that have been able to achieve space travel. What will happen in the future and how will this change space logistics?

Dr. Robert Gordon: Well, what you’re seeing is that there’s a number of different companies, private entities, that are looking at different space items. For example, SpaceX is already known because they had the manned flight to the International Space Station. There’s also Blue Origin, which is under Amazon, which is also doing a rockets and launches and is also working on reusability.

And then you have Virgin Galactic, which is a slightly different venture, because unlike Blue Origin and SpaceX, they aren’t necessarily looking for a large NASA contract. They completely want to go down the road of being a private enterprise, funded through individuals that are booking space onboard their spacecraft. So you are seeing a number of different companies that have the wherewithal to afford space exploration.

You’re also seeing a smaller than in the past, nations moving forward with space programs. Israel has a space program. India has a space program. So you’re seeing nations that may not have been traditionally in the space business also looking to move.

Now what you’re seeing with this private industry shift is that they no longer are tethered to a particular nation. And so the question then becomes, as they expand and do more things, what are they under? Right now, Blue Origin has, as well as SpaceX, has agreements with NASA and other NASA sub-suppliers.

But for example, Virgin Galactic has no such ties with any space agency. And so the question becomes what happens when there’s an incident? Does it befall upon the nation? Does it befall upon the private individual?

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Interesting. I had never thought about that, but you’re right. At least when SpaceX and NASA are together, if there were an incident, then it would be looked at. But a Virgin Galactic has a incident, yeah, who’s responsible for it? That is an interesting concept.

Do you foresee in the future, since we have a few companies out there, private enterprises that are doing different aspects of space, do you see agencies like NASA going out with a government contract asking for supply chain up to the International Space Station?

Dr. Robert Gordon: Yes. And you’re already seeing a private enterprise already stepping up at different areas. Although again, NASA controls the launch facilities for larger rockets in the U.S. There are other launch facilities in private hands, for example, that support the European Space Agency.

You also have the fact that Virgin Galactic has worked with private industry to build a space port for their ship that will go up into space. And so now you’re starting to see some supply chain infrastructure to support rockets and launches happening in the hands of private industry. No longer nations, no longer is it the launch facilities in Russia, U.S. and China are the only ones that are available.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Interesting. So as more companies come forward with different supply chains for space, I can see that becoming very competitive in the future.

Dr. Robert Gordon: Absolutely. And then the question becomes, as it becomes more competitive and as there are more options, does private enterprise necessarily have to tie itself to the nation of origin? i.e., Does SpaceX need to launch from the U.S.? Does Blue Origin need to launch from the U.S.? Can they launch from another location?

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah. That would be interesting to see how that would play out, because it might be cheaper for them to launch in Europe versus the U.S.

Dr. Robert Gordon: I agree.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Or vice versa.

Dr. Robert Gordon: Yeah.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah, it will be interesting to see if in 10 years, if smaller companies can also do some aspect of supply chain to space, or even the full supply chain. Because I’m sure it’s going to get cheaper as time goes on.

Dr. Robert Gordon: Agreed. As the cost does go down and as reusability is going to be explored and utilized by more entities, the opportunity and actual costs is going to go down. And so you could see smaller organizations or companies, or even possibly individuals being able to afford launches.

You already see this shift in happening where satellites are being built by much smaller and smaller companies in order to remain competitive, as well as being done in many more nations than ever before.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: It’s going to get crowded up there in space.

Dr. Robert Gordon: Oh yeah.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Given all the cyber incidents that have happened in the world recently, how will space be protected in the future?

Dr. Robert Gordon: Well, it’s clear that there needs to be protection, and it’s clear that incidents that have been happening on the planet are going to migrate into space and into places there. And even recently, Colonel Casey Beard, one of the authors of the Spacepower Doctrine, who’s part of Space Force, has mentioned and identified that space mobility and logistics is one of the core competencies that Space Force is striving for.

Which in my mind is telling me, “Well, if you have a group that clearly understands logistics and clearly understands security, it’s going to be only a matter of time before there’s going to be an incident that is a put out there.”

I know recently at one of the conventions for cybersecurity recently, they had set up a virtual satellite and had invited hackers to come in and attempt to hack into the terrestrial system and hack the satellites.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Wow. Okay.

Dr. Robert Gordon: So the fact that white hat hackers are already looking at this and trying to learn and to determine defenses, is telling me that it not only is it possible beyond theoretical that people are now trying to understand how to defend against that. Much the same that you have the situation with Tesla who every year is putting out that call to hackers to try to hack one of its cars.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Yeah. It’s an interesting concept. Have the white hat hackers come in and try to sabotage or make the satellite do something else or even the space station. When you think about it, that could be devastating.

It’s just amazing to me, all the technology that goes into this and all the cyber attacks that could possibly happen. And let’s hope nothing major happens in that area. If you had a crystal ball, how do you see AI changing supply chain in space logistics?

Dr. Robert Gordon: I see that it’s going to continue to push and evolve it in many different areas, not only in the area of development, but also in support. Again, on the planet, you already see self-driving trucks supporting systems. You see AI being utilized in warehouses for more efficient picks.

I see all this technology fundamentally going into space. And we put a base on the moon or Mars, the same technology is going to be used. Because if you imagine in space, water and air are probably the most precious commodities you have there. But the moment you add an AI in that doesn’t need water or air, it becomes a much better proposal and much cheaper and much easier to handle and maintain. So I see AIs expanding.

In addition, for example, the Mars Rover, the latency between a command coming from earth going to Mars is about six minutes. And so commands go into the Mars Rover, it takes six minutes to get there, six minutes to confirm that it’s being done.

So with AI, you can eliminate that latency, because the AI can continue to go along its program and address anything that comes up, rather than waiting for this human latency for the communications to travel to Mars and back.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Wow. That’s just fascinating what AI is going to be doing for space and the Space Force and for humankind. Because I see things that happen through the space program and NASA ended up with us, such as the microwave. So we’ve seen a lot of things that happen in space, and I see the space logistics and supply chain helping us terrestrially as well.

Dr. Robert Gordon: Yep.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: Robert, thank you very much for joining me today for this episode of Innovations in the Workplace.

Dr. Robert Gordon: Thank you. Thank you for having me. And let me tell you that, although all these things are happening now, I’m sure that there’s a lot more happening in the future.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: I can imagine, and it will change in the future to something we didn’t even think about.

Dr. Robert Gordon: Absolutely.

Dr. Wanda Curlee: And thank you to our listeners for joining us. Stay well.

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