Marshall Center's Bassler Leads NASA Robotic Lander Work

Growing up on a working farm in rural Breese and NASA engineer Julie Bassler constantly found her attention drawn away from the tranquility of farm life by the thunder of jets from nearby Scott Air Force Base, and she knew early on that her heart's ambition was not in the soil, but among the stars.

Today, as manager of the Robotic Lunar Lander Development Project at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., she is fulfilling that ambition and helping to create some unprecedented thunder herself. Bassler and her team have spent the past 21 months designing, developing and testing a sophisticated robotic lander prototype for a new generation of automated spacecraft capable of exploring and conducting science on the surface of the moon, near-Earth asteroids and other airless planetary bodies in the solar system.

In a U.S. Army propulsion test facility on Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Bassler gives the word, and a hissing roar fills the chamber as the latest robotic lander prototype lifts off. It's a three-legged construct 4 feet tall and 8 feet in diameter, weighing roughly 700 pounds when fueled.

It's powered during this test series by an environmentally friendly propellant that's 90 percent hydrogen peroxide a substitute for a monomethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide blend called (MMH/MON-25) which has an extremely low freezing point suited for long missions in the icy reaches of space.

The lander, a blocky metal tripod, rises more than six feet into the air. It's putting out nowhere near the 750 pounds of maximum thrust the final version will deliver, but it nonetheless hangs effortlessly in space. After just 33 seconds of controlled, autonomous flight, it descends. A short test run they are but the assembled engineers and onlookers applaud. Bassler looks pleased.

"Big science in a very small, very smart package," she says. "That's our goal." She says the team and small and efficient, like the prototype itself for a remains on a record-setting development pace to deliver a practical, low-cost, highly versatile lander that will expand the frontiers of automated research and discovery across the solar system.

It took them just 17 months to go from the drawing board to the first powered flight test of the lander prototype, which the team has nicknamed "Mighty Eagle." This prototype is a warm-gas, peroxide-fueled test article; a cold gas version was completed and tested in only nine months. Since then, the team has conducted approximately 160 flight tests on its prototypes, and Bassler says they still clap at the end of nearly every one. It's hard not to.

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