The Space Academy was fortunate to host guest speaker Mark Hyatt at the StudioPlus conference room on the evening of Monday, July 11th. Hyatt received both his bachelor’s and master’s degree in Ceramic Engineering with a specific emphasis on glass matrix composites. Since starting at GRC over 26 years ago, Hyatt has worked on a variety of diverse projects. He explained that although he started as a project engineer, he then transferred to the aeronautic side of NASA. Hyatt then spent time researching space systems and technology development for space exploration before becoming a project manager for Dust Mitigation. Currently, Hyatt is involved with In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), which involves using resources on other planets to create things like fuel and oxygen. Hyatt explained the nature of ISRU through the analogy of a covered wagon traveling across the country. Instead of packing all the food necessary for the trip, people can hunt and fish while horses can graze, which minimizes the amount of supplies that must be carried on the wagon. The same principle applies for space travel, as rockets and payloads need to be as light as possible to make missions feasible.
Before discussing more about ISRU, Hyatt went on an interesting tangent about a project Geoffrey Landis is researching titled Green Aerospace Fuels from Non-Petroleum Sources. This project is being worked on in collaboration with the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The overall goal of the project is to first gain a full understanding of all the standard and alternative types of jet fuels, and then create a set of tools to further develop and enhance the non-petroleum fuels that will be necessary in the future. At GRC, this fuels project is integrated with ISRU to provide a solid budget line in these uncertain times.
Getting back to the main topic of the night, Hyatt emphasized that ISRU is all about production of mission consumable supplies, which includes life support, propellants for landing and assent vehicles, fuel cell reagents, and bio-medical supplies. Furthermore, larger items such as space ports, or even simple things like tables and chairs should be made at least partially from extraterrestrial resources. The processes being analyzed the most right now are capabilities to produce fuel and water specifically from lunar regolith, and use of trash and waste to produce methane and water. ISRU is not a new idea; in fact it has been pursued at GRC for over 20 years. Getting more technical, Hyatt explained intricacies of Fischer-Tropsch Synthesis, and described the effects of catalysts and their ramifications. Hyatt continued his scientific lecture by talking about the nature of dog feces, which simulates human feces that could potentially be transformed into a propellant. Another method discussed that could use waste for energy both on other planets and here on Earth involves putting plastics through a special reactor to produce power. Hyatt commented that with this technology a ton of plastic will be worth more than a ton of crude oil. This process has the power to turn the world’s landfills into energy with very little cost. However, the main problem with this method is that all the impurities associated with trash can produce hazardous and harmful byproducts when put through the reactor. The biggest lesson Hyatt taught the Academy throughout his presentation was that living off the land is the absolute best way to minimize launch mass, which is invaluable when considering that to send something to Mars, an extra kilogram of payload weight requires 100 kilograms in fuel weight.
Before leaving, Hyatt gave the Academy an extra special treat by opening up his personal video collection featuring footage from the six moon landings. The Academy thoroughly enjoyed watching the astronauts walk, work, and stumble as they examined an assortment of lunar features. Hyatt was both a source of information and entertainment, which was greatly appreciated by the Space Academy.