Designs are underway for the next human outpost in space, a habitat in lunar orbit. This “Gateway” to deep space human presence represents a paradigm shift in human spaceflight. Unlike the continuously crewed International Space Station, the Gateway will be uncrewed and operational for 11 months of the year. The Gateway will require an unprecedented amount of autonomy and artificial intelligence for a complex, human-rated spacecraft. At the Applied AI Summit in Houston on November 29 - 30, Julia Badger, Project Manager for Robotics and Intelligence for Human Spacecraft at NASA will discuss the research and development in support of the autonomous system management architecture and robotics elements that will be essential to the success of this next chapter of human space exploration.

As Project Manager, Julia is responsible for the research and development of humanoid robotic (Robonaut) and autonomous system capabilities, on the Earth, the International Space Station, and for future exploration, that include dexterous manipulation, autonomous spacecraft control and caretaking, and human-robot interfaces. Julia has a BS from Purdue University, and an MS and PhD from the California Institute of Technology, all in Mechanical Engineering. Her work has been honored with several awards, including NASA Software of the Year, Early Career, and Director’s Commendation Awards. In advance of her presentation, we caught up with Julia to learn more about her current work.

How did you begin your work in robotics, AI and space? What came first?

I decided in 7th grade that I was interested in working in space- watching Apollo 13, I knew that solving hard problems was what I was interested in.  In 9th grade, I read “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov, and I decided the hard problem I wanted to work on was robotics for space.

Tell us a bit more about the Robotics and Intelligence for Human Spacecraft team at NASA-Johnson Space Center.

We work on a range of projects that will allow human spacecraft to become more autonomous, from Robonaut, a caretaking mobile manipulator to spacecraft autonomy frameworks that will enable an integrated command and control architecture that work through distributed and hierarchical autonomous agents.

As Project Manager, what does a typical day look like for you?

I am the technical leader of several projects on the RIHS team.  I oversee a team of about 15 engineers and 7 robots, and I manage the technical directions, the schedule and progress, and integrations for our team.  I serve as a subject matter expert for both autonomy and intravehicular robotics for our latest program, Gateway, a cis-lunar space station for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

What are some of the challenges you’re currently working to overcome in your work and how are recent progressions in AI helping?

One big challenge that we are trying to address is the failure of people to imagine in advance all the possible things that could go wrong in an integrated system.  Ground controllers today spend their time coming up for operational solutions for problems that manifest.  AI is being considered as a way to augment that human capability in situ.  For example, if a model of battery state of charge isn’t matching the actual data, an AI agent could adjust power resource scheduling to accommodate in real time.

In your presentation you’re going to be discussing the ‘Future of People in Space’ - what does this look like?

All of our future missions will involve both people and autonomous systems.  Most missions will require pre-deployment of assets, and those assets need to be functioning when the crew arrives!  This will require unprecedented levels of autonomy.

Will AI and autonomous systems replace astronauts in future, or is a human-robot collaboration more likely?

AI and robots are really more tools, and their use will augment the human astronauts so that they can achieve greater challenges and exploration deeper into our solar system.

What’s next for you in your work?

While we are planning to continue our technology developments in these areas, we are also looking towards their application in the Gateway as well as in industries here on Earth.  We are looking forward to testing our technologies on the International Space Station, Liquefied Natural Gas plants, and more.

What are you most looking forward to about the RE•WORK summit?

This will be a great opportunity to network with others working in this field and understand the similarities in the problems and challenges that we are facing!

If you're interested to learn more from Julia, join us in Houston later this month. Additional confirmed speakers include: Himani Agrawal. Machine Learning Engineer, AT&T; Dave Logan, Lead Systems Engineer, Pure Storage; Dancy Li, Data Science Manager, Facebook; Sath Rao, Director, Digital Solutions for Manufacturing, Hitachi Vantara; Hao Yi Ong, Research Scientist, Lyft and many more.