Chances are, you’re familiar with the droids from the Star Wars lexicon. Whether it’s R2D2 from the original film in 1977 right up through the appearance of BB-8 in the latest sequel from just a few years ago, their kind has become a staple of science fiction.
Only in 2022, it’s not fiction anymore. And a pair of Saint John’s University graduates are at the forefront of bringing such machines to life and developing them to be helping companions to humans in the future.
Aric Katterhagen ’96 is a Lead Operations Engineer with NASA working with the Astrobee program, which coordinates the use of several free-flying robots currently in use on the International Space Station. And Mark Vande Hei ’89, who on Tuesday, March 15, set a US spaceflight record with his 340th day on the ISS amid anxiety about his return aboard a Russian capsule, is one of several astronauts working alongside these robots.
The Astrobees, of which there are three, are nicknamed Bumble, Queen and Honey – coordinated to their colors of blue, green and yellow, respectively. They can work autonomously without needing astronaut oversight via remote control from the ground and return to their docking stations when not in use. Each is a 12-inch cube fitted with 12 fan thrusters and six cameras. But, without a doubt, it’s the quasi-human characteristics of two animated eyes on each robot that makes them begin to bridge the gap with what we’ve come to know in the movies. The eyes blink and move around as the Astrobees maneuver, giving life to their movements and showing friendly interaction with their human counterparts.
“I think what’s relevant for people is that these are slow-moving drones, but they are that Star Wars character that has come to life,” Katterhagen said. “The Astrobee has a microphone and, down the road, we’re going to get to the point where the crew could command Astrobee to go do something or ask Astrobee a question.”
That might be: “Hey, Astrobee, go get me a cup of coffee.” Or “Astrobee, go do an inventory check on (blank).”
While the ISS orbits 250 miles above the earth at a speed of 17,900 mph, which means it passes around the entire planet once every 90 minutes, Katterhagen has worked during the winter from a condo near Lake Tahoe. His office is at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, a former Naval base 40 miles south of San Francisco, where public and private partnerships impact the space program. But remote operations became a necessity with the advent of COVID-19 and, amazingly, all he needs are his laptop and two phones – one to speak with his team and the other to communicate with the space station. He was up all night for their latest experiment because the astronauts’ 8 a.m. workday began at midnight in California.
Katterhagen dreamed about becoming an astronaut from an early age, following the U.S. space program long before he graduated from Sartell (Minnesota) High School, only a few miles from the SJU campus. His aim was to become a pilot and springboard to becoming an astronaut. A need for corrective lenses created his first detour.
“In my last couple years of high school, I got glasses,” Katterhagen said. “I remember talking to an Air Force recruiter and corrective surgery wasn’t an option (now it is). So then, I always had an interest in medicine. Aerospace medicine was becoming a thing, so I thought I’d go to medical school.”
He applied to Saint John’s but didn’t really consider it until he was offered a strong financial aid package. He majored in natural sciences and studied abroad during a semester in London and a senior January term in Israel.
“It was an exploratory period for me and did a lot for me as a person,” Katterhagen said of studying at SJU and the College of Saint Benedict. “It’s a special place. I appreciated the open environment there where you could come from any background or have any religious belief and it felt OK.”
As an undergraduate, he befriended Fr. Jerome Tupa, OSB, a French professor and artist who facilitated an opportunity for Katterhagen to become a biology teacher, physics tutor and dorm resident adviser at Saint John’s Preparatory School during a year when the Prep School was building science experiment for a Space Shuttle mission.
Studied space, joined Air Force
Katterhagen’s job is to choreograph use of the Astrobees on the ISS. That entails making sure experiments, called test sessions, come off seamlessly. The most valuable commodity on the ISS is the time of the astronauts. Every minute of their work is pre-planned.
“When we get that stage with them, that science time with them, every hour is golden,” Katterhagen said. “When they show up, we have to have everything going.”
Running the Ames Astrobee Operations in California, he works closely with a planning team at the Payload Operations Integration Center at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, along with coordination with Mission Control in Houston Texas (NASA Johnson Space Center) to communicate with the astronauts during the experiments. During a recent example, they supervised an “Astrobatics” experiment in association with the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterrey, California. They took the two Astrobees, installed arms on each one and had them hang onto a loose handrail – a short pole – in the microgravity of the ISS.
“The purpose was for Bumble Bee to throw himself off the handrail and we gathered the data from that release, the momentum, and NPS will study the dynamics of two objects releasing themselves from each other,” Katterhagen said. “The main goal of this project is to better understand and study hopping maneuvers as an alternative mobility approach for intra and extra-vehicular orbital robotic activities by a spacecraft-manipulator system.”
That’s one small step in advancing autonomous and robotic technology that will play a role in the agency’s mission to return to the moon under the Artemis program. That could happen as soon as 2024. And the Astrobees hopefully will be able to increase astronaut productivity by offloading work spent on routine duties (inventory, moving cargo), allowing crew members to focus on the things only humans can do.
One of the most well-known benefits of an education at CSB and SJU is the network graduates have with other alumni. Katterhagen and Vande Hei are the first ones to make that networking interstellar.
Vande Hei has been on the ISS since April 9, 2021, and his scheduled tour of approximately 355 days is a U.S. record for the longest stay in space. He previously served on the space station from Sept. 13, 2017, to Feb. 28, 2018. He’s one of more than 150 Americans who have stayed on the ISS, which has been continuously occupied since 2000, and more than half of them have made multiple trips.
“What he’s doing is amazing,” Katterhagen said. “He’s doing the job I always wanted to do my whole life. It’s really humbling to work with him.”
Katterhagen usually researches the astronauts he will work with ahead of time and was shocked to learn one was from Saint John’s. Most astronauts come from the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy or Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While they’ve often talked regarding use of an Astrobee, or one of their predecessors called SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites), they didn’t meet face-to-face until a space station conference in 2018.
“When I’m working with the crew, there’s a lot of people listening,” Katterhagen said. “So, you have to keep it professional, and normally there’s a PAYCOM/CAPCOM person that conveys everything to the crew. But after awhile, I got to where they gave me permission to speak directly. It’s kind of nice. Whenever we run our projects, they just give me a green light and Mark and I have a lot of fun.”
Vande Hei is expected to return to Earth at the end of the month with two cosmonauts in a Russian capsule that will land in Kazakhstan. For as long as he is at the ISS, Katterhagen – and the Astrobees – will do their best to make his stay pleasant and productive.
“Who would have thought that from a little school like Saint John’s that there would be an astronaut but also someone working with him on the ground?” Katterhagen said. “It’s pretty unique and cool for the university.”