Transcript: Space4U podcast, Aaron Shepard

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Hello, this is Andrew de Naray with the Space Foundation, and you’re listening to the Space4U podcast. Space4U is designed to tell the stories of the people who make space exploration today more accessible to all today. We are joined by Aaron Shepard, who is currently an in-space assembly robotics intern at NASA Langley.


And a robotics research assistant at Clemson University College of Engineering and Science. He also works at R&D engineering co-op iTron, Inc., and he is the founder CEO of Cogito, a company dedicated to inspiring young people through STEM outreach. As a child, Aaron dreamt of working for NASA and becoming the first African American astronaut to set foot on Mars, but with the end of the space shuttle program making that dream seemingly unattainable, Aaron decided to pursue a quote unquote safe career in medicine.


After initially graduating with a bachelor’s in biochemistry and attending medical school, Aaron pivoted to once again, pursue his dreams of space by starting over and enrolling as an electrical engineering graduate student at Clemson University today. Aaron conducts research on developing biologically inspired robots for satellite and orbital debris capture.


He’s affiliated with the Mars Generation an international non-profit organization that works to excite people of all ages about science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and human space exploration, and is currently a board member of the organizations Student Space Ambassador Leadership board, where he serves as chair of the outreach committee, who works as a tutor and mentor for the Peer and Wise program at Clemson.


Which helps to give underrepresented students studying STEM subjects the resources and tools they need to follow their dreams of STEM and space. And he has also given a TEDx talk entitled, Make America Space Again. Thank you for joining us today, Aaron. Yeah. Oh my gosh. When you read all that, it’s like, Whoa.


Yeah, it’s interesting because. When you’re living things, you’re like, Oh wait, everything feels like it’s slow. You don’t seem like you’re doing enough. You’re like, Oh my gosh. And then when you hear people read back your bio, you’re like, wait a minute. Right. I know — you should be doing more, I guess.


So you initially went to school for medicine. What made you decide to switch to robotics? Was there a particular event that inspired you to make that change? Uh, yes. So actually I remember this very vividly. I was in class, it was like health and society. It was eight o’clock in the morning. I was completely bored, not paying attention. And I go on my laptop and I watched the coverage of the European Space Agency as they were landing on a comet.


And they were sending back all these pictures and they were talking about the lander and all the things they could do. And I realized then I was sitting in class and I was like, man, you know, there are some people getting paid to make machines that are going off in space and landing on comets. And why can’t I be one of those people?


And so it. That was the initial instance. And of course, since I had spent a lot of time and resources and money getting into med school, it was a little hard to give all that up. And it was, uh, I had to go through a bit of a personal journey. And at the end of the day, after the end of my first year, I decided to pull out and say, you know what, this isn’t for me.


And the rest is history. So you’re an in-space robotics assembly intern at NASA. Can you explain for us what soft robots are, and why and how they’re assembled in space? Okay. So soft robots are exactly what they sound like. They’re robots that are compliant, flexible. They can bend in a whole bunch of different ways.


Traditionally, when you look at a robot, they are, and I’m going to use a big dollar word anthropomorphic. And so they are like us in that they’re rigid. They can only bend at certain places. So the audience can’t see me bending my hand, but you can only bend your arm at. Your joints by theory, a soft robot because it’s made of flexible materials can bend at any point along its body.


And so that gives it interesting properties. And it’s ideal for certain applications, especially as you’re talking about handling materials and passing them off and constructing materials in weird ways. Um, so in-space assembly is the idea of using a team of robots to build structures and other resources in outer space.


So you basically say, Hey, I want these robots to build a base on the moon. You send them off, you give them the materials and then they figure it out themselves. Cool. And I want to get a little more into that, but, uh, first, how did you get into your internship at NASA? Okay. So it’s a bit of a long story, again, full of long stories.


Um, right before I went to Clemson, I knew that I wanted to become connected with NASA and get involved with them. And so I did what any normal person would do, especially if they’re nerdy and I just got on Reddit and I started just asking people. And of course, like the first few times I asked the answers I got where everybody wants to work at NASA, get in line, like be more realistic.


And I was like, okay. Yeah, thanks Reddit. Um, but there was a random stranger and I have to look up his username. It’s on my old account, but he was like, Hey. If you’re into NASA, I highly encourage you to look into your state’s space grant. And so I did, and what I found out is that the space grant is money that NASA gives each state to help students get connected into the aerospace industry.


And it helps fund them for research projects. It helps, um, connect them to internships. And so when I got to Clemson, I found a professor that was doing space related research. Dr. Walker. And his lab, they focus on, uh, 10 OCO robots. So there are robots that are modeled after like trunks and tentacles. And I ended up working in that lab on a project for satellite capture.


So once I had, I put in probably about six months or so into that project. Um, I applied to my space grant and got a fellowship for that summer. And so then the next summer, when I was applying for NASA internships, and this is something I always tell people, check every box. If they say, you know, you want, do you want to be considered for this?


I was like, okay. Yeah. So I applied for the robotics Academy at Marshall and they said, Hey, do you want to apply to the other academies too? So I checked the box. Well, Since I checked that box, it recommended me or my application went through to the Aeronautics Academy at Langley. And then the director of that program saw my application and called my space grant.


And my space grant gave me a recommendation and that’s how I got the first internship. And so my first year at Langley, I was working on urban air mobility, which is, I like to describe it as flying Ubers because that’s what it was. It. Uber had partnered with NASA to create an aerial taxi service. And so we made a virtual and mixed reality simulators for it.


And then. After you get your first internship with NASA getting the second of the third is just if it’s a lot easier. And so then I got connected with the, the soft robotics team. And then this year I’m working with the same mentor under another in space assembly project. So, yeah, it’s a bit of a journey.


Yeah. So, um, you’ve probably seen like the meme on social media of like old Jetsons cartoons and people are like, why isn’t life in 2020 like this already? What do you foresee being the future of robotics? It seems like the progress curve has maybe been, you know, steady, but kind of modest over the years.


Do you think we’ll hit a point where it ramps up and we see sort of like exponential progress? Yes. So I see it in two ways. Um, from a software side, as artificial intelligence develops, your robots are going to get very, very interesting. And from a hardware side, especially being someone who looks into biologically inspired robots and soft robots, I think that one big issue is the creation of artificial muscle in that.


There are materials that we have now, but there’s always something just not right about it. Like some materials don’t consume a lot of power, but they’re not that strong, but then some materials that you can use for artificial muscle are very strong like ours, but they consume, I mean, 10 tens of thousands of kilovolts just the power.


And so it’s a little impractical for mobile robotic designs. But I think if someone can create an artificial muscle that’s similar to ours and that it’s very strong and there’s a relatively low energy cost, that’s the holy grail of robotics. Yeah. And once you do that, I mean, you can essentially see an animal, do something that you like about its musculature and just recreate that with a robot.


So you opened up Pandora’s box. Watch what you wish for kinda thing. Yeah. So speaking of advanced stuff, what are your feelings about the upcoming launch of the Perseverance rover and its components like the Ingenuity helicopter? Oh, I’m so excited. I, um, I actually saw a presentation on the Ingenuity helicopter.


Was it a year ago at the Aiwa conference? And I saw like a guy brought in like a sample of one of the props for it and it’s huge. And you’re like, Oh my gosh. But the idea of another Rover on Mars, hopefully helping us. Answer that question of well, was there life on there at one point? And is their life still there now is really cool.


But then I also liked the concept of having a, an aerial drone to give us a new perspective and take pictures. So I’m really excited for that. Like, I, I can’t wait to tune in for that launch. Yeah, that’s going to be really exciting. We just had a webinar with NASA on Monday and they, you know, the JPL people that were working on it were talking about it and it’s, yeah, it should be phenomenal.


And I can’t wait to see it. So what do you think the future is for robots in space exploration? Do you think that they’ll have so many other roles to what they have now or do you think they’ll expand and how, um, so. Especially, I’m a little bit biased since I’m working on an in-space assembly project now, but I hope that their role will expand greatly.


I think as we develop the technology, we can let the robots do a lot of the work on the front end to support the astronauts and others on the backend. So. Again, with the big push to go to the moon in 2024, if you get a team of robots that can set up habitats set up solar panel arrays for power is, you know, even build a landing site for the astronauts to come to.


Then at that point, you just made human space exploration a lot easier and, and you free up humans to do the things that we do best, which is to explore, to analyze, to deal with the unknown. And you let the robots take care of some of the more, I don’t want to say my more mundane, but some of the more, some of the background work.


So, because I think about the International Space Station. Humans are doing all that awesome research, but it took us years to get things up and going because we literally had to launch it up the ISS piece by piece and then have astronauts put it together while you just freed up astronauts from having to worry about that too, being able to do experiments and answer all the important questions and figure out all the awesome things that we want to learn while we’re in space.


Right. And suppose, I can also do some of the more dangerous roles too. And, uh, you know, save us from that. Okay. Um, so, uh, you’ve worked some with orbital debris capture, which is going to be increasingly important due to the growing number of satellites being deployed each year. How are robots going to play a role in that?


Hey, well, ideally if you design them right, they can go out to where there’s suspected or real debris, and they can either grab it and send it back into the atmosphere to burn it up. Or if it’s a satellite that we’re interested in, they can bring it back to the station or anywhere else for repair. But again, I think originally, especially as we were launching into space in the sixties, we weren’t really mindful of, Hey, this stuff might, we might junk up space and now it’s becoming more of an issue.


And I think that if you let the robots come in and if you design the robots well, and you allow them to take care of the orbital debris, again, you just made space travel a lot easier for humans. And that’s one less, that’s one less dangerous thing that the astronauts have to worry about because I’m sure you’ve seen that picture.


And I’m sure plenty of people have, but there’s a picture of a small piece of metal going at orbital speed, which is what 17,500 miles per hour. And it put like a foot-and-a-half hole into concrete and you’re just like, oh yeah, that would be bad. Right. Setting up habitats on Mars, robots, you know, and, and orbital debris captured.


Are we there yet? Are we close? What do you think? Um, I think it’s workflows. It’s, it’s definitely the ideas are common. The ideas are coming up. People are talking about it. More importantly, the money is flowing towards these kinds of projects, especially from the NASA side, that funding is everything. So I think that there’s the initial investment.


I’m not a complete expert in the field, but I’d say, or within a 20-year range of having a fully autonomous robot construction crew in space, I think it’s possible. Awesome. So what are the biggest challenges to designing robots that can function and continue to function for an acceptable period of time in harsh planetary environments with like thin atmospheres and dust and extreme temperatures.


I think the biggest design challenge is planning for the unknown because you’re in a hostile environment. And on top of that, you have little to no chance of servicing. So as you design, you have to literally think of everything that could possibly happen and come up with a way around it. And even if you do that, something, once you launch something will still happen.


And so you have to hope that you made your systems redundant enough and, um, repairable enough to fix that problem. So I think that’s one of the biggest challenges. And then also at the same time with things being still on the R&D side, and still new it’s coming to a consensus of all the features and ideas that you want to add on the robot.


Because again, there are infinite possibilities because space is an infinite place. And so you have to say, okay, well, what’s the idea what’s going to be realistic. And then on top of all that, how do we make these designs flexible enough to deal with whatever they’re going to see? Because once they go up, I mean, you’re, you’re not fixing them.


And I know that, like in that webinar we just had, Mimi Aung from JPL, she was saying that with Ingenuity, that it had to be like under two kilograms. And it, because it had to fly in such a thin atmosphere, like 1% that of Earth. So it was a real challenge to be able to get that, to function in that atmosphere.


Can you, uh, tell us a bit about Cogito, the company you’ve founded. I’ve heard things about like mind-controlled psychic robots or something. Yeah, yeah. Yes. So, um, Oh gosh, again, another long story. I’m sorry guys. I don’t know, talker. Um, That’s what we want. So I took a robot next class, my freshman year at Clemson or my first year.


And I was actually the teacher of the classes, one of the grad students of the lab that I work in. So I like, of course he, we got really close and buddy, buddy and all that. And I was just sitting around talking to him one day and I was like, dude, I, I want to like. I want to make a crazy controller for this robot.


And I had just been online and I saw that you could hack one of those EEG headsets from the Star Wars toys, and you could turn it into a remote to cut your TV on and off by thinking. So I was like, I’m going to hack the robot and make it drive from my thinking. And so I got the headset, it was like 30 bucks off of eBay.


Found the tutorial as far as like how to modify the headset, to get the data out. And then I wrote the code to read the data from the headset and then translate it into robot commands and boom, I had a robot that I was driving around my apartment with my brain. And so from there, I started demoing that robot at science events and working with the outreach organizations at my school.


And from, I had been doing it for years and years and people said, Hey, this is awesome. You should take this to the next level and me and my two partners finally said, okay, let’s, let’s go ahead and do it. And so now the, the premise of the company is too. So we, we started with the brain robot and we eventually want to expand onto other cool projects.


But our idea is that we want to come up with the coolest examples of science that we can think of and offer them as workshops and demos for any organization that’s putting on a STEM event. So schools, companies, I know cities put on STEM events, the city that I’m near always does a big festival in April.


And we miss out this year due to COVID, but still the idea again, is to come up with new ways to make outreach interesting and engaging and present that to organizations that could use it because we went through the whole discussion of, well, should we be a nonprofit? How should we operate? And we realized that we can do more good if we service the nonprofits.


And we would have a little bit more flexibility in what we wanted to do. If we stayed as an, as an LLC. So again, the idea is to come up with cool science workshops and supply them to whoever needs them. Very cool. I guess let’s touch on that too. On your STEM outreach to underrepresented students, what inspired you to do that?


It’s a bit of a personal story. I, uh, the audience can’t see me, but I’m African American and when you grow up, African American a lot of times, uh, you get typecast into a, to a certain number of fields. Everybody assumes that you’re going to be an athlete or an entertainer growing up. When I was growing up, it’s a little bit different now, but especially when I was growing up, you didn’t see too many examples of African Americans as scientist and engineers and mathematicians.


And so with that, I feel like if I had had somebody there to encourage me along the way, I would have, I mean, I’m obviously still into science, but it would have been a lot less painful and I would have felt more confident doing it growing up instead of trying to hide it or trying to pretend like I wasn’t into it because nobody else that looked like me was. What do you think is the best route to getting to, um, young people to achieve more in STEM fields?


What do you think is missing? Um, I don’t think it’s money. And I, I, we, I was actually talking about this at another talk a few weeks ago, but everybody’s throwing money at the issue, but you, that’s not how problems work. You can’t just throw money at them and expect that they go away. And so it’s the creation of support systems and some institutions are ready to do it, and there are good examples of it.


But. The STEM pipeline is challenging in and of itself. And so when you throw in students who come from backgrounds, where that’s not prevalent, there’s an extra added challenge and you almost need to create a safe space for those students to go to where they can connect with others who share things in common with them.


So a not necessarily just race, but also gender. Socioeconomic status, things like that. Also you really, you need the safe space where they can connect with people more experienced than them. Not necessarily people out in the industry. There are a lot of times where I talk to younger students and I’m watching them go through the buzzsaw of calculus and differential equations.


And you just tell them like, Hey, it’ll be okay. Or, Hey, this is exactly what I did when I was in your shoes two years ago. And. You’ll make it out, but it’s the creation of that support, that support system to help sustain the interest in STEM, because a lot of people are interested, but. People drop out along the way, because it’s challenging and it’s difficult and they don’t have the support.


So the safe space, that’s true. We’re kind of doing that. We have a newly launched a Center for Innovation and Education and we’re, it is about getting people engaged, you know, at a young age. But it’s also about, like you said, that kind of network and that support system, getting people to meet the right people and, and, you know, get their foot in the door.


Right. Kind of off on to another topic I listened to your TEDx talk and I thought your perspective was interesting that the lunar landing was achieved kind-of out of fear, stemming from the Cold War space race. And you said that’s why investment kind of dropped off a bit after the Apollo program. Do you see any parallels with that today?


Like with more nations in space and, you know, I know like China just launched a rover we’re about to, but we’re not really cooperating programs right now, you know? Do, do you think we’re in competition mode or is international cooperation? What’s going to push us all further. Um, I don’t think we’re in competition mode at the moment.


I think that we’re not completely there with international cooperation. I mean, there are instances with the ISS and, but I feel like that is such a small subsection of the population and, like I mentioned in my talk, which I have to remember. It’s been too, it’s been a few years and I haven’t watched it since, so, but I think it’s a generational thing.


And so international cooperation is what will push us further, but we have to create that investment on the front end early on. And so that’s why you have to present space in a way that’s interesting to students and you have to find a way to foster that interest as they get older, because space itself is naturally a unifying thing.


I mean, even during the space race, if I recall correctly, there was a bit of international cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Yeah, because it’s too hard. You can’t do space alone and the interest is always there. Like kids love space that most kids, when you ask them what they want to be, especially before a certain age, they’re all like, I want to be an astronaut.


And so it’s again, fostering that interest, growing it over the years, and then turning those kids into responsible adults who can cooperate with people that are different than them. Who can think outside of the box and who wants to solve those problems?


Like if you do that, then you’ve unified people across the world, not just within one country, but across many. And then now you have that interest plus that unification, we shouldn’t have limits. Besides what the physical universe will give us, but yeah, that’s great. Well, so, uh, what’s your favorite project that you’re working on right now?


Oh boy, that’s tough. I love them all equally. Uh, I would have to say the, the current project that I’m on with NASA is pretty cool. It’s um, it’s an in-space assembly. So again, robots to build stuff in space and the project is actually called assemblers. And the idea is that. There these, have you, have you ever heard of a steward platform by any chance, or have you ever seen like, um, the chairs that they use for motion?


Some of the simulators that can bend on like all six degrees of freedom. Oh, okay. Yeah. Yeah. So those are, that’s actually a robotic platform. It’s called a steward platform. For those of you who are listening, look them up. They’re really cool. Um, and the idea is that NASA wants to take. A bunch of those steward platforms, because again, they can bend in six, they have six degrees of freedom and they can expand and also construct a little bit too.


And so you take those steward platforms and you stack them on top of each other and you make like, it’s, it looks like one big tentacle. So it connects back to the technical lab, but then you can move that tentacle and a bunch of different ways. And the mission that we’re working on now as a proof of concept is we’re using the stack of robots to construct a 30 foot tall structure and attach a solar panel rate to it because it turns out at the South pole of the moon. If you go 30 feet in the air, it’s actually 10 meters. So about 33 feet. Um, so if you go about 33 feet in the air, you’ll constantly have sunlight. And so if you stack that solar panel rate tall enough, it will constantly get hit with sunlight and you can.


Power power. Yeah, no rice let’s go. And, um, hopefully I can work this one out, but a concept that I think is cool and I saw it on the artwork is you could take a bunch of those smaller robots and stack them together into an individual leg. And then you create four stacks of robots or six, and now you can make a, like a spider walking robot on the moon.


I’m trying to see if they’ll let me build that. Oh, that’s cool. That’s like, it’s like, Voltron back in the day. Like all the robots that combined into one big robot. Exactly. Yeah. You know, I, I wake up every day and of course we’re, we’re virtual for the summer, so I don’t get to see the hardware, but you know, I’m working on my design by fall.


So I’m like, I can’t believe I’m making this, like, people are paying me for this. This is awesome. That’s great. Well, thank you for your time today. Aaron, it’s been great chatting with you and, uh, that concludes this episode of the Space Foundation’s Space4U podcast. You can subscribe to this podcast and leave us a review on Podbean, Apple Podcasts, and on Google Play.


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Space4U Podcast: Aaron Shepard – NASA Robotics Intern & Founder of Cogito