0.25 Ways of Working
0.5 Power Skills
Our Guest This Episode: Ralph Fritsche
We’re exploring the world of astrobotany with this unconventional project. Ralph Fritsche is our guest, and he is the Space Crop Production Project Manager for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Ralph is leading the effort to develop sustainable and reliable fresh food systems in support of long duration space missions beyond low Earth orbit. A healthy supply of fresh food is critical to the success of space exploration missions. Listen in as Ralph highlights this remarkable project to develop sustainable fresh food systems for astronauts.
Ralph explains some of the challenges and limitations his team of astrobotanists and engineers must address. He describes the complexity of the project as they consider key nutrients and flavors of edible plants, as well as the challenge of microgravity, soil substitutes, and limited resources such as water, nutrient and air distribution to plant roots. Ralph talks about project stakeholders, and how they are encouraging public participation in their research, including almost 300 schools in the USA. Hear his advice on knowing when to pivot, and his lessons learned as a PM on this impressive project.
Ralph began his career with NASA in 1989 and has supported the US Space Shuttle and Space Station Programs in various engineering and operational roles. He is a recipient of the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and earned a dual BS degree in Physics and Space Science from the Florida Institute of Technology in 1979.
Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:
"I think it’s an advantage not having too much of a foothold in any camp because what it does is you bring a bias with you that you have to work through. Not having that bias gives you the ability to understand the passions that each side brings to the table and to try to balance those... So it’s really almost acting like an orchestra leader trying to understand when the right time to engage one group versus another."
"... that’s where I think the strength from the project management comes through, is knowing how to use the people and engage them effectively. And to make them all feel a valued part of the team where not any one group is steamrolling over another."
The podcast by project managers for project managers. Lessons learned from a space crop production project to develop sustainable fresh food systems, in support of long duration space missions beyond low Earth orbit. We’re exploring the world of astrobotany and the challenges of this unconventional project.
02:38 … Meet Ralph
05:05 … Project Management Role at NASA
08:30 … Space Crop Production
09:44 … Project Stakeholders
11:35 … Tailoring the Pitch
12:39 … Growing Plants in Space
16:46 … Plant Growth Substrate
19:16 … Regolith
23:15 … Types of Plant Crops for Space
27:42 … Kevin and Kyle
29:09 … Understanding Both Sides of the Project
33:34 … Further Testing
36:15 … Project Simulation Funding
37:59 … Making the Most of Opportunities
40:51 … PM Lessons Learned
43:26 … Find out More
44:34 … Closing
RALPH FRITSCHE: I think it’s an advantage not having too much of a foothold in any camp because what it does is you bring a bias with you that you have to work through. Not having that bias gives you the ability to understand the passions that each side brings to the table and to try to balance those. Because personalities are such that I might have an engineer who’s very knowledgeable and demonstrative, and they may override the plant scientist person. And you have to be able to see that dynamic if it happens and try to balance that out. So it’s really almost acting like an orchestra leader trying to understand when the right time to engage one group versus another.
WENDY GROUNDS: Hello, and welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers. Thank you for joining us today. This is where we interview top experts and project managers to get their unique perspectives. My name is Wendy Grounds, and joining me is Bill Yates, who likes to dig deep into complex issues that project managers face today. If you like what you hear, we’d love to hear from you. You can leave us a comment on our website, Velociteach.com, on social media, or whichever podcast listening app you use.
Our guest today is Ralph Fritsche. He is with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which we commonly call NASA; and he’s a space crop production and exploration food systems project manager. And he’s leading the efforts to develop sustainable and reliable fresh food systems in support of long-duration space missions beyond low Earth orbit.
BILL YATES: This is so fascinating. This conversation with Ralph is just something I’ve been looking forward to because, I mean, Wendy, you and I, neither one of us are really green thumbs. We can kill stuff.
WENDY GROUNDS: No, no, I’m really bad. I’ve been trying so hard.
BILL YATES: Yeah. And here we’re going to talk with Ralph about growing stuff in space. And it has to be edible, and it has to be the ultimate in terms of nutritious and tasty and sustainable and zero waste. It’s like, ah, what a problem to solve, and what an interesting project to address.
WENDY GROUNDS: It’s such an interesting project because we spoke to Philippe Schoonejans a few months ago, and he was telling us it can take over eight months to get to Mars. So it’s not like you can stop midway and resupply and get your fruit and veggies. So Ralph’s team is trying to develop sustainable fresh food systems for these astronauts.
BILL YATES: Yeah. And Ralph’s had a 40-year career with NASA. He’s done a little bit of everything, and he mentions a few of those in our conversation. But talking about this latest project challenge for him is just mind-blowing.
WENDY GROUNDS: Hi, Ralph. Welcome to Manage This. We’re so glad you’re joining us.
RALPH FRITSCHE: Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here.
WENDY GROUNDS: Before we get talking about astrobotany, and I’m so geeked out about that, I want to find out a little bit about you. Can you tell us about your career path? Have you always been interested in space?
RALPH FRITSCHE: So, you know, it’s interesting, when I look back over it, I never envisioned or planned to be working in the space industry or on a space program. But there are all these things that I can look back on my life that popped up that kind of probably said I was always destined to be here. One of the first recollections I have, when I was a kid, I was doing one of these pencil-by-number paintings that they had back in the ‘60s, and it was of Ed White walking in space. I was actually doing that when I heard about the Apollo fire that he died in. Then I would follow all the other space missions, the early Gemini and even Mercury missions, Apollo.
And so I was always interested in it. But at the time I lived up in the New York area, eventually moved to Florida, right by the Space Coast. And then I was interested at the time. I went to college for physics and space sciences. But always more from a cosmology perspective, not for human interaction in space. But then being so close to the Space Center, when the time came to graduate, that’s where the jobs were. And I got into it. And I’ve been working at the Space Center or on some aspect of space program-related things for the past 40 years, everything from early space shuttle flights, went through most of the space shuttle program, up through ISS, International Space Station, the assembly of that.
It was probably one of the highlights for me because I got to travel all over. We worked with the Europeans on the Columbus module. So we got to go to Europe several times. Worked with the Japanese on the JEM module, got to go to Japan. Before we actually built the station we worked with the docking module that allowed the space shuttle to dock to the Russian Mir station and got to travel to Moscow. You know, I’ve got all these experiences that I likely would not have had otherwise. But the interesting thing is where I’ve wound up now and working in crop production and plants. Trying to feed astronauts in exploration missions turns out to be probably really the most interesting thing I’ve done from the practical perspective of helping humanity reach out beyond low-Earth orbit into the solar system.
WENDY GROUNDS: Explain your project management role at NASA.
RALPH FRITSCHE: Again, interesting. We started off with, once we built Space Station, our group changed, and we began doing a series of research payloads. So basically we transitioned from building Space Station to using it. And so they were smaller research payloads, and they were space biology-related payloads. Generally the way things are broken out within the science mission directorate and the biological physical sciences program is that plants are focused out of the Kennedy Space Center; animals are out of the Ames Research Center.
So our stuff has always been focused on plants, microbes, things like that. The small research facilities were generally things that were either a standard facility that we developed for multiple applications or unique one-off hardware packages. And then we would work with principle investigators to make sure that we could match their experiments to the right hardware, or build hardware if needed, and then take that hardware all the way through the verification process and get it to fly in the International Space Station. So they were very compartmentalized payloads that we would work a couple of years on each one, and then you pick up the next one.
And then one day we were told that one of our funding sources was interested in doing space crop production. We had grown plants on the Veggie payload. We were getting ready to fly the Advanced Plant Habitat, another plant payload. But the whole term of “crop production,” we weren’t really sure what that was at the time. And I don’t think the asking people really understood, either. But we knew there needed to be a role for plants beyond research into an application to feeding crew. And so I was basically given that moniker before we really understood what it all involved.
And now it’s kind of transitioned into trying to work a roadmap for the food systems for exploration to see where can plants play a viable role for keeping astronauts healthy and safe on these long-duration missions. Really when you look at it, food’s the first line of defense for crew health. And we know that when I start getting further away from Earth on the longer duration missions to Mars, for example, the prepackaged food that we have now starts to degrade in certain key nutrients after about 18 months. And so we’re looking at three-year missions. So the challenge is how do I supplement the crew diet with the kind of nutrition that they need, also doing other things like adding flavor, textures to the diet. And so plants are really, probably I would say, the most known commodity for doing something in space.
There’s a lot of different technologies that are still being developed, synthetic biology, things like that. But they require a lot more infrastructure. We kind of know how to basically grow plants now with all our practice in low Earth orbit. And it’s now how do I move this into deep space environment, and how do I figure out what types of missions are going to require this supplemental nutrition? What would those key nutrients be, so what plants do I grow? So it’s really time to lay a long-term roadmap out there, see where do we do the research that’s needed, where do we deploy the systems, et cetera. So it’s kind of a big range thinking out the next 30 to 50 years.
BILL YATES: The complexity here just blows me away. And just for a human to reach Mars takes so long. So to your point, then, okay, we have meals that have an expiration date. Okay, what are we going to do once they get there and do some work and then come home? You know, they have to have food to eat. This is so complex. So how long has space crop production been going on?
RALPH FRITSCHE: I would say that the title was probably thrown out maybe five or six years ago, maybe a little bit longer. You know, and again, it’s all been a spinoff from when we first grew plants in space. The first plants we grew were what we would call model organism plants that we knew the whole genome associated with it. So things like Arabidopsis, very common in the research community. Those are not plants that you would consider as part of a food system.
So then we started using the Veggie payload to grow other things in there, you know, things like lettuce, kale, pok choi, a variety of different things, and so it became a logical extension. When crews grew these things, they wanted to try them and eat them. And so it had its own gravitas associated with it. It was pulling us in that direction without us really even having to lead it so much.
WENDY GROUNDS: Who are your stakeholders, your chief stakeholders in this project?
RALPH FRITSCHE: We are basically funded by a couple of different organizations within NASA. So at the Kennedy Space Center my organization does not have any inherent funding that we get directly from the government every year. We get ours based on the projects we’re assigned to work by our different stakeholders which are both the Science Mission Directorate, and that’s for the research arm of what we try to do. So there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered dealing with growing plants in space, dealing with how do I ensure the safe food in space from the plants that I grow that I want to consume.
And so the Science Mission Directorate has a group under them called the Biological and Physical Sciences Group. We get funding from them, so they’re one of our prime stakeholders. Then another one we have is within the Exploration Systems Directorate, and that’s basically – it’s called Exploration Capabilities. And they’re looking at food systems. So they kind of have ownership over the food system. And so that’s another source. So they’re the ones who are more on the applied side of things. They’re the ones interested in the hardware systems that are going to grow the plants. So it’s really trying to match the work we need to have done with the appropriate funding source.
There’s also a Science Technology Mission Directorate that works specific technologies. But it’s very competitive. Every group is looking to do something. And so usually to get a project funded and to get something that has legs to be carried on, you have to get each of the stakeholders to understand what their investment is. They have to recognize that the other stakeholders are in the game. And then you have to have all the priorities line up. So that alone is probably the biggest challenge we have. It’s probably bigger than the technology challenges we face.
BILL YATES: That’s so interesting to me, Ralph. You know, I’m a big fan of Shark Tank. I love hearing people kind of pitch ideas. And many times they’ll talk about, oh, I really need somebody with a lot of influence that can help me get shelf space or primary shelf space. You think about a store, a typical retail store, there’s limited space.
So those companies are constantly pitching, and they’re trying to maneuver and get in the best place in that store. Well, you’ve got the same thing. Even, you know, you think about the limited payload you can have on these vehicles that are going to space, or are going to Mars. Man, everything, in terms of volume and in terms of weight, you’ve got to justify everything. So it’s like you’re constantly having to pitch the importance of this and show the value that you’re bringing to all the different groups.
RALPH FRITSCHE: We usually wind up having one presentation that’s the core of what we want to do. And then we have to tailor for each of the stakeholders, change some key words so that they resonate with one stakeholder and take out others that don’t, so to speak.
BILL YATES: That’s perfect. That resonates with project managers. Tailoring is so important, knowing who’s going to be hearing that message.
WENDY GROUNDS: When I was researching this topic, I was so interested. I used to teach a little middle-school botany class. And I remember teaching my students, you know, you need water, and you need light, and heat to germinate the seeds. And there’s so much more that you have to take into consideration, growing in space, which I had not realized. So I’ve got questions that really go into some of the details and the nitty-gritty of growth of plants in space. The first one is what about low gravity? How does it change plants when you’re growing in space?
RALPH FRITSCHE: You know, what the plant experiences and the ability of the plant to tolerate a reduced gravity environment, there hasn’t been much of a challenge in that regard. Gravity seems to not have a negative impact on growing plants that are healthy. All right? I’m sure the science communities will be able to sit there and say, well, I see certain genes that are expressed differently, and there’s a real deep science aspect of it. But when it comes to what’s edible and what you can consume, I think that’s kind of in the noise.
And part of what my challenge is, is I’m not a botanist. And I’m sort of an engineer, but I’m not an engineer for plant systems. So I have to rely on a lot of the expertise. And my focus is on the project management side of things. So my level of interaction is that I know what the basic high level answer is, but I have to go to the engineers or the plant scientists for the details.
So having said that, things grow well in microgravity. The biggest challenge we have in that environment is how do I manage the delivery of air and water to the root zone because water does not behave the same way in microgravity as it does on Earth. And that’s been the biggest challenge since the beginning, and it’s one we still struggle with is what are the best systems to be able to get uniform water, nutrient, and air distribution to the roots so that all the plants we grow in a confined space are happy. That’s the biggest thing in low Earth orbit. We have other things to worry about is that unlike on the Earth, we don’t have convection at play.
And plants do a lot of transpiration through stomata in their leaves, and it’s usually the air flow over the leaves that help in that regard. We don’t have that in space, so we have to provide some sort of a fan or some method to blow air across the leaves. So there are a lot of subtle challenges, but they’re all things that can be managed. We talk about lighting, you know, on Earth. We’ll generally use ambient solar lighting. We don’t do that in space, obviously. We are using LED lights. And in that way we mimic a lot of what goes on in controlled environment agriculture today.
And really there’s a lot of similarity between the issues and challenges that controlled environment agriculture has to what we have, with the exception that we have gravity to worry about, and our spaces are a lot more tightly constrained. But so there’s a lot of interplay and exchange of information between the work we do with that community.
Then another aspect – and that’s everything that we’ve studied to date. But what we really have to look forward to is we’re getting to the point now to going beyond low Earth orbit. And it’s beyond low Earth orbit that we get exposed to this radiation environment that we’re protected from in low Earth orbit by the Earth’s magnetic fields. So it’s still up for debate as to what the impact will be of the radiation environment on the plants we grow, as well as the seeds and how long we can store them for and how long they’re viable for.
So these are all things we have to understand. I think that the general thinking is that if humans can stand it, the plants will be able to stand it. They’re usually more hearty. But I think it’s also a function of understanding storage, how long do I store seeds for? How do I maintain them to be viable? Because right now we basically package everything before we send it up to the International Space Station. We plant the seeds in our seed containers, or the substrate that’s going to grow the seeds, and we send them up, and we go from packing to growth in a relatively short period of time. But on a three-year mission to Mars, that’s not necessarily going to be the case.
WENDY GROUNDS: There was one thing I wanted to ask you about, as well, was soil. What substrate are you growing the plants in?
RALPH FRITSCHE: When I think about growing plants, I think about using some type of substrate in a soil. Traditionally we’ve been using a material called arcillite, which is like a clay particulate, kind of like what’s in the infield of baseball diamonds. And it’s basically just a soil that manages the distribution of air and water to the root zone. Doesn’t really have any nutrients in it that it’s really providing. But that material you use once for a grow-out, and then it’s discarded.
So when I fly a payload up to the Veggie facility, I will have these plant pillows that are pre-sown on the ground, that contain arcillite. They have a wick, and they’re seeded. And then basically I’ll have six of these in the Veggie payload. I will then water them. It’s a manual watering operation for Veggie. The crew will have to tend them, water them every day or two. And then when I’m done with the grow-out, these pillows are discarded. And so when you think of the amount of mass that’s associated with that, that’s not a sustainable option for exploration missions.
It works fine for the International Space Station, our ability to have lots of resupply. But part of the paradigm shift is getting the science community to recognize, I have to get off of this system. I have to come up with a different approach. And so that’s part of the challenge, where you have to think down the road and see the forest for the trees and try to get people to actually stop for a minute and take the time to recognize we have to invest in other systems to grow plants that don’t necessarily have substrate or has some type of a substrate that’s reusable.
The preference for me would be no substrate. The preference for me would be a water and nutrient distribution system that not only works in microgravity, but also works in partial gravity on the Moon and the different partial gravity on Mars. And so I always call that the “Goldilocks System.”
Is there an approach out there that I can use terrestrially, microgravity, and different partial gravity, so it has no substrate. That would take a whole lot of the challenges away. And there are people working on things like that, but it’s the kind of area where you have to ferret that out, find who’s working in that field, are they qualified to be able to give you a good product, and then get the community to invest in that direction. So that’s been a big thing.
Oh, let me tell you the other thing. Following up on your substrate question, there’s been a lot of interest in using regolith, a material that’s local on the Moon and Mars, to grow plants in. And this is something I struggle with on a regular basis now because we recently had a couple of investigators who were very competent, extremely competent folks out of the University of Florida, you may have read about just did a plant research experiment using actual lunar regolith from several of the Apollo missions to grow Arabidopsis, and they showed that it would grow, that it did not perform obviously as well as with terrestrial soils, or even simulated lunar regolith. But they could get it to grow.
And that sparks a lot of interest in researchers. It sparks a lot of interest just from that standpoint of there’s something that resonates with growing plants in material from another world that has a lot of interest. We have collaborations with a local university who are doing research in that regard. But then again, I have to step back and say, what’s the timeline for that? And does it really make sense to pursue that in depth now? And I think from a research perspective, inquisition, knowledge for knowledge’s sake, totally fine. But I sit here and say, you know, we’re not going to be taking a system with us to the Moon and Mars that needs to process that material that’s local on the Moon and Mars to begin with.
Again, this is where I look back to controlled environment agriculture, and I see hydroponics systems. When I look at vertical farms, they’re trying to maximize the edible biomass output within a specific volume of space. So they’re stacking growth areas on top of each other. And they’re not doing that by packing it with substrate or soil that needs to be cleaned and processed. They’re doing it hydroponically with a variety of hydroponic technologies associated with it. And to me that makes sense for the Moon and Mars, as well as for spaceflight missions.
Part of the challenge being I’m trying to maximize what can I grow in a specific volume. And anything I do with soil, go back to farming, is an area solution. It’s not a volume solution necessarily. And then there are tons of challenges that the material that’s on the Moon or Mars, it’s not conducive to growing plants optimally yet. So I have to potentially remediate some of the bad things in that material, and then supplement it, augment it with some of the nutrients that plants can grow on. And so I’m not going to be able to start out with that material and use it right away. I’m going to have to do some operations to that material. I’m also probably going to have to find the right particle sizes, so I might have to sift, crush.
And, now, one of the things that, again, if you look back to Apollo, I found a quote by Gene Cernan, on I guess the last Apollo mission, recently which said that he had said that the biggest impediment to nominal operations on the surface of the Moon was how do you deal with dust? And you can look at pictures of both Apollo missions, and the suits are all full of dust. The lunar regolith dust is a hazard to breathe.
When we work with regolith simulants here at the Space Center, we have to wear masks and protective equipment to do that with, just from dust inhalation. Every other system working to deploy a habitation and hardware on the moon is trying to figure out how do you keep dust out of the crew space. So why would we be trying to bring the material that generates that dust in?
So again, I’m not negative on regolith. I just don’t see a near-term application. I think that we do need to eventually look at down the road what systems make sense for what kind of crops. And I think you’ll find that there’ll probably be things that trait better from hydroponic systems, and that might be the bulk of it; and other things that might drive a reason for a regolith-based system. But again, that’s going to be well into the future.
WENDY GROUNDS: What crops are you typically looking at at the moment? What’s working well?
RALPH FRITSCHE: Again, based on the constraints we’re under, since we don’t have ability to cook or prepare or process anything, things like wheat or rice that require processing and preparation, they’re out. We don’t have the space for that. So we’re really focusing on what we call “pick and eat” crops. So they’re generally salad crops, things that you can both harvest and then consume. You make sure that they’re safe first, but then you can go ahead and consume.
So there’s varieties of lettuce. We’ve done kale. We’ve done arugula. And we’ve done Amora mustard. Others, we’ve also done some fruiting crops. Peppers were recently done. We’ve done some root zone crops. We’ve done radishes. And then we’re getting ready to do tomatoes, too, hopefully in the near future. So it’s salad type crops. But again, we’re not picking them simply because the contents might make a good or interesting salad. We’re looking for the nutrients that are in those plants and making sure that they map to the ones that we know the crew needs for long duration exploration missions. So everything’s got a reason for why we select it.
WENDY GROUNDS: I think you just take a bit of olive oil and feta cheese, you’ve got a good Greek salad going there.
BILL YATES: That’s right, yeah. It’s like that and a protein bar, you’re good to go.
RALPH FRITSCHE: Well, you know, that’s an interesting aspect is that, from a food system perspective, there is a lot of pushback that says why don’t I just take supplements? Why don’t I take protein bars? Why don’t I take all these things that you may have seen in historic science fiction movies, you know, and that provides the nutrition that they need. Let them consume that. The issue is that there’s a psychological aspect of food. When we think about everything that astronauts have to go through, especially on these longer duration missions, the isolation, the hazardous environment, away from home, things that are familiar, the sterile environment they’re in, having plants there provides another component that’s not just the food that they generate.
And then when I think about the food the astronauts consume, the health and nutrition and medical folks at the Johnson Space Center, which is where that’s led from, are very interested in ensuring that crew get their food from functional foods. So it’s just like us. We can avoid eating a salad and instead go to the supermarket and get some kind of gummi that has your vitamins and nutrients in it. But that’s not the ideal way. That’s a marketing way to go forward, but that’s not the way that you really want to go forward when it comes to trying to maintain crew health and performance. And so it’s very important also that the things we select are palatable, that the crew will enjoy them.
Constantly we’re hit up with ideas for nontraditional food sources. It could be allergy or plants that are not within the mainstream of the typical Western diet. They may fit in well with some other culture’s diet. But if the astronauts aren’t familiar with that culture, and they haven’t embraced it yet, that becomes a challenge. We’ve learned from lots of experience that if the astronauts don’t want to eat what they’re given, they won’t eat it, and they will lose weight. On most missions that are longer duration, the year-long missions, crews start losing weight. And part of it’s menu fatigue. So variety that we can give by fresh vegetables and some fruits over time is huge in maintaining the interest for the crews to keep them motivated to eat. This seems like such a simple idea, and it’s anything but.
And I think that’s one of the challenges is even working through NASA culture, most people are engineers, and they’re looking at these huge projects. And when they think of food, they go to the store, and they pick up, they go to the produce aisle, if they go there, and they grab a few things. They get some frozen dinners. They go back, they’re done. And so they have that mindset already wired that says, hey, we can do something similar for space flight missions. And they think growing a plant is probably pretty easy to do. Farmers do it all the time.
But then if you ask them, well, how does your garden work, they go, “I can’t grow a plant.” And so the challenge is trying to have people realize that this is a lot more challenging and difficult to do than it would seem. And really kudos go out to our farmers who do this kind of work on a regular basis and make it look easy, I guess.
BILL YATES: We’ve heard from Kevin and Kyle before and we’d like to go back to just see what’s going on in their world as they’re working practical, day-to-day projects, in this case for Velociteach.
KYLE CROWE: We’ve all heard that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, and if you’re a visual learner like me, you know they can be worth ten times that amount in the right circumstances. That’s why I like using Flowcharts to get my head around a new process, as they can create a visual map for success.
Not only that but they can be a useful tool for clarifying communication between the person sending the Flowchart and the person receiving the Flowchart.
KEVIN RONEY: For example, for the person creating the Flowchart it forces them to really think about what they’re creating and potentially find problems in it before the problems even become an issue. For the person receiving the Flowchart it’s a visual representation of what the sender sees in their head and helps to get everybody on the same page.
KYLE CROWE: As long as there’s a routine process to execute, a Flowchart can help clarify communication and keep participants on track regardless of the type of business you’re in. They aren’t limited to just software and tech. Recently I received a pretty high-level Flowchart from Louis, documenting a thorough accounting process that we execute monthly. Kevin, I know you do a lot of work with Louis; do Flowcharts ever come up in your workflow?
KEVIN RONEY: Absolutely, Louis and I use Flowcharts on a regular basis. Generally I’ll make a Flowchart detailing what types of objectives our project is hoping to accomplish, and how, from a process perspective, we’re hoping to accomplish them. Using them we’re often able to identify hurdles early in the project, before we even come to them, and get them out the way when it takes far fewer resources to do so.
BILL YATES: Thanks guys! Now let’s get back to our podcast.
BILL YATES: Ralph, one of the questions I want to ask you, you made me think of it when you talked about, okay, I’m not a pure botanist. I’m not a pure engineer. I’m a project manager. Man, so many of our listeners can relate to that. It’s like, I’m not a pure coder, but I work with a lot who do. They can run circles around me in terms of how to code this properly. Or I’m not an expert on concrete pouring, but I’ve got an 84-story tower that I’m helping build as a project manager, so I need to know something about it.
So share some advice for those project managers who are trying to figure out, okay, how deep do I need to go into this level, this technical area, so that I can know when I’m getting accurate estimates from, in your case from botanists, from engineers. And then how do I build that trust with them so that there’s trust both ways, you know, that I can ask them for input and then trust that I’m going to get the straight answer from them?
RALPH FRITSCHE: So there’s a couple of responses I have to that question. First, I’m very fortunate in that the group I work with at the Kennedy Space Center is a small group with highly qualified science expertise, access to great engineers, and we’ve worked together for a number of years now. We work as a close team. So the trust is developed over time. So in that regard I have implicit trust in the people that I work with. It’s not an issue. I have some world expertise, class expertise in the science community and plant science that I can rely on, with multiple publications, you know, going back experience 30 plus years.
Now, the other side of that is that in a way I think it’s an advantage not having too much of a foothold in any camp because what it does is you bring a bias with you that you have to work through. Not having that bias gives you the ability to understand the passions that each side brings to the table and to try to balance those. Because personalities are such that I might have an engineer who’s very knowledgeable and demonstrative, and they may override the plant scientist person. And you have to be able to see that dynamic if it happens and try to balance that out. So it’s really almost acting like an orchestra leader trying to understand when the right time to engage one group versus another.
And, you know, one of the biggest challenges we had at the outset were that the engineers and the scientists, those are two usually, when I talk plant science and hardware engineering, diverse communities. They know a little bit about the other, but they don’t know enough to be able to really engage effectively. And each one thinks that they can solve the other’s problems if they only would do it their way. So it took a bit of time to get the engineers to start to appreciate the problems of the plant scientists, and the plant scientists to recognize the challenges that the engineering team was under. And I think probably it took six months to a year to kind of settle that down.
But again, when you have people that you trust, and you engage them in small communities, and you can kind of leave your badges at the door, so to speak, you can work together to solve the problems. And I think that’s where I think the strength from the project management comes through, is knowing how to use the people and engage them effectively. And to make them all feel a valued part of the team where not any one group is steamrolling over another.
BILL YATES: Yup. And I like your analogy of being an orchestra leader. So you have a group of engineers playing the violin. You have a group of botanists that are percussion. They’re both extremely necessary in the overall production. But they’re masters of different domains; right? So you are overseeing that and speaking into it and helping them appreciate all that they bring to the table.
RALPH FRITSCHE: Right. I think another part of that is that whether it’s the engineering side or the plant scientists side, they’re very focused on their area of expertise and the challenges they’re trying to resolve. And sometimes by looking so down and in, it requires somebody who’s an up and out person to really be able to see the forest for the trees. And I think that’s the project manager’s role, as well. So sometimes you have to shut down a certain line of inquisition and thinking, but you have to do it in a way that you don’t feel that the people that you’re doing that to don’t feel that they’re being neglected or abused in that decision. So, yeah.
BILL YATES: That’s great. Thank you.
WENDY GROUNDS: Can you walk us through the process? So you’re testing this on Earth. Is the next step to take it to the International Space Station, and you experiment there? And what’s the progress?
RALPH FRITSCHE: So, all right. So let me give you a little bit even more insight than that. When it comes to testing it on Earth, we’ve got a relatively small facility. We’ve got a limited number of folks. So it’s hard for us to test everything we might want to test and ensure that even from a terrestrial perspective it’s going to do well and thrive.
So one of the things we’ve done, because NASA’s all about outreach and engaging the public and engaging the youth of America, is that we have partnered with Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens through a NASA grant that’s in South Florida Botanical Gardens, and they’ve reached out, and now they’re engaged with I think it’s almost 300 schools across the U.S. now. And we actually give them ideas as to what kind of plants to grow in a classroom.
Through Fairchild, they’ve provided them with a ground simulation hardware, very simple, inexpensive, that they distribute to the classrooms, that’s similar to Veggie payload. And then they let them test all these different kind of plants in there. And the theory being that if something thrives well in a classroom environment being run by children five days a week, and then they’re gone, if it does well there, then it can make it up the next step in the ladder.
So we really use a lot of citizen science in how we come to select some of the candidates that we’re going to process for ground testing. But you’re correct. Once we get those candidates in there, we will check them out in what we would call a relevant space flight environment. International Space Station has higher CO2 levels than you would have here on Earth, significantly higher. So some plants do better with CO2 in some point in their life cycle. Some do not do as well. So we try to grow them in a relevant environment. And ones that do well are then sent out for analysis – nutritional, microbiological, chemical analysis. And ones that do well there, then they’re candidates for going to the International Space Station.
So that’s kind of like the progression. We parrot off what hardware developers do. In NASA there is a technology readiness level that has different levels of technology validation up until you get into spaceflight. And we’ve kind of parroted that with a crop readiness level, doing something similar to demonstrate when do we have crops that are ready. But the key point is that everything that we’ve done so far that’s done well in low Earth orbit on the International Space Station now has to be brought forward beyond low Earth orbit to see about the radiation environment and things that we’re going to experience, you know, once I start getting away from the Earth’s magnetic fields,
BILL YATES: That’s so interesting. We love to simulate things with projects. And the challenge of doing that with space is just a whole ‘nother level.
RALPH FRITSCHE: Something we struggle with is where do I invest in high-fidelity simulations that are very expensive, versus taking something to spaceflight. My opportunities are limited. It’s also expensive, but it’s not infrastructure costs. It’s not facility costs. How do I balance those? What level of ground test and ground facility is beneficial and warranted versus flight investments? Because we don’t have enough funding to do both. One of the things that’s interesting is that most of the other larger spacefaring countries out there have large ground test facilities for plants that kind of at least simulate what it would be like in a lunar environment. We don’t. The United States does not.
So questions we’re thinking about now is do we partner, you know, does it make sense to try to partner with some of our international partners to push this through. And that’s something that would have to get worked by us at the grassroot level, that we would have to go back to our funding sources. And then getting projects or proposals with international cooperation approved is a long slugfest. You really have to choose your battles well and hope for the best if you’re going to invest that time and effort.
BILL YATES: Ralph, to me the decision tree of, okay, what are my leading candidates, which ones do I want to invest in, that would just be so complex. And to your point, it’s not like, okay, let’s put it in the FedEx box, and the truck will come by once a day and take it to our testing center. No! There’s payloads!
RALPH FRITSCHE: Well, you know, it’s interesting. What I’ve kind of learned is that I have enough issues and challenges out there that I can afford to not have to be selective in any one versus the other. What I look for is when the stars align and opportunity kind of surfaces, you go for it. You take advantage of that. And the best experience, learning experience I had in that regard happened a couple of years ago. We have always been trying to foster collaboration with the German space agency and the Canadian space agency.
And the Germans have a facility down in the Antarctic called EDEN ISS, and it is basically a freight container-size plant growth chamber that’s populated with a lot of different hardware for growing plants. It’s roughly three to 400 meters away from the main station. And it’s dedicated and devoted to plants. We’ve had researchers deploy some hardware in there as a tentative way of collaborating, initially very, very basic minor collaboration. And then two years ago they were saying, hey, we’re at the point now we would really like someone from NASA to come down here and run this thing over winter. And kneejerk reaction, getting somebody down there to run it. The other constraint was that they had to be able to speak German. You know, basically the kneejerk reaction is forget it, it’s too hard.
Well, there was a lady in the office who actually had been one of our interns, and then she had a job at the contractor. She heard that conversation and just in the hall she goes, “I speak German, and I would love to go down there and do it.” And she was a plant scientist. So we had like two or three weeks to try to pull this all together, and we did. We raced it through because all the stars started to align. And so she was down there in the Antarctic for 20 months, during COVID time. And the amount of information that she brought back, being a plant scientist, being someone who has a mindset for exploration and food systems and growing crops in that environment was amazing. We got so much benefit out of it, we haven’t even begun to process it all.
We brought back a lot of plant samples and showed how running these systems continuously over time, where the challenges were, where the technology needed to be developed. And it was something that, had you just turned the other way and gone to lunch that day, you would have missed. I was being astute enough to recognize when opportunity is there, take advantage of it because far too often we will try to push a pet project or push a pet idea uphill against a bureaucracy that might not be receptive to it, and you’re wasting a lot of time and just building frustration within the team. So you have to be able to know when to pivot and take advantage of the opportunity that’s there, not be so blinded by your own ideas and ambitions that you don’t see that.
BILL YATES: That’s fantastic.
WENDY GROUNDS: Any final lessons learned as a project manager that you can share with our audience? What have been some of your top lessons?
RALPH FRITSCHE: So the first lesson I had was when you take on or are given a new project, don’t go in there with preassumptions as to what it might mean. Having worked for years with space shuttle payloads, large payloads like the Hubble Space Telescope, Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer looking for dark matter in the universe, the probes that were going to Jupiter and Venus, coming down from that environment where you’re admittedly a very small player in a big project, but that has these big goals that are clear to see, and then coming into a crop production role which was not described, which seems just like minor, my first reaction was to say this is the end of my career. This is terrible. This is horrible.
And the truth of the matter is that was all in my head. Turns out this is the best in my entire career is working something like that. So go in with an open mind. And then try to learn from the people who are the experts that you’re going to be working with, the people that are going to be under you. You know, do as good a job as you can to quickly ascertain the ones who are beneficial to the project, the ones who are team players, and to engage in work with them.
And so we’ve done that. I’ve managed to do that. And I think if you have a team like that, and you can rely on those people, you will swim. You know, if you’re stuck with bad teammates, then you might very well sink, and you’re going to have a whole other list of challenges. It’s also getting to know your funding sources, and try to carve relationships with people, and then to always be scrupulously honest when it comes to the dealings you have because it’s so many times things can circle back, and someone that you may have brushed aside or maybe told a falsehood to one day will turn back and be somebody who you’re ultimately subject to respond to the next day. So always be scrupulously honest.
From our perspective, it’s easy working for NASA because we’re stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars. We always want to keep that in mind that any funding that you’re given needs to be allocated and distributed in a way that makes sense. I would also say don’t ever be scared to speak up. I think speaking up has always been a good positive thing. And then again, as we just recently talked about it, it’s opportunity, knowing when to take the opportunities that present themselves, even if they’re not necessarily what you were just thinking that they would be. I think that’s key.
WENDY GROUNDS: If our listeners want to hear more about your work and what you’re doing, is there a website? Where can they go to find out more?
RALPH FRITSCHE: I would say you go to NASA.gov. And then there’s, if you type in “growing plants in space,” I think there’s a web page that deals with that. But there’s a lot of different things. If you typed in “the veggie payload,” or “advanced plant habitat,” you will read about it, as well.
WENDY GROUNDS: Okay. I’ll try to put some links into the transcript so that people can find it.
BILL YATES: Ralph, this is fantastic. You’ve got my head spinning. I’ve got all these visuals in my head from of course all the bad science fiction movies I’ve seen.
RALPH FRITSCHE: Oh, yeah.
BILL YATES: But I’m, you know, thinking about it from a project management standpoint. There are so many interesting, mind-blowing challenges that you and your team have to deal with. And I appreciate, I can just see it in your face and in your tone of voice. You have a perspective with this. This is a long play. This is not a quick project. And this is a long play. And your attitude and your approach to that is infectious. I’m sure the team reflects that. And I appreciate all that you shared with us and the advice that you’ve given.
RALPH FRITSCHE: It’s my pleasure.
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