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Q&A: Angel Abbud-Madrid shoots for the Moon

28 August 2019

A leader in space resources tells how he had the right timing for the right stuff.

Whenever Angel Abbud-Madrid spots the International Space Station in the night sky, he is filled with excitement: “The fire extinguishers I helped to design and test are protecting the astronauts on that moving dot,” he says. “It’s a powerful feeling.”

Angel Abbud-Madrid.
Credit: Colorado School of Mines

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in Mexico, Abbud-Madrid was inspired by seeing airplanes fly overhead. In school he did projects related to flight and space. He studied mechanical and electrical engineering at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education. At the time, he says, “there were no aerospace departments in Mexican universities.” Eventually, through some twists and turns, he ended up working in space-related research.

Abbud-Madrid hasn’t been to space himself, but today he is director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines and founding director of a degree-granting program in space resources, the world’s first (see PT: Why did you choose to study mechanical and electrical engineering in college?

ABBUD-MADRID: Growing up in Mexico, you just didn’t see opportunities in space exploration. At that time the same went for anywhere besides the United States and the Soviet Union. Engineering was my closest option.

PT: What did you do after earning your undergraduate degrees in engineering?

ABBUD-MADRID: My first job happened to be in a gold and silver mine. The price of gold was high, and companies were looking to extract gold from the tailings of what had been thrown away years earlier. We used sodium cyanide to leach the tailings to recover gold and silver, which were present in parts per million.

PT: Interesting that you worked in mining, given that you now look at mining on celestial bodies.

ABBUD-MADRID: I never thought I would work in a mine. But it was very useful. I was responsible for the electrical and mechanical installations, fluids and pipes and all that. And I gained an understanding of what it takes to go through the typical mining processes—excavation, extraction, refining, transport. Those are the same operations we are thinking about now as we look to extract everything from water to metals in space.

PT: What was your path to space research?

ABBUD-MADRID: I went to Princeton for my master’s in mechanical and aerospace engineering. One day a faculty member said, “I have an opportunity for you to do studies on how combustion behaves in microgravity.” I was excited that it was something you do in space, but he explained that you can conduct low-gravity experiments without leaving Earth. I ended up conducting experiments at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. You go to the top of a 150-meter tower, put your experiment inside a box, and then cut the wire. For 5.2 seconds of free fall, the effects of gravity are eliminated.

In a combustion experiment conducted in microgravity, hot air no longer rises, and a candle flame goes from an elongated shape to a slow-burning sphere. We needed longer times, so we went in this airplane that flies parabolic trajectories with free falls of 2500 meters. You get 25 to 30 seconds of low gravity in one maneuver. The pilot repeats this 40 times in about two hours. You fly with your experiment. That’s why it’s called the vomit comet.

I was enthralled by all of this and was back to my days of getting involved in anything space related.

PT: How did you come to the Colorado School of Mines?

ABBUD-MADRID: I got my PhD at the University of Colorado Boulder and started a postdoc there. Around that time the Colorado School of Mines was starting a NASA-funded center looking at applications of combustion in space. The goal was to combine research ideas from academia, product-design concepts from industry, and NASA experimental facilities to develop commercial applications for Earth and space. When I visited, researchers were starting a project to fly on the space shuttle. I couldn’t resist.

PT: What did you work on?

ABBUD-MADRID: My first project was on how to put out fires in space with water mist. Chemical agents that were good for putting out fires but destroyed the ozone layer were banned by the Montreal Protocol in 1987. Around the world people were looking for more benign alternatives.

At the School of Mines we asked ourselves, “Why not use water?” We studied how tiny water droplets remove heat from the fire, evaporate quickly, and don’t cause material damage. Consider a typical water droplet of about 1 millimeter and divide it into 1000 droplets. We began this work in drop towers and continued with parabolic flights, but we still needed more time and extremely low gravity levels. We proposed to run tests on the space shuttle.

PT: How did those tests go?

ABBUD-MADRID: We finally got to launch the experiment in January 2003. The whole team went to the Cape [Canaveral] to watch the shuttle go up. Then we went to Houston, where we spent 16 days in the mission control building running the experiment. We tested various combinations of droplet size and flame types. It was great. But that was the Columbia flight that didn’t make it back. I was in mission control when the space shuttle disintegrated as it entered the atmosphere. To see it happen in front of your eyes was a very sad experience.

We had downlinked about 90% of the data during the flight. Four months after the accident, the hard drive from our experiment was found in a field in Texas, and the manufacturer was able to extract the rest of the data. We were able to determine the optimum droplet size and how much water you need to extinguish flames. It turned out that water droplets with a mean size of 20 to 30 microns are ideal. We took it upon ourselves to push for developing a fire suppression system for space. We had worked closely with the astronauts for several years during crew training, and we wanted to honor them.

At first NASA rejected our proposal, since the shuttle was going to be retired and the space station already had carbon dioxide extinguishers. But in 2011 we got a call asking us to develop water mist extinguishers as part of a program to upgrade various life-support systems and extend the operational life of the space station.

PT: How did you shift your focus to space resources?

ABBUD-MADRID: A pioneer in the field, Mike Duke, retired from NASA and came to the Colorado School of Mines and said, “You’ve been studying and developing resource extraction systems for more than 100 years here on Earth. Why not apply your knowledge to do the same thing in space?” That’s how our Center for Space Resources got started. After the Columbia accident in 2003, President Bush called for NASA to send humans to the Moon to stay for longer times than in the Apollo era. That was good timing for us. We received NASA funding to design excavators and chemical plants to extract oxygen from the lunar soil. The field started growing, and I became increasingly involved in it. In 2006 I became the center director.

Each year we hold the Space Resources Roundtable, which brings together space professionals, the metals and mining industry, financial and policy analysts, and legal experts to discuss all topics related to identification, extraction, processing, and utilization of resources from space, the Moon, Mars, and asteroids. The first meetings were attended mostly by 20 to 30 members of NASA centers and a few small companies and academics. It has now become the premier meeting in the field, with almost 200 participants attending this past June.

PT: What are some of the challenges to actually using space resources?

ABBUD-MADRID: You have to keep three things in mind: You have to know with certainty that you have a recoverable resource, you have to have the technology to extract it, and you have to have a customer. The only space resources we are using so far are solar power and the view of Earth—for satellites, communications, and the like.

PT: Last year the Colorado School of Mines launched a graduate degree program in space resources. Why now?

ABBUD-MADRID: We had been thinking about it for a few years, and once we started seeing increasing interest from space agencies, the private sector, and countries around the world, we felt the time was right. It’s the first program of its kind.

PT: How can developing countries be involved in space resources?

ABBUD-MADRID: Things have changed drastically since I was a student. Now 72 countries around the world have space agencies. They are not necessarily involved in expensive launching operations or space hardware development; often they are involved in many other aspects of spaceflight and telecommunications satellites.

The identification, extraction, and processing of space resources offer a new opportunity for developing countries that have expertise on Earth but have not yet participated in space activities. Why not use the technologies and experience they have accumulated? They could develop prototypes of systems that a more advanced space agency or company can then turn into spaceflight-qualified equipment. These include drills, excavators, and extraction plants that can operate in space.

PT: Would you want to go to space?

ABBUD-MADRID: When I was in my early 40s and I was very involved in developing experiments for the space shuttle and space station, I thought it would be a great thing to go to space. But I was in the process of getting my US citizenship, so I was not eligible to apply for the astronaut program. I have always felt lucky and privileged to be designing things that go to space and educating students who will surely travel there. That for me is a very powerful motivation.

PT: What do you envision in terms of space travel, exploration, and tourism in the years to come?

ABBUD-MADRID: Over and over we have seen how new technologies and changing goals come along and derail seemingly firm objectives. But given the current widespread interest and palpable enthusiasm, I can foresee humans living on the Moon’s surface for extended periods of time in the next 10 to 15 years.

PT: What do you mean by extended periods of time?

ABBUD-MADRID: Crews could stay for six months or more and then be replaced by new ones. This would allow the progressive building and development of a self-sustaining base. That is why space resources are so powerful—they will allow us to stay and thrive, not just visit for a few days carrying everything with us from Earth. We can obtain oxygen and propellants and build habitats with locally sourced materials.

PT: Do you think humans will go to Mars?

ABBUD-MADRID: That will be more challenging. The use of local resources on the Red Planet is even more critical than on the Moon if we plan on sending humans. It all depends on how serious we are about making this dream a reality. If we design future robotic missions to Mars to gather more information about the location and distribution of local resources and then incorporate the extraction and use of these resources on subsequent missions, we will have humans living on the surface of Mars. It’s a very important moment of decision. It is definitely possible, and I may even see it happen. If not me, I am sure my students will.

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