updated 5/24/2011 8:49:12 AM ET 2011-05-24T12:49:12

A scrappy team of NASA engineers is testing a prototype robotic lander, hoping to build into a machine the quick thinking and precision piloting Neil Armstrong needed to land on the moon.

Along the way, managers want to shake up the status quo at NASA, which has spent the past 30 years managing and operating the multi-billion space shuttle and space station programs.

The initiative is called Project Morpheus, named for the Greek god of dreams and dreamers. For now, it's just the seed of a spacecraft, a testbed for autonomous flight and an alternative, methane propulsion system. But the ultimate goal, says project manager Matt Ondler, is to land a humanoid robot on the moon.

"That would be really, really cool," Ondler told Discovery News.

Project Morpheus epitomizes what Ondler calls "Home Depot engineering," low-budget projects that encourage scrounging hardware, using existing facilities and partnering with startup companies that are not traditional government contractors.

"The Morpheus lander is kind of our poster child. It's one of our first attempts to do these kinds of projects," Ondler said. "Instead of building some elaborate test structure, you go to Home Depot and build something very quickly that gets you 80 percent of the answer and allows you to keep moving forward."

"It's the kind of things I think we did in the beginning of NASA, where we had to solve a lot of problems that had never been solved before. And we did it very innovatively," he added.

NASA has been getting a refresher course in ingenuity from a handful of commercial space companies, including Armadillo Aerospace, its partner in Project Morpheus. The Texas-based firm is testing technologies for suborbital spaceships for tourists and to fly science payloads.

"We demonstrated that a small private company of dedicated people could develop and fly a vehicle in a time frame and within a cost structure that was inconceivable for NASA and their major aerospace partners," Armadillo Aerospace program manager Neil Milburn wrote in an email to Discovery News.

Ondler's team is focused on two technologies: an autonomous landing system that can identify and avoid hazards such as boulders, craters and steep cliffs; and a liquid methane propulsion system.

"If you go to Mars, or if you go to a place on the moon where there is trapped water, you can make the methane from those resources," Ondler said. "That is something we're eventually going to need to be able to do."

Methane also is inexpensive and relatively safe, compared with traditional rocket propellants.

So far, the lander has made three tethered flights at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. A free-flight is expected in the next month or so at NASA test sites in White Sands, N.M., or California's Mojave Desert.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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