Broadcast 3792 Dr. Wendell Mendell

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Guest:  Dr. Wendell Mendell;  Topics:  NASA JSC 2013 retirement, lunar matters, ISRU, settlement, Artemis, the Gateway, SLS, space stories from the past, space history, private sector space development, NASA and the way it operates plus much more.

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We welcomed Dr. Wendell Mendell back to the program to discuss current developments with NASA, NewSpace, lunar return and much more.  As pointed out in the show, Dr. Mendell was last on the program when he was retiring from NASA JSC.  If you want to hear his this special Space Show program, it was recorded on Dec. 10, 2013 and is show number 2140.  The direct URL for this archived program is

We started our discussion with Wendell by talking about government management.  He used the term KASOC referring to Knowledge, Abilities, Skills and Other Characteristics.  Listen to his examples stemming from NASA and the former administrator Dan Golden.  This led to Wendell describing himself as a sort of activist/advocate and a person on the fringe, stemming from his finding the question he was frequently asked, "What do you do at NASA," to be challenging to answer.  He talked about his ability to communicate with fringe people, he talked about insiders having inflated views of many things and then went on to talk about the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), Dr. Mike Griffin who was the administrator back them, the use of outside groups, special types of spread sheets and how TRLs were described and used. 

Soon into the program Wendell received several emails focusing in on the private sector back then, asking him if the private sector in space today was a surprise to him, plus many more similar questions.  Wendell told great stories to make his points.  For the private sector, he went back to 1985 and mentioned congressional budgets for one year when the project would take 15 years.  He then used the JWST as an example of what he was talking about.  Listener Todd sent him a very direct email asking him if the private sector of today turned out to be a surprise to him given what the commercial industry was like before he retired.  In his rather long response to Todd, he talked about tipping points for the private sector, seeing the industry through the 1990 perspective and even arranging a 1986 CEO workshop.  Listen to his story behind this workshop and the results of it.

The discussion about the private sector led to Wendell mentioning ISRU.  We learned that our guest was the first ever to use the term ISRU, concerns that CEOs had for a payback in no more than five years (VC requirements), and special conferences at that time.  For special conferences, Wendell and I both mentioned the ASCE conferences held in New Mexico in the late 80's through the 90's.  In fact, Wendell and I met for the first time at an ASCE gig.  This conference was a subconference of the American Society of Civil Engineers which caused Wendell to talk quite a bit about engineering regarding going to the Moon as compared to scientists and others.  This cultural and substantive difference has been documented on many other Space Show programs over the years so it was no surprise that Wendell focused on it. 

Our first caller of the day was Marshall.  He talked about the life of an engineer and inquired about science and engineering differences in outreach.  Wendell did say and I agreed with him that ASCE did a good job of engineering for space and for the Moon which was a focus of their events.  Wendell mentioned meeting Jim Benson at the conference and what Jim brought to the table for private investment and business for space.  For frequent listeners you have heard me mention Jim many times as his company was the one that built the hybrid engine for the XPrize win plus Jim was out to develop space resources from the first, a strong proponent of space property rights, and a guy who suggested the early days of settlement and resource usage might look like Tombstone or Dodge City before becoming civil.  Unfortunately Jim passed away far too early and I miss him and his Space Show appearances very much. 

Wendell returned to the VSE but also threw in Orion and the Constellation program.  He compared the government program including SLS with Musk and SpaceX.  He talked about the NASA way leading to being bogged down.  An email came in from Joe wanting to know if Wendell thought SLS should be cancelled.  In his answer, Wendell talked about Ares 5, the close to $2 billion SLS launch cost, and the pressure from Senator Shelby.  Wendell was all the time making comparisons to SpaceX.

Listener Randy asked our guest for his thoughts on the developing space tourism industry.  In his answer, our guest went back to the 1990's, mentioned the space tourism market analysis of the day by Dr. Patrick Collins, the economist now in Japan who still returns every few years to The Space Show.  He mentioned that the industry had been and is slow in developing. Speaking about space tourism, we moved forward to asking our guest about Artemis and the lunar Gateway.  Wendell did not think this was the most economic way to go the Moon, he thought the gateway should be repurposed for use in entering the solar system and upon his reading of the program, strongly suggested we would not be returning to the Moon as people think.  Listen for his explanation and the details behind what he said.  As for getting to the lunar surface, he did not think Artemis would do the trick but listen to all of what he had to say on this topic.  In addition, note what he sad about the best way to get to the lunar surface.  Surprise anyone?

Kim called with several questions for our guest.  One was to inquire about the old idea of using nuclear bombs to excavate on the lunar surface down to the mantle.  This was an interesting discussion.  First, Wendell said there was no need to go to the mantle. He also talked about areas on the moon where rare and valuable elements were on the surface and you would not have to go deep into the lunar surface to get to them.  This was a very interesting discussion so don't miss a word of it.  Wendell did address the politics of trying to use nukes for anything, concluding that for now nuclear won't go far.  Other topics brought up in the context of Kim's question involved lunar remote sensing.  Then out of the blue, Wendell said a business he thought made lots of sense was to establish fat farms on the Moon.  He went into some detail on his fat farm idea.  What do you think about it?  Will it work or not?  Post your commentary on lunar surface fat farms.  Kim and Wendell went on to talk about the culture and mindset with NASA and then the private sector.  Wendell talked about gatekeepers, being interested in controlling power, not in realizing project benefits. 

As part of the Kim-Wendell discussion, Wendell told another story about JPL but also his group at NASA JSC wanting to do a project with the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins.  You don't want to miss this story.  I bet you will be surprised by how it ended.  Before the program ended, Pasadena Gene sent in an email to ask our guest about solar sats in GEO and living in lunar lava tubes on the Moon.  Wendell had much to say about both so again, don't miss this concluding part of our nearly two hour discussion.  The last topic of discussion was the recent CNN show, "In Search of Planet B."  If you did not see it, watch for it to come out again on CNN and record or watch it.  Both Wendell and I saw it and had good things to say about it.  I specifically asked him about the parts with Dr. Sara Seager in it.  Sarah was a guest on the show a few years and is at MIT, well known with her exoplanet and additional research.  Listen to what I said to Wendell about the interview with Sarah and how Wendell responded to it which was a little different than my response.  For those of you that saw the segment, please let us know what you thought about it by posting on our blog.

Please post your comments/questions for Dr. Mendell on our blog for this show.  You can reach our guest, Dr. Wendell Mendell, through me.




Dr. Mendell is a retired planetary scientist and lunar guy from JSC. We are fortunate to have him return as a Space Show guest.

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23 Nov 2021 Dr. Wendell Mendell
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