Features, Q&A

Max Fagin of Mars: Taking Aim at the Red Planet

September 12, 2014

There is a non-zero chance Max Fagin will be one of the first human beings on Mars. We spoke about Made in Space, SpaceX, Mars One, and why engineering needs more generalists.

Max Fagin’s determination to be an aerospace engineer – and to put human beings on Mars – crystallized at the age of twelve. He’s worked towards that goal ever since, earning undergraduate degrees in physics and astronomy (Vassar) and mechanical engineering (Dartmouth). He is currently working on a Masters in Aerospace Engineering from Purdue University.

He is in the second round of selection in the Mars One program, one of 705 candidates to join the first crewed mission to Mars.

Max recently completed an internship with Made in Space, whose 3d printer will head to the ISS on the 19th of September, and accepted an internship with SpaceX‘s Statics and Structures group.

The following interview was recorded on August 12, 2014. It was edited for clarity and structure. The views expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, SpaceX.

Interning at Made in Space

EJ:

Made in Space, then SpaceX – that’s two dream gigs in a row. If we can start with Made in Space, what was the application process for getting an internship there like?

Max Fagin:

Max Fagin of Mars Made in Space in Space Engineer Jobs Credit Made in Space

Credit: Made in Space

Made in Space was wonderful. They actually contacted me, after seeing my video applications for SpaceX. They found the videos online and asked if SpaceX had accepted me. I told them they had not, and they asked if I would be interested to work for them instead.

I took a look at their webpage, what they were doing. I had them tell me a little bit about their business plans. And when I heard that they were actually sending hardware to the ISS sometime this year, that absolutely sounded like something I wanted to do. It turned out to be an incredible experience. I spent all summer there, and I may end up going back.

EJ:

So a lot of young engineers, and members of the 3D printing community more generally, are probably dying to know what it’s actually like to work there. I saw on my Twitter feed that you shot CEO Aaron Kemmer with a Nerf gun during your exit interview?

Max Fagin:

They are a tech startup in California, and that is exactly the spirit that they embody. It was incredibly fun, but in exchange for having all of that fun they expected you to work very, very hard. And in return, they also provided you the chance to work very hard. They threw as many projects at you as they felt you were willing to take.

In that vein, I think it was a very profitable experience. I learned a lot about the tech startup world and was very much inspired by what I saw. They’re all guys who love the idea of colonizing the solar system and keep that goal in mind for their long-term planning.

EJ:

What projects were you working on?

Max Fagin:

I got there a couple of weeks after the first printer was shipped to the Marshall Space Flight Center to prepare for launch. So, I was mainly in charge of finding ways to use the printer once it got on the station.

I took a look at a lot of systems that are onboard the International Space Station and found out what critical components there could be printed by our printer, what components aren’t on the station yet that could be printed by our printer, and what commercial opportunities and scientific opportunities would be enabled by having this printer onboard.

On Martian Megaprojects

(Editor’s Note: This section will make much more sense if you’ve read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, specifically Red Mars. Also, Stackhouse is an incorrigible nerd.)

EJ:

Going through your YouTube channel, I saw something which I’d really love to geek out about for a minute. You modeled the space elevator collapse from the Martian Revolution of ’61 in MATLAB? Very cool.

Max Fagin:

Whenever I got sick and tired of problem sets in my actual research, I’d say, hey, let’s work on the collapsing space elevators for a little bit. I also pretty much needed five years to get good enough at Matlab in order to model it.

EJ:

Yeah. That’s a beast of a problem.

Max Fagin:

And then one month before I got the code working, someone published a paper modeling pretty much that exact scenario for Earth!

So if I ever wanted to get a publication out of it, not a chance, but it was still worth every minute of programming just for the fun of seeing it work.

Max Fagin of Mars Elevator engineer jobs credit Ludovic Celle

Credit: Ludovic Celle

EJ:

Sax Russell had plenty of other megaprojects you could take on, too. There’s a nonzero chance that you will be there, on Mars, one of our First Hundred – are there any megaprojects from the Mars trilogy that you would, given the time and resources, like to put your mind to?

Max Fagin:

Well, obviously the elevator concept is very appealing to me. We’re not at the point, yet, where it’s feasible for terrestrial construction, but on Mars and on the moon? Those are places where, right now, material science is at the point where we could build a practical space elevator.

Now, there’s really no point in building one on Mars until there is an economic and industrial base to support it. But the preliminary first steps are still something I’d like to see done there.

The projects that I’m most interested in on Mars are the industrial-level ones, the ones which enable that future economic and production base that will make Mars more than just a colony.

SpaceX and the EDL Problem

EJ:

Well, first we’ve got to get you there. What will you be doing at SpaceX?

Max Fagin:

I’m joining the statics and structures group, and at the moment that’s all I know. They will be telling me some more about my position probably sometime in the next couple of days, but they’ve been very secretive about it so far.

I’ve been told by other interns that this internship is going to get me a little bit of everything, so I should expect to do a little bit of electronics, a little bit of design work, a little bit of aerodynamics, a little bit of everything.

What I would really like to do is work my way onto the EDL team — the team that works on the entry, descent, and landing process for the Dragon — since that is really where my research here at Purdue is focused. The biggest obstacle between humans and Mars is getting a payload large enough to carry people through EDL in Mars’ atmosphere.

EJ:

Yeah, that’s a fair point. There’s a tendency to focus on the journey itself, and surface survivability, but getting everyone down safely is a huge problem.

Max Fagin:

Statistically speaking, it is as dangerous as launch. Look at where missions have actually failed at in Mars. It is as dangerous as the launch process.

I became aware of that in 2010, when I was working at NASA Ames, at the NASA Academy. I had a very informative mentor, the center director, Dr. Pete Worden. He and I spent a lot of time arguing back and forth about whether or not the EDL problem was, in fact, a roadblock.

I was very much convinced of the position, expounded by the president of the Mars Society, Dr. Robert Zubrin, that it was not a problem, that it was something which could be overcome with present technology, and that we needed to focus more on the political problems and things that were keeping NASA from really exercising itself in this field on the in situ resource utilization problems, on the life support problems, all of these other things that were keeping us from developing the necessary spacecraft.

EJ:

Well, to Dr. Zubrin’s credit, those are certainly non-trivial obstacles.

Max Fagin:

They are. I was eventually pursuaded that Dr. Worden was correct. We currently have no idea how to land something more massive than a ton on Mars, and even the most optimistic design architectures require landing something between six and eight tons on Mars. It has taken us forty years of EDL work, of exploring Mars, to bring that limit up from one-third of a ton to one ton … that’s not very much progress.

I became convinced that a human mission to Mars, until we solved that problem, was premature. That’s when I decided that EDL is what I’m going to focus my specific energies on, because it is the biggest roadblock at the moment.

Engineering Needs Generalists

EJ:

You also have to pick some aspect of it to address, too. If you were to try and take on all of what’s between here and Mars, that’s impossible. You can’t do it all.

Max Fagin:

That’s true. I have tried though.

I have aggressively, and as hard as I can, avoided specialization. Everyone who has ever mentored me or given me academic advice has pretty much said the same thing: the modern engineering world does not need more specialists.

Credit: Max Fagin

Credit: Max Fagin

Plenty of people in engineering have become overspecialized and not capable of working at the higher levels that are required for complicated systems like aerospace, especially.

At Dartmouth I did not choose a focus. My background is in engineering in general, so that included classes in fluid dynamics, electronics, structures, controls – a little bit of every field. Here at Purdue, even though I’m an aerospace engineer, it is systems engineering and that’s pretty much as general as you can get in the aerospace field.

I have worked very, very hard to stay as general as I possibly can because that is my understanding that that is currently what the engineering world needs.

EJ:

We’re seeing the rise of whole disciplines, like mechatronics, that are essentially synthesis disciplines. The process of executing seriously interesting engineering projects has grown complex enough that you need those generalist system guys at the top who can actually hold it all in their head and execute.

Max Fagin:

Max Fagin of Mars lightsaber yo engineer jobs credit Max Fagin

Credit: Max Fagin

It can be very frustrating, at least to me, to try to work with someone who has no desire to understand what’s going on at the level above their own personal work, who is just interested in the engineering task immediately ahead of them, but can’t see why they are doing it or how it integrates with the other people who are sitting around them.

That is partially one of the problems with NASA today. It is very segmented, and the people who work on the missions are very localized in their own discipline. It’s part of the reason NASA tends to do everything in such an expensive and slow way.

I’m very fortunate that I had people who were willing to tell me that early in the process when I could still tailor my academic experience accordingly. Because if someone hadn’t told me that, I think I would have been perfectly content to, immediately out of high school, go to a place like MIT or Caltech and become an excellent aerospace engineer but narrowed only to a very single field of study, and I probably would have enjoyed that.

I probably would have liked it personally, and I probably would have done excellent work, but I’m not sure if it would have been this type of work. I’m not sure if it would have been the work that qualifies me to design a mission to Mars or serve as the crew engineer on such a mission.

On the Mars One Selection Process

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

EJ:

On a Mars mission, specialists present a weight problem. The Mars One mission is slated for 2025, I believe?

Max Fagin:

2025 would be the first launch, yes. The first crewed launch.

EJ:

You’re in the second round of selection right now?

Max Fagin:

That’s right. There was an initial interest pool, about 200,000 people. Of those 200,000, between 5,000, maybe 7,000 actually submitted an application. The first round of selection narrowed that down to 1,058, and the second round narrowed it down to 705, and that’s where we currently are.

EJ:

I know Mars One has stressed patience as a Martian virtue, but what’s the timeline and selection process actually like?

Max Fagin:

The next step is supposed to be sitting down and talking with a local representative from Mars One, for a personal interview and a psychological profile. They haven’t said when that’s going to happen.

At the Mars Society Conference a couple of days ago, Bas Lansdorp, the founder of Mars One – in answer to the question of when is this going to happen — basically said take a vacation. It’s not going to happen for a while, which is somewhat understandable. They’re a very small firm located somewhere in the Netherlands, and they have to coordinate 705 interviews from everyone all over the world. It’s going to take some time.

I can wait. I’m doing plenty of exciting stuff in the meantime, while I’m waiting for Mars One to call.

 

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