NASA Thinks Big in Quest for New Space Technology
NASA Chief Technologist Robert Braun spoke at the NASA New Space Technology Industry Forum, held at the University of Maryland in College Park on July 13, 2010. During the two-day event, speakers were focused on the president's fiscal year 2011 budget request for NASA's new Space Technology Program. Representatives from industry, academia and the federal government were in attendance to discuss strategy, development and implementation of NASA's proposed new technology-enabled exploration.
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

ADELPHI, Md. ? NASA is redoubling efforts to position itself at the vanguard of space technology, with plans for ambitious new projects to spur innovative ideas from industry, academia and even ordinary citizens.

The U.S. space agency's nascent Space Technology Program, born as part of President Barack Obama?s fiscal year 2011 budget request, is currently pending congressional approval. If it passes muster, the program could represent a significant push toward greater external collaboration and technological development for NASA.

?It?s different from anything NASA has done before,? said Robert Braun, NASA?s chief technologist, in a Tuesday presentation to representatives from industry, academia and the federal government. ?This is a competition of ideas. This is a meritocracy. We want to reposition NASA at the cutting edge.?

Braun discussed the Space Technology Program here at NASA's Space Technology Industry Forum, hosted by the agency's Office of the Chief Technologist. ?

The OCT, which was established in February, is responsible for direct management of NASA's space technology programs, and for coordinating and tracking all technology investments across the agency.

An eye on the future

Braun outlined the program, which was conceived using the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as a model. DARPA is an agency of the United States Department of Defense that actively develops new technology for use by the military.

By adopting a DARPA-like approach, the Space Technology Program aims to foster the advancement of transformational technologies for future science and exploration.

?We?re trying to increase the pace of innovation,? said Keith Belvin, systems engineer at NASA?s Langley Research Center. ?This is a technology push ? we?re trying to get to that next technological curve.?

The FY 2011 budget request for the Space Technology Program is set at $572.2 million, and more than $4.9 billion is included in the five-year budget plan. It is only a portion of the overall $19 billion 2011 budget proposed for NASA by President Barack Obama. [FAQ: NASA's New Direction]

The Space Technology Program incorporates 10 initiatives that fall into three categories: Early Stage Innovation, Game Changing Technology and Crosscutting Capability Demonstration.

The goal at each stage, said Braun, is to provide a full spectrum of programs that provide an infusion path to advance innovative ideas from concept to flight.

Early-stage innovation

In the Early Stage Innovation phase, research teams can submit creative ideas regarding future NASA systems or solutions to broader aeronautical needs. These concepts and analyses compete for financial incentives and prizes for further research and development. The projects in this category include:

  • Space Technology Research Grants Program, which focuses on innovative research in advanced space technology and graduate fellowships for student research in space technology.
  • NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program, which focuses on innovative aeronautics and space system concepts for future NASA missions.
  • Center Innovation Fund Program, which aims to stimulate aerospace creativity and innovation at the NASA field centers throughout the country.
  • Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR), which would engage small businesses in space enterprise and infuse these projects across NASA missions.
  • Centennial Challenges Prize Program, which addresses key technology needs with new sources of innovation outside of the traditional aerospace community.

Three new Centennial Challenges were announced Tuesday as part of the forum.

Game-changing space technology

Research projects that are eligible for the Game Changing Technology stage will focus on advanced space technologies in preparation for potential system level flight demonstration.

Programs in this category aim to mature technologies that could lead to entirely new approaches to NASA?s future space missions and produce important solutions to national needs. The projects in this category are as follows:

  • Game Changing Development Program, which looks at ideas that could enable new capabilities or radically alter current approaches to space systems.
  • Franklin Small Satellite Subsystems Technology Program, which enables small satellites to provide transformational capabilities for the government and commercial sectors.

Technology demos on tap

The third division of the Space Technology Program focuses on the maturation of a small number of technologies to flight readiness. These so-called ?crosscutting capabilities? have the potential to benefit several customers and advance multiple future space missions.

Projects in this category may also consist of those that require suborbital flight tests or in-space demonstrations before the capability can transition and be applied to current and future missions. Crosscutting Capability Demonstration programs include:

  • Technology Demonstration Missions Program, which matures, through flight demonstrations, a small number of NASA technologies in partnership with Mission Directorates.
  • Edison Small Satellite Missions Program, which develops and operates a series of NASA-focused small satellite demonstration missions in collaboration with academia and small businesses.
  • Flight Opportunities Program, which provides flight opportunities of reduced-gravity environments, brief periods of weightlessness and high-altitude atmospheric research.

If the Space Technology Program meets with congressional approval, the first round of proposal requests could come as soon as October. Officials at the OCT have high hopes for the program?s impact on the future of NASA.

?We?re looking for investments and technological solutions to real problems,? Braun said. ?We?re looking for visions of the future.?