NASA Rethinks Technology Needs

More than $1 billion worth of human and robotic technology projects selected for funding late last year by NASA's Exploration Systems mission directorate are on the chopping block as the U.S. space agency re-evaluates its technology investment strategy.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told an industry group last week that he intends to concentrate the agency's exploration systems research and development budget on technologies promising near-term payoffs for the intertwined goals of retiring the space shuttle, fielding a shuttle replacement as soon as possible and getting humans back to the Moon by 2020.

According to several people who were at Griffin's May 10 meeting with the NASA contractor-sponsored Coalition for Space Exploration, the administrator said that even projects already under contract could be canceled, depending on the outcome of an internal review of the agency's technology investments. The review is part of a broader effort initiated by Griffin to put NASA's exploration planning on a fast track.

In the 16 months since NASA created its Exploration Systems mission directorate to pull together the hardware needed for human and robotic expeditions beyond Earth's orbit, the agency has awarded millions of dollars for studies, contracts and technology development efforts, set initial requirements for the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) and accepted bids from companies interested in building the system. But key questions have remained unanswered about the overall technical approach NASA will take to return to the Moon.

Griffin recently appointed fellow Orbital Sciences Corp. alumnus Doug Stanley to lead a small NASA study team directed to report by mid-July on the overall approach, or architecture, that NASA should adopt to get back to Moon by 2020. The same team also is supposed to explore what needs to be done to accelerate the development of the CEV, which would transport astronauts to the international space station and the Moon, and figure out which technology investments NASA needs to make now to make all this possible.

Since Griffin came on board in mid-April, NASA's Exploration Systems mission directorate has put on hold two so-called Broad Area Announcements that industry and academia had expected to lead to hundreds of millions of dollars worth of additional research and technology contracts.

A previous Broad Area Announcement, issued by the directorate last year, attracted thousands of responses and hundreds of formal proposals. In November, NASA selected 70 of the proposed projects for contract awards collectively worth more than $1 billion. Seven of those projects, worth a combined $70 million over three years, were suspended the week of May 9 before they could be put under contract. However, industry sources said they have been told that any of the remaining projects, even those already under contract, could be canceled or put on hold as NASA reconsiders its technology investment strategy.

NASA spokesman Michael Braukus said May 10 that the seven suspensions were driven by budget considerations. "Money was needed to satisfy 2005 budget allocation deliberations affecting the exploration systems mission," Braukus said. "During the coming weeks, we will continue to examine exploration systems research and technology budget options and provide final disposition on these projects."

The most expensive of the seven suspended projects is an effort, led by Seattle-based Boeing Phantom Works, to design and build the High Orbit Spacecraft Testbed (HOST), a satellite meant to operate for up to two years in a severe radiation environment and accommodate a number of flight experiments. The 42-month project was expected to be worth $25.86 million.

Boeing, which had seven of its projects selected last fall (more than any other single company) also was notified last week that its proposed $5.5 million initiative to demonstrate a megawatt-class magneto plasma electric propulsion system has been suspended. The point of that project, according to a Boeing release, was to demonstrate a lithium-fueled, 500-kilowatt electric propulsion system capable of running for up to 1,000 hours.

NASA also suspended a $3.71 million award given to Peoria, Ill.-based Caterpillar for lunar regolith-handling construction equipment --- essentially earth-moving equipment for the Moon.

Another commercial firm, computer services giant IBM, had the smaller of two recently awarded NASA projects suspended. NASA is not going forward at this time with a $3.97 million automated technology assessment and intelligence project, but has taken no action to stop a $6.11 million effort to develop new video compression techniques for deep space missions.

Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, N.M., had won a $15 million award to work on so-called immune reconfigurable field programmable gate arrays -- essentially a variation on a kind of computer chip that can be readily reprogrammed to perform different functions -- but that effort is suspended and will not go to contract.

Atlanta-based SpaceWorks Engineering has had suspended a $4.93 million award to provide NASA's Exploration Systems mission directorate with technology assessment and portfolio management support. But the company has kept, at least for now, a $2.2 million contract to conduct a two-year study of how industry can help NASA meet its space exploration vision goals.

Manassas, Va.-based BAE Systems was informed recently that a $9.9 million advanced power conversion project chosen last fall was suspended.

Among the 63 remaining projects, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman ended up with the largest awards. Each company had six proposals selected that are worth a combined $123.3 million and $137.8 million, respectively.

But smaller companies also are well-represented among the winners.

Mojave, Calif.-based XCOR Aerospace, for example, won a $7.23 million contract to develop a lightweight, long-lasting, rust-resistant liquid oxygen tank that could be used for new reusable launch vehicles. Seattle-based Andrews Space picked up an $18.65 million award in November to develop the SmallTug, an experimental microsatellite that would launch in 2008 to demonstrate the potential of solar electric-powered tugs to transport materials between Earth orbit and the Moon.

The company's president, Jason Andrews, said the 200-pound satellite would spend six months spiraling out 1.5 million kilometers toward the sun to a stable orbital location known as Lagrange Point 1 before returning to Earth's orbit. Along the way, the SmallTug would collect space environmental data important to designing solar electric-propelled unmanned cargo missions, for example, that would take their time moving through the Van Allen radiation belts to the Moon and other destinations beyond Earth orbit.

Andrews said the SmallTug would incorporate other work funded by NASA under the human and robotic technology awards, including possibly a 600-kilowatt Hall thruster being developed by Sacramento, Calif.-based Aerojet, a GenCorp company, under a $32.66 million contract. Aerojet said in a release that the Hall thruster it is working on would represent a thirtyfold increase in total power and thrust delivered, compared with current state of the art systems.

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