NASA Jump-Starts Space Technology Program

Say Hello to NASA’s New Tech Guru
Dr. Robert Braun of the Georgia Institute of Technology is NASA's new chief technologist. (Image credit: NASA)

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. ? Senior NASA officialsare so eager to jump-start advanced technology efforts that they sought and woncongressional approval to devote $36.5 million in 2010 funding to eighthigh-priority research projects.

Those projects, which include joint effortswith the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to investigatehorizontal launch capabilities, in-orbit satellite servicing and power-beampropulsion, are set to begin immediately, said Robert Braun, NASAchief technologist.

The majority of the space agency?s newtechnology initiatives are set to begin in 2011 with the creation of the SpaceTechnology Program. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama includeda request for $572 million to establish the Space Technology Program in NASA?s2011 budget. The program combines many of the space agency?s existing researchand technology initiatives, such as the Innovative Partnerships Program, with aset of new programs designed to shepherd advanced technology from initialconcept studies to flight testing, Braun said Aug. 10 during a visit to theNASA Ames Research Center here.

Work to be conducted in 2010 includes systemsanalysis, technology assessment and ground-based testing, Braun said.Continuation of these activities in 2011 will depend on the results of the workcompleted in 2010 and congressional deliberations, he added.

Congressional deliberations also willdetermine the overall funding level for the SpaceTechnology Program. While the House appropriators supported the president?splan to provide $572 million for the Space Technology Program, the Senateappropriators approved only $325 million for the program.

That lower budget level would make itdifficult to launch many of the new initiatives designed to bolster spaceresearch and technology, Braun said, because funding for several elements ofthe Space Technology Program that were already in existence will costapproximately $240 million in 2011.

?The thing to realize about the SpaceTechnology Program is that it?s not an entirely new program,? Braun said. ?Itincludes the Innovative Partnership Programs that were in existence this yearand in previous years, Small Business Innovative Research, Small BusinessTechnology Transfer, Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research [and] CentennialChallenges. All these carry forward in 2011 at a budget approaching $240million.?

In addition, he said, new rules that requirethe space agency to fully account for the cost of its work force will addroughly $60 million to the existing program. ?So there?s $300 million ofcontent associated with the old programs and the NASA work force in 2011,?Braun said. ?Unfortunately, if the Space Technology Program is funded at alower dollar value, a lot of the new program content won?t be included. And itis the new programs that folks in industry, academia and the NASA center arevery excited about.?

The Space Technology Program proposedincludes three components: Early Stage Innovation, Game Changing Technology andCross Cutting Capability Demonstration. The initiative is designed to ensurethat sophisticated technology makes its way from the drawing board to NASAmissions.

?Frankly, in my history with NASA, thiscontinuous set of technology programs has been missing,? Braun said. ?Therehave been past programs focused on innovative ideas. And there have beenprograms where NASA tried to flight-qualify spacesystem technologies. But I can?t remember a time when NASA had a continuousset of technology development programs that would allow us, over time, to takean idea all the way from concept to flight.?

As NASA pursues those technology initiatives,the agency is likely to work more closely than ever before with DARPA, Braunsaid.

Braun and David Neyland, director of DARPA?sTactical Technology Office, identified three areas where ?collaborativetechnology development between NASAand DARPA would have mutual payoffs,? according to DARPA spokesman EricMazzacone.

Those three research topics include studiesof horizontal launch capabilities, servicing of satellites in geosynchronousorbit and power-beam propulsion. ?DARPA believes the three studies in which itis engaging with NASA are the first of many to come,? Mazzacone wrote in anAug. 18 e-mail.

For the satellite servicing study, the twoagencies will explore ways people could work jointly with robots to maintainand repair satellites, Braun said. The U.S. Department of Defense has ?tens ofsatellites in near-geosynchronous orbit that are approaching the end of theirlifecycles,? according to Mazzacone. ?Identifying a successful approach toextend those lifecycles would save billions of dollars.?

For NASA, this type of research has importantimplications for exploration missions. ?Geosynchronous orbit is interesting forNASA because it?s above the Van Allen radiation belts,? Braun said. ?So from ahuman physiology perspective, it?s a lot like the Moon.?

In addition, Braun said, the amount of changein velocity needed to get from low Earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit isapproximately the same amount needed to get from low Earth orbit to the Moon.?So any vehicle we build to take humans to geosynchronous orbit would be a goodstart, and maybe even enough, to do an eventual lunar mission,? Braun said.

Apart from NASA?s collaboration with DARPA,one new technology initiative set to begin immediately involves studies ofinflatable aerodynamic decelerators. These decelerators would be designed to bepacked compactly for launch and, once in space, to expand.

This article was provided by Space News,dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

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SpaceNews Correspondent

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. She earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. Debra is a recipient of the 1989 Gerald Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. Her SN Commercial Drive newsletter is sent out on Wednesdays.