The idea that the effort to place people back on the moon might be sidelined with the proposed cancellation of NASA’s Constellation program is disappointing. For many Americans who grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s and who were aware of the Apollo program, returning to the moon — and eventually moving beyond — seems like the natural thing to do. It feels strange we haven’t been back.
Despite the disappointment, those kids who dreamt of life beyond Earth can find solace in a drive to transform NASA’s technology research efforts from what some view as a bureaucratic and stodgy process into one that is flexible and cutting-edge. If successful, it might be more likely we’ll return to the moon.
At the heart of the effort is the Space Technology Program, an initiative modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which, if it survives the FY11 appropriations process, might revitalize NASA’s technology research to an extent not seen in years.
And revitalization is needed. In the past couple of years, several reports published by outside organizations, including four by the National Research Council, found the pace of technological research at NASA lacking. One 2010 NRC report said NASA’s research and development facilities on average are “not state of the art … they are merely adequate to meet current needs.”
“In the past decade, research in technology at NASA has almost been drummed out of business,” NASA Chief Technologist Robert Braun said during a presentation in May to a group of NASA employees. Braun’s office at NASA, the Office of the Chief Technologist, was reinstated in February after a multiyear hiatus.
A healthy NASA, though, is one where technological research, along with the agency’s other core competencies — space flight hardware development and mission operations — are all viewed on par with each other, Braun said.
To bring about revitalization, NASA looked to the DARPA, the Pentagon’s gee-whiz agency, according to Jay Falker, NASA systems engineer in the Office of the Chief Technologist. “We’re not going to become DARPA,” Falker said, but are “trying to become DARPA-like” through the Space Technology Program.
In particular, the STP is designed to jump-start NASA’s technological research by soliciting from internal NASA sources and external sources, such as universities and businesses, ideas that aren’t tied to specific missions. These would be ideas that can be nurtured and developed to be included in, or make possible, future missions at NASA and other agencies, and commercial partners. The program would “give managers the flexibility to grind through some idea to move them through research much quicker” than the traditional research process, Falker said.
STP would define a specific capability the agency would want by a certain date and let organizations and individuals respond with proposals. In general, though, NASA “can’t just put out a call” to the public for ideas, Braun said. “Instead, we’re going to take a kind of grand challenge approach, and there is a very successful model of doing this — DARPA,” Braun said.
The STP, through the OCT, “will come out with a set of grand challenges” to develop the ideas for capabilities, and from the best and most feasible ideas, the STP staff will take the idea to the next levels of development: to determine whether the technology is “game-changing” and, if so, whether it can take flight, both figuratively and literally, with high-altitude and low-orbit tests.
Mission-specific research will still take place, Braun said in his May presentation, a video of which is available on NASA’s Web site. “The mission directorates are already doing what I discussed,” he said. “But if we’re talking about sending humans to Mars, do we really want to bank our whole human exploration architecture on the specific technologies that the mission directorates think is going to pan out today, or do we want to consider some alternative approaches in parallel?” Braun asked.
Altogether, the program’s FY11 budget would be $572.2 million, including $298.6 million for early-stage development, $129.6 million for the “game-changing” stage and $102 million for the final development. The House Appropriations Committee approved NASA’s entire $19 billion budget request in full.
“I think that the vision of the administration of investing in one of the core and foundational pillars of NASA — the development of cutting edge technology — makes sense,” said Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., who is on the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee.
In taking a look at NASA’s request, the Senate C-J-S Appropriations Subcommittee provided the $19 billion the administration requested but opted to allocate $3 billion for a “next-generation Crew Launch Vehicle” and “Crew Exploration Vehicle,” apparently as substitutes for the shuttered Constellation program.
For those who grew up during the Apollo program and with the promise of space flight, it might not matter how we get to space, as long as we do. To that end, it might be better to have a range of cutting-edge technology available than to rely solely on what has always been done.