Q&A | NASA Space Technology Chief Steve Jurczyk


Profile | Steve Jurczyk
NASA Associate Administrator for Space Technology

NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate is a $600 million enterprise created in 2013 to develop technologies the agency’s larger exploration and science directorates will need to execute future missions.

The White House would like the office to have more money than that, but a skeptical Congress typically has redirected substantial portions of the proposed Space Technology budget to pet projects including the heavy-lift Space Launch System.

Steve Jurczyk, the former NASA Langley Research Center director who on March 2 took the reins of the Space Technology Mission Directorate, is undaunted. The NASA-lifer has managed through his share of belt-tightening rounds at Langley and is no stranger when it comes to congressional advocacy.

He points to successes the office has had developing technologies that in the past have proved problematic, such as composite fuel tanks. Moreover, Jurczyk notes, NASA’s mission directorates often are too preoccupied with executing programs to focus on technologies they’ll likely need in the future.

Jurczyk, who replaced fellow Langley alum Michael Gazarik to become the new office’s second director, spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone.

Robonaut 2 with legs
Robonaut 2’s new legs, which were launched to the space station April 18 2014, were funded by NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations, and Space Technology mission directorates. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Technology development at NASA is often handled at the mission level because unique, one-off missions tend to have their own particular technology requirements. That can make it challenging for a single technology overlord like your directorate to fit in and remain relevant. How do you plan on making it work?
One of the challenges with a cross-cutting technology program like we have is making sure the technologies we’re working on have an infusion path to a mission. Previous incarnations of this program have gotten accused of “playing in the sandbox,” and the reason why is people would develop technologies without the system context or application requirements to go with them. And they’d be great technologies, but they’d go up on a shelf and they’d never get used in a mission. We really need to look at driving technology to align with future mission requirements, at some level, so that the technologies we do develop do have an infusion path to a NASA mission. And hopefully also, many of the technologies will have commercial applications, or be used outside NASA.

Couldn’t NASA do all that without a Space Technology Mission Directorate?
I think things with a technology-development focus require a technology organization. It’s more challenging for a mission organization or an operations organization to balance its operations with technology development and infusion. But an organization that focuses and collaborates with the mission developers and operators in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and the Science Mission Directorate can make the most use of the limited technology dollars we do get to enable human exploration of the solar system and enable the next generation of science missions.

Congress has not shown an inclination to fully fund your directorate’s activities. What message will you be bringing to lawmakers this spring and summer?
I’d point to our successes and the things we’re going to do. We’ve done a really great job in developing things like advanced materials and structural systems. For example, we developed a 5.5-meter composite cryogenic tank last year. We tried to do a composite cryo tank in the 1990s and failed. Now that technology can be used by launch vehicle developers and others in industry. We’ve also been really successful so far in developing entry, descent and landing technology, more specifically for NASA to land larger masses on the surface of Mars. The goal there is 20 metric tons, up from the current capability of about 1 metric ton. We’re utilizing the International Space Station as a testbed, too. The humanoid Robonaut robot there is an example. We’re looking at how the human exploration folks can really use Robonaut to relieve the crew from mundane maintenance tasks and free them up to do the science and experimentation we really want them to do.

What’s the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s role in the Asteroid Redirect Mission?
We’re going to do a demonstration of high-power solar-electric propulsion, which is an enabling capability of human exploration of the solar system. We’ll probably be releasing a request for proposals this calendar year for the electrical propulsion piece. That will include not only the thrusters, but the electronics to drive the thrusters. These contracts will be used, ultimately, to develop the flight hardware which will fly on the robotic leg of the Asteroid Redirect Mission.

Asteroid Redirect Vehicle Travels to Lunar Orbit
NASA’s Technology Mission Directorate has been charged with developing more powerful solar arrays for the Asteroid Redirect Mission. Credit: NASA

Your directorate has also been developing higher-power solar arrays for the Asteroid Redirect Mission. What’s the next step there?
There are two paths we’re pursuing for the solar arrays. One is to develop an array we could install on the ISS as both a risk-reduction for the new arrays, and to provide a long-term power upgrade for the space station. In conjunction, we will also develop the arrays that we’d need for the Asteroid Redirect Mission. I think that our approach is going to be to try to maintain as much commonality as we can between the two to reduce cost and risk, and then modify the designs somewhat to accommodate station or the Asteroid Redirect Mission. We’ll be most likely releasing the request for proposals for the solar-array demonstration mission to ISS this summer.

NASA has also identified inflatable entry, descent and landing systems, and optical communications as enablers for future crewed Mars missions. What progress has your directorate made in those areas?
For hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator technology, we’ve had two successful suborbital flight tests at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Now we’re in the process of developing the second-generation flexible thermal protection system, and a second-generation inflatable structure for the decelerator, and doing ground testing of those systems. We’re looking also at the next flight test, and we’re going to figure out what that will be in the next couple of months. Right now there are two options: One is a larger-scale low-orbit re-entry test to further demonstrate the thermal protection material, as well as the controllability; the other is a suborbital test of a hypersonic decelerator with a supersonic decelerator to demonstrate the transition from hypersonic to supersonic. And we have multiple options for supersonic decelerators, including inflatables, supersonic retro propulsion and parachutes.

The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator Project is under the direction of NASA's Technology Mission Directorate. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate sponsors the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator Project. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Are there any nearer-term applications for inflatable decelerators?
The NASA folks developing the inflatable technology have very recently entered discussions with United Launch Alliance, which could use some of these systems to bring back the second stage of, for example, an Atlas vehicle. These are very preliminary discussions. I don’t know if ULA is even in the technical feasibility stage, but this technology would allow at least reusability of an upper-stage engine, if not the upper stage itself. That would be a really interesting development and demonstration, if we were to get to that.

How is the optical communications project coming along?
There are two activities there. One is at Goddard Space Flight Center, the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, to demonstrate low Earth orbit-to-ground communications. They’re making excellent progress toward a 2019 launch. NASA needs this technology for Earth-observing satellites so they can deliver more data to the ground at higher rates. And the commercial communications industry can use it to provide better service. The second optical communications project is deep-space optical communications out at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. That’s obviously more for a NASA-only application: To have much higher bandwidth from Mars orbit, say. There will be a ground demonstration of deep-space optical communications components within the next year or so.

Optical communications is a much older idea than either of those programs. If everyone agrees it’s desirable for higher bandwidth and quicker downlinks, what’s the hold-up?
There are three challenges. One is the laser transmitter technology and the reliability and efficiency of the technology. So now that we’ve got much more advanced, higher-powered solid-state lasers and lasers in general, that makes it practical to have a space-based laser comm system. The second part is the receiver technology, particularly the detector technology, to have the sensitivity that you need to get the higher rates at an acceptable signal-to-noise ratio. The third challenge is pointing, getting the laser pointed to the ground terminal where you need it. Both the mechanism technology as well as the computing technology have advanced to the point where we need. The technology’s now at the point where you can fly it in space.

Lesa Roe
Lesa Roe. Credit: NASA Langley/Sean Smith

Could optical communications speed up the integration of hyperspectral sounding instruments on Earth-observing satellites? The massive data loads these instruments generate have raised concerns about using them on NASA missions.
Optical communications can help with that, but also, we’re working on high-performance spaceflight computing technology which would allow more onboard processing of the data. We could use either lossless data compression, or we could actually put some of the data-processing algorithms aboard the spacecraft and do onboard processing. Then you can downlink information rather than downlinking raw data. Between the two, that’ll help with being able to exploit hyperspectral imaging more effectively.

Not long before you got here Lesa Roe, who preceded you as Langley director, came here to NASA Headquarters to head up an agency-wide consolidation effort. What do you make of the sudden influx of Langley talent to Washington?
I think probably the reason why myself and Lesa and others from Langley have been asked to come to headquarters is because of the way we’ve effectively been able to lead at the center. Particularly leading change at the center. The agency has evolved over the last 10-plus years with major changes in direction and changes in the programs, and I think Langley’s been able to kind of lead the agency in developing a strategy to evolve the workforce so they have the skills they need for the next 20 or 30 years.