Profile | Mason Peck, NASA Chief Technologist

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Technically speaking, the principle technology adviser to the NASA administrator isn’t a NASA employee. Mason Peck is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., who’s on loan to NASA through a two-year Intergovernmental Personnel Act agreement that went into effect Jan. 3.

But Peck is more than just another voice in the NASA administrator’s ear — he runs NASA’s Space Technology Program, a $570 million portfolio of technology development efforts with potential applications across a broad spread of NASA missions. One example is a laser communications experiment slated to fly aboard a commercial communications satellite in 2017. These efforts, previously scattered across various NASA divisions and accounts, were consolidated under Space Technology in 2011.

Peck said one of the most important parts of his job is shepherding immature yet tantalizing technologies like the laser communications system through what he calls “the Valley of Death.” That’s a reference to technologies that fall in the middle of NASA’s Technology Readiness Level scale, which helps NASA determine which ones are ready for spaceflight. These midlevel technology programs are vulnerable because it “takes a lot of money to move the ball forward, but you haven’t really actually demonstrated anything yet,” he said.

Developing so-called game-changing technologies is a key component of U.S. President Barack Obama’s space exploration strategy, but Congress has not yet bought in. In 2012, for example, lawmakers granted only about half of the administration’s $1.1 billion request for the Space Technology Program.

In early August, just after Congress announced that a continuing resolution would keep NASA’s budget fixed at the 2012 level at least through March, Peck spoke with Space News staff writer Dan Leone.

What does your office do, and where do you fit into the mix?

The most important role Space Technology has is the guidance and direction of all of the agency’s technology programs, or NASA’s overall technology enterprise. There are other technology programs, but they focus on the narrower or nearer-term specific interests of individual missions or mission areas. And the Space Technology Program doesn’t fly human or science space missions itself. Our program would only take a technology to the point where it’s ready to be handed off to a mission to be fused into that specific mission. I serve as an independent voice helping advise the NASA administrator on matters of technology.

Of your office’s biggest projects, which will fly soonest?

The nearest-term one is a solar sail that will launch in 2014. That’s the first one out of the gate, but that’s not actually the first project from Space Technology that has seen space or been realized. If you count all of the contracts and all of the awards to universities within the last year, it’s close to 1,000 individual projects that are going on nationwide thanks to the Space Technology Program. I’ll give you a quick example: It was on July 22 that the Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE)-3 launched at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. That’s an inflatable heat shield, essentially, to slow down a spacecraft entering Mars orbit. This is a huge deal, especially with the Mars Science Laboratory in the background. IRVE is the first of several entry, descent and landing technologies that we’re taking on in Space Technology precisely because they have this broad impact. They promise to increase the mass we can send to Mars someday, or to other planets, Venus, maybe, or to distant gas-giant moons one day.

Your office tries to develop technologies with a broad range of applications. How can that be effective when most of NASA’s big missions require custom-built spacecraft?

A particular mission or program would tailor a technology to make it fit. But a technology is more than just the specific implementation on an individual spacecraft or aircraft. I’ll give you another example: solar electric propulsion. This is one we’re working on right now. What we’re trying to achieve is a demonstration that will show maybe 30 kilowatts, roughly, of electric propulsion, but extendable to maybe 300 kilowatts. An electric propulsion capability of that magnitude is relevant to a number of missions, including human space missions and science missions, across the board.

Technology budgets are often raided to pay for other programs during the appropriations process. What’s the key to defending your budget when money is tight and other programs are looking for cash?

This is an extremely important issue for technology programs generally. The way that we defend against that is several-fold: First, we have a separate organization at NASA, the Space Technology Program, that takes on this kind of work. There’s a line in the federal budget for the Space Technology Program that keeps it separate from the other mission directorates at NASA. Internally it means that we, as an agency, can’t redirect that money because Congress has authorized us to spend it on space technology activities. Another way is through strategic planning. We’ve issued these space technology roadmaps. The National Research Council this past year did a study assessing those roadmaps and giving us a prioritized view of what NASA should be investing in. Later this year we will release our final strategic plan that reflects those two inputs. That strategic plan will be how we govern our technology enterprise for the next couple of years. We’ll redo that strategic plan every couple of years.

In 2011, a lot of space shuttle program workers transitioned into Space Technology. How many are here now?

I can’t tell you how many. I can tell you that a number of the folks who had been working on shuttle ended up working on technology, both in the Space Technology Program but also in the program within the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate called the Advanced Exploration Systems Program. That program was actually designed to provide a way for those folks coming off shuttle to contribute to the next generation of human space technologies. I hope they did, because the folks working on shuttle are some of the best, most-talented engineers and technicians in the country, and we absolutely need them.

What is your office’s role in the Mars Next Decade mission that will launch in 2018 or thereabouts?

My contribution to that effort is along the lines of ensuring that we are taking a responsible and useful approach to technology in time for the future so that we’re sure we’re not taking undue risk, that we are taking advantage of the technologies that will be available at the time. That includes laser communications and a number of other technologies that have direct relevance to future planetary exploration.

How many people work in the Office of the Chief Technologist?

At headquarters, it’s only about 36 people. If you take a look across the agency, it’s close to 900 who work in the Office of the Chief Technologist and Space Technology. And that’s just NASA civil servants. We actually have a very large footprint in industry and academia as well as the NASA centers.

Bobby Braun, your predecessor, worked on NASA’s robotic Mars exploration program. What particular discipline is in your background?

I would say dynamics and control of spacecraft. How spacecraft move in orbit. How they rotate, how they change their orbital position, that sort of thing. It’s something I’ve worked on for years. I started working, actually, on helicopters. Soon after that, in the mid-1990s, I went to work at Hughes Aircraft Co., which became Boeing, and started working with dynamics of controlled air. I continued that in my research career at Cornell.