Profile | Michael Gazarik Associate Administrator, NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate

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Abraham Lincoln wasn’t talking about space exploration when he said, “The best way to predict your future is to create it,” but it’s an idea that Michael Gazarik keeps foremost in his mind as he goes about his job overseeing NASA’s space technology programs. 

An electrical engineer by training, Gazarik joined NASA after more than 15 years in the private sector developing software for the telecommunications industry and control systems for submarines, among other projects. 

“A common thread in my career has been a focus on developing systems, software, hardware or both, to solve difficult problems,” he said. 

Before moving to NASA headquarters, Gazarik was deputy director for programs in the engineering directorate at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

He spoke with SpaceNews correspondent Irene Klotz about why NASA wants to beef up investments in technology development and what the agency is looking to accomplish. 

NASA’s 2014 budget request includes a sizable hike in spending for space technology projects. In light of the intense competition for dollars, why is this increase warranted?

In a difficult fiscal environment, the Congress has chosen to invest $642 million in space technology in 2013. I believe this decision is a result of an understanding of the critical role space technology plays in everything we do. Federal investments in these areas also create high-tech jobs and build our nation’s economic and national security.

NASA’s proposed $742 million budget for space technology for fiscal year 2014 is largely derived by what is required to maintain the schedule of a number of our critical activities. Many of the technology development efforts we started in fiscal 2012 and 2013 hit their yearly budget peaks in 2014. As such, this 2014 rise was anticipated.

A small portion of the increase targets a solar electric propulsion (SEP) technology demonstration mission led by the NASA Glenn Research Center. SEP technology has been identified as a critical investment area in numerous technology roadmaps, and it is broadly applicable to NASA’s future robotic and human exploration mission goals — including the asteroid return mission concept. It is also an investment area of interest to future U.S. Air Force and commercial space missions. This budget request reflects a recognition that we need to continue to invest in new technologies, new capabilities for the future. 

One of NASA’s most successful space technology development programs was ion propulsion, which was used in the Deep Space 1 flight demo and later incorporated into the Dawn probe. How can you make sure other technologies developed by NASA find their way into operational missions?

At NASA, we develop technology with a purpose. A prime criteria we have for our technology demonstration missions — the higher technology-readiness-level missions — is that they have infusion partners, meaning organizations that plan to use the technology in future operational missions. We focus on the perceived risks of the technology and ensure the demonstration addresses those risks. Mission infusion is what we’re all about. The Deep Space 1 flight demonstration is an excellent example of this approach.

Today, we are incubating several technologies with a similarly high mission-infusion potential. One example is deep-space optical communications, or “laser comm.” Once demonstrated, this technology will be infused into future robotic and human missions. It will take deep-space communications from the speed of a dial-up modem to that of high-speed cable Internet. 

Other examples include large-scale composite cryotanks and cryogenic propellant storage and transfer technologies with the potential to reduce the mass and cost of future in-space transportation systems and launch vehicles, as well as navigation technologies, solar sails and aerodynamic decelerators.

What is the role of private industry in NASA’s Space Technology Program? 

Private industry and academia are critical to NASA’s future. We are dependent on industry and academia to push the state-of-the-art and take ideas from concepts to flight. History has shown that it is essential to develop and nurture such a community so that breakthrough solutions materialize. 

Approximately half of our space technology budget is allocated each year to partnerships with industry and academia. One example in which we’re currently partnering with industry in is green propellants. We’re developing a greener propellant for use in orbit, eliminating our current dependency on highly toxic hydrazine. This is not just a safety issue, but a technological solution that drives the cost of many of our missions. Along with the Air Force, we’re partnering in this endeavor with Ball Aerospace and Aerojet. We will be demonstrating this new fuel in orbit in 2015.

So where would you like NASA’s Space Technology Program to be in the next five to 10 years?

In the next five years, I expect to see a number of our technologies infused into missions. I anticipate the solar electric propulsion system being developed and demonstrated as part of the agency’s asteroid retrieval mission. I expect infusion of solar sail, atomic clock and green propellant technologies into future missions. Just beyond that horizon, I expect to see future Mars missions using our laser communications and inflatable aerodynamic decelerators.

How long till we get warp drive, a transporter and all that other cool “Star Trek” stuff?

The Space Technology Program is not science fiction. However, we are working on long-term, breakthrough technologies. We are very conscious of the need to be thinking about tomorrow and we’re trying to make sure NASA has on-ramps for new technology ideas at all levels of technology readiness. NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program is specifically designed to look for early stage concepts which in 10 to 100 years will result in transformative technologies for space exploration. While funded at a low level today, some of these ideas show real promise. 

The National Research Council recommends an investment of 10 percent, and that’s about the percentage we invest in early stage ideas.

What technology would you personally and professionally most like to see developed? 

My job is to objectively assess all of the paths to achieving our nation’s future missions in space and build the technological foundation to enable these missions. I cannot afford to have favorites.

That said, I think it is clear that our nation’s space future would most benefit from breakthroughs in access to space, in-space propulsion and in-space manufacturing and manipulation technologies. Advanced solar electric power is one of the required technologies we’re going to need to have to take the next big steps in space exploration, and it has so many applications in the commercial space industry.

What do you envision NASA’s role to be in the Obama administration’s manufacturing innovation institutes initiative?

NASA will provide technical expertise and funding for the selected teams. This is similar to the approach we took with the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown, Ohio. We also will be providing technical expertise and support during the development of the solicitations by the new institutes.

What are the advantages and challenges of doing technology development in a government organization versus private industry?

I’ve worked for small private and public companies and large companies and even started my own small company in the late 1990s. I enjoyed many years at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, developing atmospheric sounding instruments before joining NASA’s Langley Research Center in 2003.

I love working for our nation’s space agency. At NASA, we’re not driven by marketing of a product for short-term profits or near-term goals. Our investments are truly investments in America’s long-term future. The technologies we’re working on are so transformative that without initial government investment, they might not make it to the floor of a corporate research and development lab. We’re taking on challenges that are at the cutting edge. We’re looking at relocating an asteroid, redirecting its path. We’re talking about sending humans into deep space. We’re talking about the next great observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, that will peer back in time to answer fundamental questions about our species and our home planet. Creating the technologies needed to keep our explorers — robotic and human — alive and well is a terrific challenge, one that I think about every day.