Commentary | Technology Drives Exploration of Tomorrow

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As we approach a new cycle of debate on the NASA budget for fiscal year 2015, we are reminded of a famous quote by the renowned management guru Peter Drucker: “The enterprise that does not innovate inevitably ages and declines. And in a period of rapid change such as the present … the decline will be fast.”

Sobering words, ones we hope will not define the nation’s space agency 10 years from now. However, if we closely examine Congress’ fiscal year 2014 appropriation for research-and-development (R&D) funding at NASA, one must worry that Drucker’s words may be a foreboding premonition for NASA.

While the overall 2014 budget numbers for NASA are an increase up from sequestration levels, the space technology line in the budget received a nearly 7 percent reduction from its 2013 funding level — $576 million vs. $615 million — and is an almost $170 million reduction from President Barack Obama’s proposed funding mark.

If we are truly committed to exploring an asteroid, or returning to the Moon, or someday landing humans on the surface of Mars, we need sustained and substantial investments in advanced space technology and capabilities.

The National Research Council 2012 report “NASA’s Space Technology Roadmaps and Priorities” made an accurate assessment of the agency’s R&D situation: “Success in executing future NASA space missions will depend on advanced technology development that should already be underway. … NASA’s technology base is largely depleted.”

Congress responded by funding NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, but the funding levels need to increase if we are serious about deep-space exploration. We cannot wait; the problems to be solved will take time and resources. NASA’s technology development investments traditionally have been made in a start-and-stop manner. History tells us it is very cyclical. Over the years, we’ve seen pressure within NASA to siphon off technology dollars to fix problems in other, larger development programs, stifling important space technology work. History also teaches us that innovation and technology development is not a linear effort and is one that requires ongoing commitment.

NASA is not starting from scratch. During the past 30 years, the agency has received much input on the various space technologies required to push humans into deep space and robotically explore the outer planets. We know what technologies are needed.

These challenges are familiar to us all: surface power, life support, in-situ resource utilization, entry-descent-and landing, radiation, communications and navigation, and of course in-space propulsion. There are significant technical challenges in all of these areas NASA must overcome to enable future missions.

With consistent investment, the payoffs could be game-changing.

For example, environmental control systems on the international space station currently can recover approximately 40 percent of the oxygen used by the crew. In the future, we need systems that are more reliable and capable of recovering nearly all of the oxygen with a goal of at least 75 percent.

NASA’s Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) demonstration mission may prove the viability of a larger SEP system, which in turn could reduce the number of heavy-lift launch vehicles required to transport crew and cargo to Mars and back. Traditional, all-chemical propulsion systems would require approximately 12 launches needed for a Mars expedition, as compared with only about six for a combined SEP/chemical system. Furthermore, as an example of government and private-sector synergy, the same SEP technology could solve the commercial satellite industry’s problems in advanced orbital maneuverability.

In spite of the 2014 budget decline, NASA is making significant progress today, moving the nation’s space capabilities forward. NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate has seven technology demonstration launches or missions in the next 24 months.

During that time NASA will test green propellants that will provide an alternative to highly corrosive and toxic hydrazine, consequently expanding the capabilities of small spacecraft systems.

This summer, NASA will be testing advanced decelerators, which include new parachutes and inflatable braking systems at supersonic velocities enabling precise landing of large payloads on planetary surfaces.

Without a continued commitment to a robust Space Technology program, NASA will not be able to continue the momentum these first demonstrations provide us. A declining budget severely curtails NASA’s ability to initiate new technology development activities.

There are no quick fixes to deep-space exploration technology challenges. They require the wisdom to make substantial and sustained investments in technology — today.

 

Dr. William F. Ballhaus Jr. is chairman of the NASA Advisory Council’s Technology and Innovation Committee. He is the former president and chief executive of the Aerospace Corp. Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles is chairman of the National Research Council’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board. The views expressed are their own.