Bobby Braun, Chief Technologist, NASA

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Technology development efforts not tied to specific missions tend to be vulnerable to the budget ax, especially when funding gets tight. Cash shortfalls are nothing new for NASA, of course, but with Congress now mandating development of a heavy-lift rocket that is not currently in the agency’s spending plan, things could get even tougher in the years ahead.

Under the circumstances, Robert “Bobby” Braun, principal technology adviser to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, has his work cut out for him. His job is to conduct what he describes as the foundational research that will enable missions that could be a decade or more down the road.

Braun was named to his post in February, just days after the White House unveiled a 2011 budget request that includes $572 million for the Space Technology Program, which he is managing. Under U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan, funding for the program would rise to a little over $1 billion in 2012 and $1.06 billion in 2013, and total $4.9 billion over five years.

Congress has yet to pass an appropriations bill for 2011, but the three-year NASA authorization bill recently signed into law by the president assigns just $350 million to the Space Technology Program in 2011, $486 million in 2012, and $515 million in 2013.

Braun spoke recently with Space News correspondent Debra Werner.

 

What role should NASA play in advancing technology?

NASA should be focused on the foundational research and technology required for missions beyond our immediate horizon. That can mean two to three years out or it can mean 40 years out. It depends on the technology in question.

Let’s say we need an advanced power source for deep space exploration. There are many possible solutions from improvements in solar cells to various nuclear radioisotope thermal generators. For a current deep space mission, [project managers] are going to pick a solution based on the lowest-risk approach, what is immediately available to them and already spaceflight qualified.

Frankly, we can’t keep living off of our technology investments from 20 or 30 years ago, which is where we are today. We have to continue to make investments in technology so we can continue to advance.

While that project might pick the near-term, low-risk solution today, we need to also look at future missions. The decadal surveys might show that there are seven missions in the next 15 years that will need advanced power sources for deep space. The approach picked by the current mission might not be the best approach for the other seven missions. That is where the government can step in to support high-risk, high-payoff technologies.

 

What is the Space Technology Program?

It’s a foundational research and technology program that’s beyond the next mission and is more strategic in its approach. It is a long-term need.

When I think about NASA, I think about three longstanding core competencies: research and technology, flight hardware and development, and mission operations. I can’t imagine a healthy NASA without all three of those core competencies. Those three core competencies don’t have to be funded equally, but each is critical to the success and to the future health of NASA.

 

What will the Space Technology Program include?

The Space Technology Program has 10 programs within it. Four carry forward from NASA’s Innovative Partnerships Program; then we’ve bridged in six new programs, which together provide a continuous set of technology development activities so you can actually imagine someone taking something all the way from concept through ground-based and laboratory testing all the way to flight. Frankly, in my history with NASA, this continuous set of technology programs has been missing.

 

How will you select technologies for development?

We are focused on the competitive model. We are going to solicit capabilities that we need and rely on the community to respond with proposals. We will rely on a peer review process to select the technological solutions based on technical vigor and technical merit in an above-board, transparent process. Those solutions could come from a NASA team, an industry team, a team from academia, or a team that has partners from NASA, academia and industry.

We intend to take risks. If we are going after grand challenges, which we are, we are going to have to take a little bit of risk. We plan to manage that risk through a portfolio approach. We will make a portfolio of investments. Many of those investments will turn into disruptive solutions that will affect future missions, but we have to admit up front that some will not and that has to be OK. We don’t expect all of them to pan out.

Another thing that discriminates this program from our past approaches is that we will define the start and end dates for all activities. We will select project managers based on their technical rigor, their passion and commitment. We will give them the authority and responsibility to succeed or fail.

Those characteristics are different from the way NASA has done it in the past. You will find those characteristics in other government organizations: the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. Because we are aligning with those types of organizations there is actually a very good opportunity for partnerships with those organizations.

 

What challenges do you face in rebuilding NASA’s Space Technology Program?

One challenge is the budget. The thing to realize about the Space Technology Program is that it’s not entirely a new program. It includes the Innovative Partnership Programs that were in existence this year and in previous years, including Small Business Innovative Research, Small Business Technology Transfer, Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research, Innovative Partnership Program Seed Funding, Centennial Challenges. All these carry forward in 2011 at a budget approaching $240 million. When you add in NASA’s new approach for managing work force, unified labor, we are at about $300 million.

 

So it’s not a new $572 million program?

It’s more like a new $250 million program. That is important. Unfortunately, if the program is funded at a lower dollar value, a lot of the new program content won’t be included, and it is the new programs that folks in industry, academia and the NASA centers are very excited about.

It’s also a challenge, given the fact that research and technology have been on the decline for the better part of a decade, to try to rebuild that. I’m firmly committed to this. In my heart I believe that the research and technology segments of NASA are what allow NASA to be successful in the long term.

So reversing this trend, this declining and almost nonexistent research and technology competency, is critically important to the agency’s future and is critically important to the nation’s future. I believe these research and technology investments not only will help NASA do future science, aeronautics and exploration missions but will contribute to our place as a global leader. Whether we are talking about national security, energy independence or economic prosperity, it has been shown over and over again that research and technology investments are the key to solving those societal challenges.

 

Are you planning to ask teams to share research costs?

Absolutely. Cost sharing is important for a couple of reasons. Number one, we are talking about a relatively small amount of money for the space technology effort. There are many more ideas out there than we are going to be able to fund, so leveraging and cost sharing are a great way to stretch our dollar.

The second reason is that I am aware of the infusion problem. There are technologies proven in a laboratory that no one wants to fly on a future mission. The best way I can prove that there is an infusion path for a technology is if one of the mission directorates or another government agency or even the commercial sector steps up and says, “I’m interested in that technology and I’m going to prove it by providing X million dollars.” It’s one thing to stand on the sidelines and be a cheerleader, but it’s quite another to put a little skin in the game.

 

Will you be working with DARPA?

In the time I’ve been in Washington, I’ve met with folks at DARPA many times. They have space technology interests that they are pursuing. We have space technology interests we are pursuing. We got together and we lined them up and looked at where they might overlap. Where they might overlap, we discussed whether it made sense to partner or not. We picked three areas to start our partnership.

 

Are small satellites an important part of your future program?

Small satellites are an important part of space technology. We actually called it out as a separate program because I was worried that if we didn’t — because the satellites are small and because the dollar values [associated] are also low — small satellite projects would get lost in the larger technology pieces. So I wanted to call it out as a separate program to identify it publicly and to clearly identify the budget associated with that program.