MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Senior NASA officials are so eager to jump-start advanced technology efforts that they sought and won congressional approval to devote $36.5 million in 2010 funding to eight high-priority research projects.
Those projects, which include joint efforts with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to investigate horizontal launch capabilities, in-orbit satellite servicing and power-beam propulsion, are set to begin immediately, said Robert Braun, NASA chief technologist.
The majority of the space agency’s new technology initiatives are set to begin in 2011 with the creation of the Space Technology Program. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama included a request for $572 million to establish the Space Technology Program in NASA’s 2011 budget. The program combines many of the space agency’s existing research and technology initiatives, such as the Innovative Partnerships Program, with a set of new programs designed to shepherd advanced technology from initial concept studies to flight testing, Braun said Aug. 10 during a visit to the NASA Ames Research Center here.
Work to be conducted in 2010 includes systems analysis, technology assessment and ground-based testing, Braun said. Continuation of these activities in 2011 will depend on the results of the work completed in 2010 and congressional deliberations, he added.
Congressional deliberations also will determine the overall funding level for the Space Technology Program. While the House appropriators supported the president’s plan to provide $572 million for the Space Technology Program, the Senate appropriators approved only $325 million for the program.
That lower budget level would make it difficult to launch many of the new initiatives designed to bolster space research and technology, Braun said, because funding for several elements of the Space Technology Program that were already in existence will cost approximately $240 million in 2011.
“The thing to realize about the Space Technology Program is that it’s not an entirely new program,” Braun said. “It includes the Innovative Partnership Programs that were in existence this year and in previous years, Small Business Innovative Research, Small Business Technology Transfer, Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research [and] Centennial Challenges. All these carry forward in 2011 at a budget approaching $240 million.”
In addition, he said, new rules that require the space agency to fully account for the cost of its work force will add roughly $60 million to the existing program. “So there’s $300 million of content associated with the old programs and the NASA work force in 2011,” Braun said. “Unfortunately, if the Space Technology 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 center are very excited about.”
The Space Technology Program proposed includes three components: Early Stage Innovation, Game Changing Technology and Cross Cutting Capability Demonstration. The initiative is designed to ensure that sophisticated technology makes its way from the drawing board to NASA missions.
“Frankly, in my history with NASA, this continuous set of technology programs has been missing,” Braun said. “There have been past programs focused on innovative ideas. And there have been programs where NASA tried to flight-qualify space system technologies. But I can’t remember a time when NASA had a continuous set of technology development programs that would allow us, over time, to take an idea all the way from concept to flight.”
As NASA pursues those technology initiatives, the agency is likely to work more closely than ever before with DARPA, Braun said.
Braun and David Neyland, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, identified three areas where “collaborative technology development between NASA and DARPA would have mutual payoffs,” according to DARPA spokesman Eric Mazzacone.
Those three research topics include studies of horizontal launch capabilities, servicing of satellites in geosynchronous orbit and power-beam propulsion. “DARPA believes the three studies in which it is engaging with NASA are the first of many to come,” Mazzacone wrote in an Aug. 18 e-mail.
For the satellite servicing study, the two agencies will explore ways people could work jointly with robots to maintain and repair satellites, Braun said. The U.S. Department of Defense has “tens of satellites in near-geosynchronous orbit that are approaching the end of their lifecycles,” according to Mazzacone. “Identifying a successful approach to extend those lifecycles would save billions of dollars.”
For NASA, this type of research has important implications for exploration missions. “Geosynchronous orbit is interesting for NASA because it’s above the Van Allen radiation belts,” Braun said. “So from a human physiology perspective, it’s a lot like the Moon.”
In addition, Braun said, the amount of change in velocity needed to get from low Earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit is approximately the same amount needed to get from low Earth orbit to the Moon. “So any vehicle we build to take humans to geosynchronous orbit would be a good start, and maybe even enough, to do an eventual lunar mission,” Braun said.
Apart from NASA’s collaboration with DARPA, one new technology initiative set to begin immediately involves studies of inflatable aerodynamic decelerators. These decelerators would be designed to be packed compactly for launch and, once in space, to expand.