NASA’s investment in enabling technologies for space exploration has been scaled back dramatically in the past year and focused on areas deemed critical to fielding the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) and conducting the first human lunar sorties since the Apollo program.
The $1 billion worth of human and robotic technology projects NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate selected in late 2004 would have kept scores of researchers in industry and academia busy for years working on a mix of pressing problems and longer-range considerations facing a space agency daring to venture beyond Earth’s orbit.
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, sworn in several months after the selections were made by the previous NASA regime, did not waste much time deciding that the agency could not afford such a robust technology-development portfolio if it wanted to keep its exploration agenda on track.
“The old portfolio included 118 separate projects valued at around $1 billion annually,” said Chris Moore, the NASA program executive managing the agency’s downsized exploration-technology-development portfolio. “Griffin quickly decided that NASA could not afford that approach and cut the effort back significantly.”
In the 10 months since Griffin first put industry on notice that the exploration-technology portfolio would be pared back, 80 of the 118 originally selected projects have been canceled. The 38 projects remaining, Moore said, would be seen through to at least the end of their initial one-year phase.
Moore said NASA also has set up roughly two dozen new projects led by NASA field centers to develop technologies deemed high priorities by the Exploration System Architecture Study the agency commissioned last year to chart its course back to the Moon.
Among the key technology needs the study identified were ablative heat shields for the Crew Exploration Vehicle, lightweight fuel tanks, radiation shielding, electronics able to function in extreme environments and techniques for producing oxygen from the lunar regolith, to name just a few.
Moore said NASA’s regional field centers will be leading the technology-development efforts, an approach, he said, that is consistent with Griffin’s plan to involve all of its centers in the agency’s exploration program.
“Before we had competed everything in the program and the centers had to propose along with industry and the universities,” Moore said. “Under this approach we are assigning centers to lead particular technology areas and then give them authority to solicit the projects that would support technology development in that area. We are trying to maintain healthy work forces at the centers.”
With an anticipated annual budget of roughly $300 million, the new field center-led effort is intended to see promising exploration technologies through to prototype-level demonstrations in a relevant environment — what NASA refers to as Technology Readiness Level 6.
At that point, Moore said, the technologies are considered mature enough to be adopted by NASA’s Constellation Program for inclusion in the Crew Exploration Vehicle, launchers and other systems needed to reach the Moon and operate on the surface for increasingly extended periods.
“We’ve phased the program so that we are working on technologies needed right way for the CEV and [Crew Launch Vehicle] and also on long-lead technologies we are going to need to support the lunar outpost, like in-situ resource utilization,” Moore said.
The biggest of the new field center-led technology projects, according to Moore, has been given to Ames Research Center. The Mountain View, Calif.-based field center has been put in charge of a three-year project to evaluate candidate materials for the CEV’s ablative heat shields and producing a prototype ready for testing in 2007 or 2008.
The next two biggest efforts in Moore’s portfolio are being led by Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Glenn has awarded several contracts to industry to help develop so-called green propulsion systems that could be used in place of highly reliable but highly toxic hydrazine-powered systems on the lunar lander and elements of NASA’s exploration architecture. Glenn also is working to develop non-toxic auxiliary power units for the Crew Launch Vehicle.
So far, four other NASA field centers have been brought into the mix to manage some of the new efforts as well as the 38 competed projects that escaped Griffin’s budget ax.
Some of the competed projects that remain funded include work on lightweight fuel tanks, radiation-hardened electronics and lightweight power storage devices.
Leora Peltz, a scientist at Boeing Phantom Works in Huntington Beach, Calif., is working with the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta on robust electronic components that can survive the Moon’s radiation environment and dramatic temperature swings. Peltz and her colleagues’ work on silicon germanium integrated electronics for extreme environments remains funded at least through this year.
If NASA continues the project through to completion, Peltz said she and her colleagues would produce prototype components ready to prove their worth in thermal vacuum chambers and bombarded with radiation.
Larry Clark, manager of spacecraft technology development atin Denver, has two competed projects that remain funded for now, albeit at substantially reduced levels. Clark and his team are working on a process for making oxygen from the lunar soil and a regenerative fuel cell system that could substantially reduce the number of batteries NASA would have to carry on a human mission to the Moon.
NASA originally planned to spend $38 million on the oxygen-production technology, but Clark said the funding has been severely reduced. The same holds true for the regenerative fuel cell project, which was selected as a $15 million undertaking, but is now funded at a “caretaker level,” according to Clark.
Smaller companies also picked up some of the original competed projects and remain funded today. For example, XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif., remains hard at work on a lightweight composite liquid-oxygen fuel tank.