SAN FRANCISCO — As part of its ongoing campaign to strengthen the space agency’s research and development program, the NASA technology office solicited proposals March 1 for innovative solutions to space agency problems ranging from orbital debris removal to deep space communications. This is the first round of solicitations from NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist, an organization created in 2010 to reinvigorate space agency support of technologies that offer long-term benefits across multiple mission areas.

The solicitations released March 1 invite government, industry and academic researchers to participate in initial studies of “visionary aerospace concepts” and near-term flight demonstrations. Contracts are not expected to be awarded before August, said David Steitz, spokesman for NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist.

It is unclear how much money will be available for the projects proposed. “Funding for the solicitations will depend on the final appropriations language,” Steitz said.

NASA requested $572 million to start a new Space Technology program in 2011, but the entire federal budget, including NASA funding for this year, remains the subject of heated debate. On March 2, President Barack Obama signed into law a stopgap budget measure that would continue paying for government programs until March 18. Further congressional action is required to fund government operations after that date.

NASA is seeking proposals due May 31 for flight demonstration projects designed to help the agency move mature technologies capable of benefiting multiple customers within NASA, other U.S. government agencies, the aerospace industry or academia.

Specifically, the agency is seeking proposals for projects to demonstrate: high-bandwidth deep space communications, navigation and timing; orbital debris mitigation and removal; advanced in-space propulsion; and autonomous rendezvous and docking, close proximity operations and formation flying. Projects are expected to cost between $10 million and $150 million, and proposers are “encouraged” to raise at least 25 percent of the project’s cost from a source other than NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist, according to the March 1 solicitation.

“One of the greatest challenges that NASA faces in incorporating advanced technologies into future missions is bridging the gap between early development and mission infusion,” the solicitation says. “Maturing a space technology to mission readiness through relevant environment testing and demonstration is a significant challenge from a cost, schedule and risk perspective.”

In addition, the Office of the Chief Technologist announced plans to fund early studies of “revolutionary ideas” that may take more than a decade to make their way into NASA missions through the newly created NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. Government, industry and academic researchers are invited to propose by May 2 one-year studies of “visionary architecture, mission and system concepts” for awards of approximately $100,000, according to the solicitation.

Through NIAC, the Office of the Chief Technologist plans to support studies in two phases. “The first phase will explore the overall viability of a concept,” Steitz said. “The second phase will allow further development of the most promising technologies.”

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program has its roots in the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, an organization that funded more than 150 studies of revolutionary space and aeronautics concepts before closing its doors in 2007. NASA Chief Technologist Robert Braun called for re-establishing the institute in 2009 when he co-chaired a National Research Council study of NASA technology programs.

The Office of the Chief Technologist’s new Game Changing Technology Division also invited researchers to submit executive summaries, white papers or proposals describing technologies with the potential to offer dramatic improvements in the efficiency or effectiveness of space capabilities. Submission deadlines vary based on the type of material. Executive summaries are due Oct. 1, white papers are due Nov. 1 and proposals should be submitted to NASA by Jan. 3, 2012, according to the solicitation.

Although the White House’s 2012 budget proposal sent to Congress in February would freeze NASA spending at the current level of $18.7 billion, the funding plan calls for increasing the space technology budget line from its proposed 2011 level of roughly $512 million to more than $1.024 billion in 2012. Because NASA plans to move some existing research activities into the space technology budget, however, the actual growth of space technology funding would be only about $200 million, Steitz said. In 2012, NASA plans to move exploration technology initiatives, valued at about $312 million in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate’s current budget, into the space technology program, as well $217 million in Small Business Innovative Research Funding and Small Business Technology Transfer projects.



New NASA Programs To Foster Small-satellite Breakthroughs

NASA Offers $5M in Prizes for Launch, Rover, Robot Innovations

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...