NASA’s Future Relies on Space Technology Stability

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In its recent review of NASA’s Space Technology roadmaps, the National Research Council (NRC) emphasized the importance of a stable technology enterprise at the agency. The NRC wrote that “the productivity and the effectiveness of technology development programs are diminished when the direction, content, and/or funding of those programs abruptly change from year to year.”

The NRC made a stark observation: “Success in executing future NASA space missions will depend on advanced technology developments that should already be underway.”

NASA’s Space Technology Program addresses this technology deficit. The program reaches beyond today’s missions to develop and demonstrate technology for infusion into future missions. In doing so, the Space Technology Program also benefits other government agencies and the aerospace industry, making the nation more economically competitive through innovation.

By focusing on innovation and technology through a balanced Space Technology Program, NASA is driving a sustainable and aggressive portfolio of technology investments. This portfolio includes new approaches to its current missions and will push us toward entirely new science and exploration endeavors, including human and robotic journeys to Mars and beyond.

NASA’s Space Technology Program has funded more than 1,000 projects since its inception in 2011. These projects span the entire spectrum of technology readiness — from early stage concepts to flight demonstration hardware that will enable our future missions. The Space Technology Program has started this critically important work with hundreds of NASA civil servants and contractors working across America to develop and test next-generation space technologies this year.

Some examples of this game-changing work include laser-based communications, which will allow all of the data collected on the next Mars mission to be returned to Earth, not just the 10-20 percent they are now capable of sending. NASA’s Space Technology Program also is solving the problem of long-term storage of cryogenic propellant. Cryogenic propellant storage will provide the mass-efficient, powerful propulsion required for humans to explore an asteroid and, in the 2030s, Mars. But the very first of these technology demonstration missions, with a launch in 2016, is a very large solar sail, which uses photons from the sun to propel a spacecraft without any onboard fuel whatsoever. These examples are technologies already at the tipping point, where modest investment now will have an enormous payoff in only a few years.

In 2013, the Space Technology Program will be building, testing and flying even more of the technologies required for agency’s missions of tomorrow. The president’s fiscal 2013 budget request is $699 million, a modest increase above the 2012 congressionally enacted level. This request funds only what’s required to support the current phasing profiles of ongoing, priority Space Technology projects.

NASA’s Space Technology Program retains a strong focus on engaging the cutting-edge research and talent in the nation’s universities. Through competitive solicitations across targeted technology areas, the program is tapping America’s best and brightest to solve the agency’s challenging technology problems.

Investments in space and aeronautics technology stimulate the economy and contribute to the nation’s global competitiveness through the creation of new products and services, new business and industries, and high-quality, sustainable jobs. According to the 2011 Aerospace Industries Association Year-End Review, the U.S. aerospace industry experienced its eighth consecutive year of growth and maintained the largest trade surplus of any manufacturing industry. A technology-driven NASA will maintain the nation’s aerospace community as a global technological leader for many years to come.

Without the president’s proposed funding level, important, high-priority NASA Space Technology projects will be descoped or canceled, impairing the agency’s ability to explore deep space. Space technology is not the sort of investment that can be “bought by the pound.” Specific, quantifiable technology projects and unique areas of technology and innovation focus are an essential part of the president’s budget request.

Our nation’s future economic success is tied to our ability to out-innovate the rest of the world. NASA is an important part of this future. America expects boldness from NASA. We are now returning to our innovation roots, taking the long-term view of technological advancement that is essential for accomplishing our missions. America expects no less.

 

Mason Peck is NASA’s chief technologist.