National Research Council Report Pinpoints NASA’s 16 Biggest Technology Needs

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NEW YORK — Protecting future astronauts from radiation, generating power from the sun’s light and heat, and creating better optical sensors are some of the top 16 technology needs NASA should focus on in the next five years, a new report suggests.

The National Research Council released the NASA-commissioned space technology roadmap report Feb. 1, after a year of analysis. The report is designed to give the agency feedback on draft roadmaps they submitted in 2010 and to help the agency prioritize its research. The council took into account NASA’s “likely” level of funding for new technology, approximately $500 million to $1 billion a year.

“The agency wanted to get a sense of what the technical community thought were the high priorities,” said Raymond Colladay, the former Lockheed Martin executive who chairs the NRC’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board. “There were so many [possible technologies], I think NASA knew that they had no hope of accomplishing progress in all of them. So they just asked us to prioritize.”

The new report is titled “NASA Space Technology Roadmaps and Priorities: Restoring NASA’s Technological Edge and Paving the Way for a New Era in Space.” Its shortlist of priorities includes 16 technologies that should help people live in space beyond low Earth orbit for extended periods of time, aid in the search for extraterrestrial life, and expand scientists’ understanding of the universe and the origin of the Milky Way.The National Research Council briefed NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist on the space technology findings early in the week, said Lorin Hancock, a council spokeswoman.

Though in-space flight demonstrations are expensive, the National Research Council report encourages NASA to flight test technologies that are nearly ready.

One example is technology for handling and storing super-cold cryogenic propellant in low gravity. Another is the Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator, which provides power for deep-space missions from the heat of radioactive decay of plutonium-238, using a quarter of the plutonium that the current generation of radioisotope power systems require.

The report warns, however, that the U.S. should restart production of plutonium-238, or “it will be impossible for the United States to conduct certain planned, critical deep-space missions after this decade.” The National Research Council has been worried about the United States’ plutonium-238 supply for several years now.

On the other end of the spectrum, NASA should save 10 percent of its budget for technologies in their earliest stages, the council said.

NASA is now asking for “American citizen-inventors” — small-business owners and “educators working out of their garage” — to submit their futuristic ideas, Michael Gazarik, director of NASA’s Space Technology Program, said in a statement. Promising proposals could get up to $100,000 from NASA. Overall, NASA should cooperate more with other groups, Colladay said in an interview.

“Because of scarce resources in this climate particularly, NASA needs to work closely with other government agencies and industry and universities,” Colladay said. The agency also should work with commercial space companies, the report suggested, and it should make its scientific and engineering findings available to companies that do not partner with NASA and may be working on technology that does not apply to NASA’s space missions.

The panels that contributed to the 400-plus-page report included dozens of scientists from universities, private companies and research institutes. The report also considered public input — the first such roadmap to do so.