Commentary | New Technology for a New NASA

by and

If we really want a new NASA to lead the U.S. past the post-Apollo shuttle/international space station era, moving beyond low Earth orbit with human exploration of the solar system, then an advanced space technology program must be the cornerstone of the foundation upon which a new NASA is built. And it needs to be put in place now. It takes years of steady, robust funding, especially after years of neglect, to build a culture of innovation and collaboration among science and engineering talent in NASA, universities and industry that attracts creative risk-taking to achieve the technology advances that can transform the agency across the breadth of its mission and ensure continued U.S. leadership in space.

President Barack Obama’s budget request for NASA included the necessary funds to begin rebuilding the technology base for the future. Now, we hope Congress will get on the same page with the administration when it comes to putting a priority on advanced space technology research and development. Virtually every relevant report of the National Academies, the Augustine committee and the NASA Advisory Council has recommended it.

NASA took an important step in establishing the Office of the Chief Technologist to manage space technology R&D independent of the major engineering development projects, but answerable to the stakeholder users. This is the best way to manage the creative tension between advances promoted by those pushing technology breakthroughs and innovative concepts and technology pulled by needs foreseen by the mission directorates but not yet fully defined by firm requirements. An independent space technology R&D program in the Office of the Chief Technologist and an adequately funded technology maturation and transition effort in the user mission organizations — represented for exploration by the flagship demonstrations in the budget request — form elements of a robust technology R&D enterprise.

There are many examples of game-changing breakthroughs that started by asking “what if” questions about enabling technology before there ever was a requirement. Transformational technologies that led to stealth aircraft, ubiquitous GPS applications, the Internet and heavy-lift propulsion for the Saturn booster are just a few such examples. All were championed by science and engineering talent working on advanced technology R&D asking: What if a breakthrough could be achieved to accomplish something that has never been done or tried before?

Given the president’s requested budget for advanced space technology, the new Office of the Chief Technologist can help rekindle the same culture for a new NASA. Imagine a future enabled by computational design of materials to achieve desired properties by molecular manufacturing for a factor of 10 reduction in dry spacecraft weight; spacecraft-on-a-chip for Earth observation or other space applications; advanced in-space propulsion using nuclear-powered magnetoplasmadynamic propulsion that could reduce long-distance exploration of the solar system to a fraction of today’s transit times; synthetic biology that enables fabrication of biologically inspired systems at incredibly high rates, initiated from a handful of genetically engineered cells that could revolutionize approaches to in-space resource utilization; stellar spacecraft constructed of materials that could be reclaimed, separated and reformed into new components using low-energy on-board manufacturing processes that morph and readapt form, fit and function over century-long missions; or reliable, operable systems that provide space lift at one-tenth of today’s cost.

Or for nearer-term payoff, imagine being able to maneuver into orbit around other planets in our solar system with simpler, more capable spacecraft structures using aerocapture instead of propulsive- or aero-breaking; having lighter-weight launch vehicles and propellant depots in space using large-scale cryogenic composite technology replacing today’s aluminum propellant tanks; or being able to accommodate huge data files and very high download rates for space-based environmental measurements using optical communications and other extremely high-bandwidth technology.

These are just a few examples of technologies that could transform NASA and the U.S. space program to once again be an engine for innovation, providing technology solutions that benefit society; creating quality, high-tech jobs that help drive the economy; and inspiring science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

There will never be a “new NASA” pursuing new frontiers with old technology — only a refinement and improvement on what we have done before. We can leave the refining and improving of past achievements to others while NASA takes the U.S. on a new path of leadership.

Ray Colladay and William F. Ballhaus were senior managers at NASA over 20 years ago, and subsequently were both corporate officers at Lockheed Martin. Colladay also served as director of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and Ballhaus also served as president and CEO of the Aerospace Corp.