Report Foreshadows Tough Choices for NASA Technology Program

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WASHINGTON — A draft review of NASA’s plan for maturing new space technologies foreshadows tough choices ahead for a Space Technology program responsible for developing, under a potentially smaller than expected budget, the underpinning technology for a range of future exploration missions.

“In the modern era, in which the goals of space exploration have expanded beyond a single target, the necessary technological developments have become less clear and more effort is required to evaluate the best path for a forward-looking technology development program,” the National Research Council (NRC) wrote in its Aug. 30 publication, “An Interim Report on NASA’s Technology Roadmap.”

This contrasts starkly, the report said, with NASA’s earliest high-profile exploration missions, such as Apollo, where the technologies the agency needed to develop to support spaceflight “were generally self-evident, driven by a clear and well-defined goal.”

“The final report for this study, which will be issued early in 2012, will provide specific guidance on how the effectiveness of the technology development program managed by NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist can be enhanced in the face of scarce resources by focusing on the highest-priority technologies,” the NRC said in the report.

The NRC, part of the congressionally chartered U.S. National Academies, reviews science and engineering programs and offers advice for the government officials who manage and set policy for those programs.

“While we are still reviewing the details of the interim report, NASA generally agrees with its observations and awaits the final report, expected in January 2012,” NASA Chief Technologist Robert Braun said in an Aug. 30 statement.

NASA requested an interim report be published so that the space agency could begin incorporating feedback from the science and engineering communities into its plans prior to the January release of the NRC’s final list of priorities for Braun’s office.

“This is a new process for NASA technology roadmapping,” Sonja Alexander, a spokeswoman for NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist, said. “The NRC and NASA have used analogous processes in development of the science decadal surveys. However, this is the first time NASA has engaged the technology community … in development of technology roadmaps,” she wrote in an Aug. 30 email to Space News.

NASA’s 14 “technology roadmaps” lay out the agency’s plan for developing and maturing advanced propulsion, communication, navigation, materials and human-factors systems, among others.

Technology development initiatives are sometimes seen as ripe targets for cash-strapped programs within NASA. In order to prevent congressional appropriators from raiding technology budgets to shore up their favored NASA projects, it is necessary to demonstrate to lawmakers a clear connection between advanced technology development and human spaceflight in general, said retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Craig Steidle, the former NASA associate administrator for exploration systems who took the helm of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation in May.

“If you have a technology portfolio that’s just technology and you’re going to go do research for the next couple of years, that’s not viable, that’s a waste of time,” Steidle told Space News Aug. 31. “And they see through that.”

Citing conversations with Braun, Steidle said that NASA’s current technology development roadmap appears in tune with the space agency’s priorities, such as ferrying crew and cargo to low Earth orbit, and deep-space exploration.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation is a Washington-based trade group for space companies developing orbital and suborbital spaceflight capabilities. Some of them receive financial assistance from NASA.

NASA’s post-shuttle plans for supplying the international space station with cargo — and crew — hinge primarily upon commercially provided spaceflight capability.

Technology development figures prominently into White House plans for NASA. President Barack Obama’s 2012 spending request — sent to Capitol Hill in February — included a new budget account, Space Technology, that would consolidate work on a wide range of new and developing technologies.

However, the Obama administration’s $1.02 billion request for Space Technology has met stiff resistance in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. In July, the House Appropriations Committee approved just $375 million for Space Technology and cautioned that it was “premature” for NASA to lump together diverse technology development and transfer programs that had previously been managed by different arms of the agency.

Of particular concern to House appropriators was a lack of external review of the technology roadmap that NASA would use to prioritize Space Technology projects. They specifically referenced the NRC report, which had not yet published when they wrote their appropriations bill, as a central piece of this review process.

The full House did not vote on the NASA spending bill, H.R. 2596, before breaking for August recess, and the Senate has yet to introduce a bill of its own.