American technological leadership is paramount today, vital to our national security, our economic prosperity and our global standing. America is the nation we are today in no small part because of the technological investments made in earlier decades, because of the engineers, scientists and elected officials who had the wisdom and foresight to make investments required for our country to emerge as a global technological leader. Those investments accelerated our economy through creation of new industries, products and services. They have yielded lasting societal benefit to all of us.
For NASA, past cutting-edge technology investments led to design and flight of the Apollo missions, the space shuttle, the international space station, and a myriad of robotic explorers that allowed us to reach destinations across our solar system and peer across the universe. NASA remains one of the nation’s premier research and development agencies, pursuing breakthrough technologies that will expand the frontiers of aeronautics and space. Investments in research and technology are required to enable flight of NASA’s bold future missions. These same missions focus and sharpen NASA’s research and technology investment portfolio. The symbiotic relationship between innovative technology development and mission development drives the pace of our future in space, creates jobs and feeds the economic engine of our nation. The administration of President Barack Obama has demonstrated its commitment to our nation’s future, making investments in innovation and technology a priority, even in challenging fiscal times.
Recent examples of NASA’s technology accomplishments include the advanced solar cell research that enabled design of Juno, the first solar-powered outer-planet spacecraft, launched towards Jupiter in August. Orbiting above us on the international space station, a pathfinder robotic refueling experiment is under way. This joint NASA/Canadian Space Agency experiment is designed to prove the tools, technologies and techniques needed to robotically repair and refuel satellites in orbit — a necessary capability for deep-space travel. In addition, with government investment in these foundational technology experiments, a commercial satellite servicing enterprise may soon emerge in which private companies provide roadside fuel and repair services along the space highway.
These are but two examples of the broad portfolio of technology programs NASA is implementing in space. Many other technologies are in development, spanning such diverse areas as human-robotic systems, radiation protection, high-reliability life-support systems, and advanced in-space manufacturing. NASA structural engineers are developing large-scale composite cryogenic propellant tank technology, which offers a 30 percent mass reduction relative to current metallic tanks and has broad applicability to future incarnations of our launch vehicle fleet, in-space propellant stages and planetary landers. Similarly, inflatable aerodynamic decelerator testing may change the way we land large payloads on Mars or return vehicles from space to the Earth’s surface. NASA propulsion experts are pursuing in-space cryogenic propellant storage and transfer technologies to demonstrate the efficiency and flexibility in orbital operations needed for our future deep-space missions. And through autonomous operation and formation flying demonstrations, small-satellite development efforts are poised to provide future space reconnaissance, communication and observing capabilities only possible today with the cost and complexity of large, flagship missions.
NASA just announced selection of three technology demonstration missions that will transform our nation’s space communications, deep-space navigation and in-space propulsion capabilities. These missions will develop and fly a space-based optical communications system, a deep-space atomic clock and a space solar sail. With data rates up to 100 times greater than today’s systems, space optical communication will enable rapid return of the voluminous data associated with sending spacecraft and humans to new frontiers. High-performance atomic clocks, 10 times more accurate than today’s systems, will enable a level of spacecraft navigation precision and autonomous operations in deep space never before achieved. And a solar sail that is seven times larger than any sail ever before flown in space, four times larger than what can be tested in ground-based facilities, will enable new space missions. An advanced space weather warning system capable of providing more timely and accurate notice of solar flare activity, approaches for economical orbital debris removal, and propellant-less deep-space science and cargo resupply systems are but a few of the missions solar sails could enable.
Combined with the early stage innovation awards recently announced through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts and Space Technology Graduate Fellowship programs, as well as the laboratory and ground-based testing moving forward through the Game Changing Development program, NASA’s space technology maturation pipeline is taking the ideas of our nation’s innovators from concept to flight. Today, there are space technology projects in development across all of NASA’s centers, academia and industry. These innovations position the agency for a bright future.
Innovating a better future is what this country is all about. We are a nation of explorers. We are a nation never satisfied with the status quo. We are a nation continually striving to out-innovate ourselves in the creation of new knowledge and new capabilities. While facing significant fiscal challenges, we are a nation that remains full of opportunity. When I look at NASA, these are the same characteristics I see. These also are the characteristics required for success in the 21st century. It is for these reasons that I remain convinced that a NASA focused on grand challenges and operating at the cutting edge is not only critical for our nation’s future in space, but also for our nation’s technological leadership position in the world.
Bobby Braun is the NASA chief technologist.