An interim report on the open-ended “technology road maps” is developing to enable exploration beyond low Earth orbit suggests more emphasis on “evolutionary improvements” and testing to reach “intermediate goals,” as well as more attention devoted to getting new technologies in the hands of commercial companies.
A National Research Council (NRC) committee evaluated the 14 road maps developed by’s new Office of the Chief Technologist as part of the Obama administration’s new plan to advance space exploration by pushing the readiness levels of technologies that will be needed for exploration across the Solar System.
While the panel found the effort “encouraging,” it identified what it called gaps in the approach, including the lack of attention to commercial spaceflight. Also new under the Obama space policy is an effort to fly on commercial carriers to deliver cargo and crew to low Earth orbit (LEO), leaving NASA to concentrate on exploration deeper into space.
“The content of the draft road maps could be improved by giving more consideration to the needs of the commercial space sector, perhaps by including commercial space at the second level of the structure in some road maps,” stated the interim report, which was released Aug. 30. “This approach would show the commercial relevance of a broad range of technologies across many of the road maps and make these technologies easier to identify.”
As examples, the report listed work in thermal protection systems for atmospheric entry, and on the effects of microgravity on human health as being of “particular interest to companies to establish launch capabilities to transport crew and cargo to LEO, in-space servicing and related space commerce.”
Other examples of technology with potential commercial benefits include autonomous rendezvous, proximity operations and docking technology, and dexterous robotics.
The NRC report also identifies gaps in avionics research, and an overemphasis on radiation in space weather research. Panel members suggested NASA work on “intrinsically radiation hard” avionics components with high data throughput, and on fault-tolerant processing for vehicle safety and reliability.
“Some advances in avionics technology will progress even without NASA investment,” the panel predicts. “These likely include commercial development of new data bus technologies, which are broadly applicable, and fundamentally new means of data processing to support a wide range of processor applications.”
In space weather, the panel recommends more work on spacecraft charging and discharging from plasma effects; single-event effects in electronics, and materials degradation from atmospheric oxygen and ultraviolet light, particularly by developing composite materials that can maintain thermal and structural properties in the low Earth orbit environment.
“Currently, space weather and the space environment beyond radiation seem to be touched upon in just one of the draft road maps,” the panel states. “… A much broader effort would be needed to cover the full scope of space weather effects and to implement an integrated approach to technology development to reduce the varied effects of space weather beyond radiation on NASA missions in Earth orbit and throughout the solar system.”
Bobby Braun, the NASA chief technologist, says “NASA generally agrees with its observations and awaits the final report, expected in January 2012.”