faces a lengthy, cash-strapped catch-up period in acquiring the range of technologies needed to achieve the agency’s strategic objectives, according to a National Research Council report released Feb. 1.
“Success in executing futurespace missions will depend on advanced technology developments that should already be under way,” says aerospace consultant Raymond Calladay, the former Corp. executive who chaired the 18-member panel that produced the report.
“It has been years since NASA has had a vigorous, broad-based program in advanced space technology development, and NASA’s technology base is largely depleted,” Calladay notes at the outset of the 467-page report, “NASA Space Technology Roadmaps and Priorities: Restoring NASA’s Technological Edge and Paving the Way for a New Era in Space,” which took more than a year to compile.
NASA’s bid to accelerate the pace of technological breakthrough was blunted in 2012, as the agency’s budget request for just more than $1 billion in annual technology development funding for the next five years was scaled back to $575 million for the current fiscal year. The agency’s latest tech strategy will emerge formally when President Barack Obama unveils his proposed 2013 budget on Feb. 13.
The NRC’s assessment suggests a Moneyball-style approach of shrewd investing in a financially constrained environment to rebuild NASA’s technical prowess. The panel urges policymakers to focus their investments in 16 high-technology areas, spend on flight tests to identify the most promising approaches to maturing technologies and allocate 10% of tech expenditures to advance the most promising early approaches.
NASA’s highest-priority needs fall into the areas of radiation mitigation; guidance, navigation and control; in-space nuclear power generation and propulsion; and solar power, the panel concluded. The full list expands to fission power generation; entry, descent and landing thermal protection systems; rugged, lightweight materials; regenerative life support; and advanced optics, among others.
The study’s steering committee, which drafted 56 additional experts from academia, industry and other government agencies to address NASA’s tech needs, faced a difficult task: matching the needs across 14 30-year technology road maps that were established by Bobby Braun, NASA’s former chief technologist, in 2010.
“In selecting the highest priority technologies among all 14 road maps, the steering committee took the additional step of establishing an organizing framework that addressed balance across NASA mission areas, relevance in meeting the highest-priority technical challenges, and expectations that significant progress could be made in the next five years of the 30-year window of the road maps,” the panel reports.
“Furthermore, the steering committee constrained the number of highest-priority technologies to be included in the final list in the belief that in the face of probable scarce resources, focusing initially on a small number of the highest-priority technologies offers the best chance to make the greatest impact, especially given that agency mission areas, particularly in exploration, are being refined and can be shaped by technology options.”