Bobby Braun Discusses the Future of Technology at NASA

NASA Chief Technology Officer Bobby Braun shared his vision for technology development at Masters Forum 19 in Melbourne, Florida in May.

Dr. Robert Braun, NASA: Ask the Academy, August 31, 2010

(Editor’s note: Robert D. (“Bobby”) Braun, NASA Chief Technologist, is the principal advisor and advocate for agency-wide technology and policy programs. At Masters Forum 19, he outlined his proposed approach for technology development. The text below is a transcription of his remarks.)

What I’d like to do is talk to you about the new technology programs and the plan embodied in the President’s FY2011 budget request for NASA. As you know, there’s a lot of debate over this plan.

Now you need to realize that I came back to NASA on February 1, the day the budget was rolled out. It was quite an exciting day and it’s been quite an exciting three months as a result. I should also admit to you up front my bias. I had a great job at Georgia Tech. In fact, I have a great job at Georgia Tech. I left NASA in 2003, I went to Georgia Tech and I’ve been on the faculty in aerospace engineering, working with undergraduate and graduate students mostly on advanced technology projects for NASA—sometimes for the DoD, but mostly for NASA—and that job really gets me excited. It’s just something that I really like. And I’m telling you that because I made the conscious choice to leave that life that I liked and be the Chief Technologist at NASA in this time of change. So you can imagine where I sit on this debate. I’m obviously—I’ll admit it up front—I’m in favor of the President’s FY11 budget request, or I wouldn’t have left Georgia Tech.

NASA received a top-line budget increase. It’s about $300 million in FY11—over the five-year projected budget we’re talking about a $6 billion increase—and that’s important to me for one reason. This is a very challenging time for our country economically. As you know, the discretionary part of the federal budget was capped by President Obama. It did not increase.

That means if NASA actually got an increase, someone else took a cut. That’s something that’s difficult for people at NASA, even myself included, to realize. If you look across the federal government and you look at who got increases, you’ll find that all of the federal agencies that were doing research and technology—or that the President and the Administration would like to be doing research and technology—received increases. All of the federal agencies that were not doing research and technology took cuts to pay for the agencies that did get an increase. That’s a theme in the federal budget that you need to know.

So we received this top-line increase. That increase was distributed. There was a relatively large—in my view—increase for science, primarily for Earth Science: two and a half billion over five years. Aeronautics received what I would call a modest increase. It’s actually pretty large percentage-wise—it’s 15 percent, which reduces the decline in aeronautics that had been ongoing for 10 years. Dollar-wise it’s small because the aeronautics budget is small.

Perhaps the thing that you’ve heard about the most—and the thing that’s been debated the most—is the shift in human exploration. One, the goal of our human exploration program has not changed. The goal today is the same as the goal three months ago, and the same as the goal a couple of years ago. The goal is to extend human presence beyond low-Earth orbit. What has changed is the approach by which NASA is pursuing that goal. Here are some of the points from a budget perspective about that changed approach:

  • There are additional funds to complete what were five remaining shuttle flights. After today we’re down to three, potentially four, remaining shuttle flights.
  • The inclusion of the ISS, the extension of the ISS, and the full utilization of the ISS as a national laboratory through 2020. Putting ISS as the central focus of our human spaceflight program. This is a major shift as well, one, by the way, that is under reported in my view. Extending ISS through at least 2020.
  • The commercial approach to low-Earth orbit (LEO) access—we just heard a little bit about that. There’s six billion dollars in the budget over five years to foster commercial industry in providing LEO access. There’s modernization of the launch center at Kennedy, which you all know, like many of the facilities at NASA hasn’t had significant upgrades in decades and is, in some cases, rather old.
  • The flexible path strategy to human exploration to go beyond low-Earth orbit—I’m sure you’ve read about that in the Augustine committee’s report.
  • The other thing that has been discussed is the cancellation or restructuring of the Constellation Program.

You’ve heard a lot about this theme, the shift in approach for the human exploration program. What you may not have heard as much about, and I want to focus on today, is this significant focus on technology development. It’s this focus on technology that I was excited about personally and [that] is why I came back to NASA to this position.

There’s a strong focus on technology in our human exploration strategy, and there are both technology-pull programs and technology-push programs that we are formulating to begin in FY11. There’s also a major increase in an emphasis on partnerships. The Obama administration is all about partnerships. They want us to partner across government agencies. They want us to partner internationally. They want us to partner with academia and industry, and they are incentivizing all of the government agencies to engage in these partnership activities in full. It’s part of their strategy because the discretionary budget is capped, and it may actually go down next year. So we need to think about that.

Let me jump into human exploration. There is a renewed emphasis on technology in the President’s FY11 budget, and in my view what the budget really represents at its highest level is a balancing among the three long-standing core competencies of NASA. If you think back in time, you think, “What is NASA? Why is NASA unique? Why is NASA not the Air Force? Why is it not NSF? Why is it NASA?” There are some things that come to mind—at least my mind.

What come to my mind are a strong research and technology competency, a strong flight hardware development competency, and a strong mission operations competency. In fact, it’s the synergy of all three of those core competencies that make NASA a unique agency. There is no other place in this country where those three things are together. NASA embodies those three core competencies and always has. Actually, you can go all the way back to the Space Act and the formation of NASA, and it calls out these three critical core competencies. It’s because NASA embodies all three of those competencies that NASA is so inspiring to young people.

If all we do is research and technology—and I’m the chief technologist and I’ll tell you this—if all we do is research and technology and we don’t do flight hardware and development and we don’t do operations, then what’s the point? We’re just off playing in our sandbox developing technology. I don’t want that. On the other hand, if we don’t have research and technology and we’re just building flight hardware and flying it, then we can only take what I would call a rather incremental approach to that flight hardware development.

So to me, a healthy NASA, a NASA on the cutting edge, is strong in research and technology, in spaceflight hardware development, and in mission operations. And what the President’s FY11 budget request really embodies is improving the research and technology competency—but not to an equal point. There’s still more dollars in flight hardware development and mission operations, as there probably should be, but bringing it up to the point where it’s actually visible, because over the past decade, research and technology at NASA has been almost drummed out of business, and that’s not just my opinion, by the way. That’s the opinion of a whole host of external panels that have looked at this over and over again, including an NRC (National Research Council) committee that reported back just a day or two ago about the abysmal state of the laboratories and the R&D and technology and development programs within NASA. That’s their word, by the way, “abysmal state”—it’s not my word.

Now for human exploration, what does this mean? Well it means a whole host of technology development and demonstrations and I’ll show you some of those in just a minute. [It means] design to reduce the cost and improve our capabilities for our future human exploration systems. It means things like heavy-lift propulsion technology; it means things like in-space propulsion technology. It means robotic precursors to some of the destinations where we want to send humans to. If we really want to send humans to an asteroid in 2025—I’d certainly like to—it probably makes sense to visit that asteroid or several asteroids like the one we might want to visit robotically first. If we really want to send humans to Mars, there are a number of things we need learn about Mars from a safety perspective, [and] from a risk perspective, before we send humans there.

Next on this list is a greatly increased program for human research: long-term human adaptation to space, [and] utilizing the International Space Station to prepare for long journeys. Going to a near-Earth asteroid is a lot different than going to the moon. It’s venturing into deep space. To me, this is really exciting. We’re actually going to leave the Earth’s sphere of influence. When we go to the moon we don’t really do that. But going into deep space for months at a time, we will need to keep the humans safe. There’s radiation protection, there’s adaptation to the microgravity environment, there’s environmental control and life support systems that we need to greatly improve to do that.

A U.S. commercial human spaceflight capability to get to low-Earth orbit—now, how are we going to make these technology investments? This is a key point. The way we’re going to accomplish this is by identifying the needed capabilities and then investing in multiple competing approaches, multiple competing technologies to achieve that capability. The challenge with this program is that we’re not wise enough yet to know exactly what technologies are the ones that are going to allow us to send humans to Mars or send humans to an asteroid. I for one don’t want to bank my entire human exploration program on some technology that is not yet proven. So instead, we know there’s a certain capability that we need, and we need to invest in multiple competing approaches to advance that capability, and then make a down-selection a little bit later in time and take that down-selected technology and prove it in a flight-relevant environment.

The other thing that people ask me all the time is if we’re going to spend two years figuring out what technologies or what capabilities we need to go after. Well, thankfully we don’t need to. In my office today, you can come to my office any time and you can see that I have a stack of reports, and they go from the floor to almost my height—I’m just barely taller than the stack. These reports were all written by blue-ribbon panels, Presidential panels. They’re done by NASA folks, they’re done by the NRC (National Research Council), they’re done by all kinds of groups. The Space Task Group (1969) was chartered to figure out what we’re going to do after the Apollo mission. What kind of technologies do we need to invest in to enable future human exploration? Jumping forward in time to 1986 [we have] “Pioneering the Space Frontier,” which by the way, if you haven’t read it, is perhaps the most well done report on this subject of all time. It is by far and away my favorite report. Then we can jump over to Sally Ride’s report in ’87, some internal NASA reports, including the 90-Day Study that Phil Sumrall and I were a part of back in ’89, [and] Augustine I in 1990—his [Norman Augustine's] first report—going all the way to the latest Augustine report.

[What] I have listed here in the rows are some of the technologies that some of these reports have said that we should invest in: closed-looped life support; in-space propulsion; heavy-lift launch vehicle, entry, descent, and landing; lightweight structures and materials; advanced EVA systems; [and] communications technology. And do you see the Xs? There’s a remarkable consistency from report to report. We know what capabilities we need. We know. It’s been documented over and over again. It’s right here.

What we need is to synthesize this information and use it to develop plans forward. These are the capabilities. What are the technological solutions that provide these capabilities? So we can take these capabilities, and if you want to do it purely in a competed environment, you could imagine a call coming out for each one of these capabilities, and different teams could propose back different technological solutions. Or we could take one of these capabilities and we could say JSC, you guys go lead a team to do this, Langley you go lead a team to do that, Marshall you go lead a team to do that, and we’ll try three different approaches. We could do this either way, and what we’re planning to do actually is a combination of both. There will be both directed assignments and competed opportunities.

Why am I standing on my soapbox about technology? It’s not for the very next mission. We don’t need to invest in technology if all we want to do is go to the space station, or if all we want to do is stay in the general vicinity of the earth.

But as we start considering destinations, like sending humans to an asteroid or, in my view, the grand challenge of them all—sending humans to the surface of Mars—technology development becomes very important, and this slide from Johnson Space Center illustrates why. What we have here on the y-axis is the amount of mass required at the beginning of the mission—not on the ground, but in low-Earth orbit. So to start one round-trip human Mars mission, I need that amount of mass in low-Earth orbit. I somehow have to lift it all up to low-Earth orbit.

The reason I think this chart is interesting is that it is plotted in units of International Space Station mass. So with current technology, all the way on the left-hand side, I need something like twelve International Space Stations assembled in low-Earth orbit for one round-trip Mars mission. I mean, at that point, should we even be having this dialogue? If I take this to Congress, I know I’ll be thrown out of the room, and rightfully so.

But with an investment in technology, I can bring the number of International Space Station masses down to something that approaches, let’s say, two. Now, two is still a grand challenge. It took us almost a decade just to get one on this axis, but you also have to realize that about 80 percent of this mass is propellant, and if we’re fostering a commercial industry, and if we’re talking about propellant depots and in-space resource utilization, then the fact that 80 percent of that mass is propellant really helps me. And even if that doesn’t come through, if I get the reported amount of mass down to something like two, we can at least have a discussion about the possibility of one day sending humans to the surface of Mars. As long as it’s over 10, in my view, an order of magnitude off, it’s out of our reach. It’s beyond our grasp, and this to me is the power of technology development possibility.

Now, President Obama, when he spoke in Florida on April 15, he laid out a set of destinations and a set of dates. He talked about early crewed missions of our new exploration system in the next part of the decade. He talked about humans going to an asteroid in 2025, orbiting Mars in 2035 and returning safely, which I certainly would hope for, and then he threw in—which I greatly appreciate—he threw in landing on the surface of Mars at some point in the future, but he didn’t give a date. He did say in his lifetime. That’s important to me because he and I are about the same age. I would very much like to see that. So at a high level, this is where we are, in my view, in the human spaceflight program.

In this decade, what we’re talking about is involving the commercial sector, both in launch and in other ways. We’re talking about robotic precursors, and we’re talking about utilizing the International Space Station as the core of our human spaceflight program, flying it out, if you will, through its full life—through 2020 and potentially beyond. We’re talking about technology development to enable the systems development for the next human spaceflight system, starting in perhaps the 2015 time frame so we can get to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025. So in 2015 or so, we’re talking about the design and development of heavy-lift systems and in-space capabilities that would allows us to achieve that mission in the first part of the next decade — first in the near-Earth vicinity, and then to a near-Earth asteroid.

Much has been said about our technology development program. How do we know what technologies to invest in? We don’t have any goals. Well that’s not true. We have goals. The President clearly enunciated those goals on April 15, and what we also have at NASA is a great team of people working on something called HEFT, the Human Explorations Frameworks Team, which is synthesizing all of the formulation work that has been done to date and putting in place an integrated plan. [For] those of you who know about the Exploration Systems architecture study, the HEFT is doing something that I would call equivalent to that, but for the flexible path approach.

If we have a set of goals, like we do—an asteroid mission in 2025, going in orbit around Mars in 2035, to the surface of Mars after that—from those goals, we can develop mission architectures. From those mission architectures we can develop flight system concepts. From those flight system concepts we can develop the technologies required to enable those spacecraft to enable those missions to enable those goals. It’s a nice requirements flow-down kind of approach. This is the approach that ESMD, the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, is using through the HEFT team. This is not the only way we’re doing technology development, but it is a part of the big plan, and it’s organized in what you would call a systems engineering way.

This is what the team has come up with to date. I want you to notice a couple of things. One, there are a lot of missions. In terms of sheer numbers, there are a large number of technology development items that are going to go into space. There are a large number of launches and, as a result, a large number of mission operations opportunities. There are also a number of hardware development opportunities to get these technologies ready and to develop them and fly them. Whether we’re talking about the human research program or the heavy-lift program, which has both a launch and an in-space component, there are development opportunities. This is not a technology program that is all about playing in our academic labs. One last point on some of these missions—there’s also been a lot of talk about the need for these robotic precursor missions. Why do we really need robotic precursor missions? This is not a precursor mission. This [slide] is from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which is a science mission that has been orbiting for quite some time. MRO has been there long enough that it has actually over-flown the same region over a time period—it’ll fly over this region and take an image, and then fly over it again some months later and take the same image at the same time of day, and you’ll see a drastic difference. What MRO has uncovered is a very large amount of water ice very close to the surface, and at mid-latitudes, not near the poles—mid-latitudes, roughly the latitude of Boston, let’s say. The ice layer is about half to one meter below the surface.

This was totally unknown a year ago—actually totally unknown six months ago. Six months ago we were all talking about methane. We need a methane in-space engine. Why do we need a methane in-space engine? Because we’re going to go to Mars and get the methane out of the Mars atmosphere and therefore we need that engine.

Look at this water. All of a sudden LOx [liquid oxygen] hydrogen is back in the picture. I’m not saying that we need to throw away all of the methane plans—that’s not what I’m saying at all—and go LOx hydrogen. I’m saying these kinds of discoveries greatly affect the architecture we use to do human exploration, and this is why we need to do robotic precursor missions.

To summarize, the human exploration program as contained in the President’s FY11 budget has a couple points. The goal of the program has not changed: the goal of the program is to extend human presence beyond low-Earth orbit. What has changed is the approach to accomplishing that goal. The President’s approach is focused on developing the technological capabilities required for humans to reach multiple destinations. Not just the moon, but the moon and near-Earth asteroids, and eventually Mars.

The investments we plan to make are gaining the knowledge needed to inform our future architectural decisions and build the capabilities—the technological capabilities required for humans to venture not just beyond low-Earth orbit, but into deep space itself. In my view, this approach will expand the alternatives that are possible for human exploration through timely, strategic, and significant technology investment.

I talked to you about the human exploration program, but before I end, let me tell you about the other parts of the technology development programs. I’m the NASA Chief Technologist, and one of my responsibilities is to plan out all of the NASA technology programs—those within the mission directorates, and those called the Space Technology Program. Within Space Technology, there will be low-TRL (technology readiness level) programs. We’re going to look broad and wide for the best ideas, wherever those ideas may be. We’re going to look internal at NASA, in academia, we’re going to look internationally, and we’re going to look at industry.

You may remember the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC). It was around for a large number of years. Its budget was cut a few years ago, partially to make room for Constellation. It wasn’t, in my view, purposefully cut—there was a sweeping done with all of the technology programs at NASA at that time, and the NIAC was eliminated along with a number of things. We’re going to reinstate the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts. That’s one example of the kind of concept development programs we’re going to have. It’s not the only one, but it’s just one example.

Your mid-TRL kind of things—your TRL 3, 4, 5 programs—this is where all of your ground-based testing, your laboratory programs are going to be. I’ve done a lot of concept studies in my life, and on paper they all look beautiful. And every time I get involved in a concept study, there’s always this one little piece of physics that’s holding it back. “If I could prove this little piece of physics worked, then the whole system would work great, just like I’ve shown in this systems study.” Well, we’re going to go after those little pieces of physics in these programs, both within the mission directorates and in my office, the Office of the Chief Technologist. And then we’re going to take some of those things and prove that they are feasible, and we’re going to take them to flight and we’re going to prove those technologies in a space environment.

If we’re talking about sending humans to Mars, do we really want to bank our whole human exploration architecture on the specific technology that the mission directorates think is going to pan out today? Or do we want to consider some alternate approaches in parallel? And that’s what we can do in the Space Technology Program. I call it “disruptive technology development,” or I call it “push,” because these are technology investments made not as the next mission is planning to use them, but because if they come through (and some of them will and some of them won’t), they will enable major advances in the way we approach our system.

Some of the technologies that we’re going to pursue here will change the way we approach human exploration and our science missions. Now, once again, they won’t all pan out, and we have to be willing to accept that. We’re going to take a lot of risks in this program. We’re going to make our bets in an informed manner kind of like…I assume you’re all in the Thrift Savings Program or some program like that. How do you decide what stocks to pick? It’s the same thing. You balance your risk through a portfolio approach, and that’s what we’re going to do in the Space Technology Program.

Here’s my view of how this is going to work. We’re going to start with visions of the future, thousands of visions of the future. These will come from all over. They will come from within NASA and outside of NASA. There will be paper studies, systems analyses, technology assessments, cost-benefits studies. They’ll all have this little piece of physics that needs to get proven before we can really accept them as science fact as opposed to science fiction. In this part of the program, that’s what we’ll focus on. We’ll use our laboratories. We’ll use our ground-based testing. We’ll use our whatever we need to prove that fundamental physics works. And when it does, we’ll take some of those to flight readiness. We’ll take them to low-Earth orbit, we’ll do atmospheric flight testing, whatever it takes for that particularly technology to be at TRL 6 so that a mission would be willing to adopt it. So we’ll infuse our technologies in our future science and exploration missions, but we’ll also infuse them in other government agency missions and we’ll also infuse them into industry through this approach.

Now, I can’t just put out a call. This program is going to be largely competitive. The Office of the Chief Technologist is not a mission directorate. It’s set up that way on purpose. This will be done largely in a competitive way, [in order to] be open to all [the] best ideas from wherever they may come. But I can’t just put out a call and say, “Hey, technology, bring it on, what do you have?”

So instead, what we’re going to do is what you might call a grand challenge approach, and there’s a very successful set of models for doing this. DARPA does this all the time. ARPA-E does this kind of approach. We’re not going to talk about technological solutions; we’re going to talk at the capability level. We want this capability by this date, and then we’re going to put that out and NASA centers, or academia, or industry will respond with a variety of technological solutions to provide that capability, and we will fund several of those for each grand challenge going forward to a point where we can make an informed decision about which is the best technology to take all the way to flight.

If you are an engineer, you know you have wanted these systems for a long time, and we seem to never be able to get over the hump of funding these to a point where they’re at a technology readiness level where the mission directorates will pick them up or that some other government agency will pick them up. Through the Space Technology Program, we have a means for doing so. In fact we have a means to take things all the way from concept to flight, which is something that we’ve never had at NASA before on the technology side of the house.

To sum things up, in my view, what the Obama administration is really saying is that we are committed to research, technology, and innovation for the nation as a means of stimulating the economy. That’s really what they care about. They care about the economy, and they care about preparing America to compete on the global stage technologically. And they’re preparing NASA—and by the way, it’s a great privilege. You really need to think about this. They’re allowing NASA to be part of this national strategy. NASA is not always part of the nation’s strategy. Sometimes it’s off on the side doing its own thing. The Obama administration, by giving NASA a budget increase and turning it toward more of a research and technology focus, is saying that, “NASA you’re a part of this national initiative.”

So the NASA budget request is really aligned with this national strategy and, once again, the renewed emphasis on technology, which has been suggested over and over again by a number of external groups, is really, in my view, a rebalancing of NASA’s three fundamental core competencies that have really always been in existence. What this will do for NASA is that it will provide a much more likely set and a much more exciting set of potential futures for our science and exploration missions. It will definitely improve the space program.


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