The New NASA

Todd J. Farrar and Ian Roth, Dawnbreaker, Winter 2010

NASA’s 2011 budget implements significant programmatic and structural changes to the way that NASA approaches not only space exploration, but also R&D. Changes include the cancellation of the Constellation Program and the shifting of funds to support the commercial space sector as it addresses future space transportation and exploration needs. Another significant change is the establishment of the Space Technology Program under the Aeronautics and Space Research and Technology Mission Directorate. Late last year, Dr. Bobby Braun was appointed as the Chief Technology Officer operating the Office of the Chief Technologist. This office oversees the new Space Technology Program.

The Space Technology Program highlights NASA’s new approach to the support and maturation of truly innovative and advanced technologies. The program is designed to accomplish a multitude of tasks, including reducing typical barriers to infusion of advanced concepts, offering greater infusion opportunities to innovators, mitigating risk for technology adoption by the commercial space industry, and helping the U.S. remain a leader in space technology development and future space exploration. Recently, Dr. Braun sat down with Phase III Commercialization and discussed the Space Technology Program and the effects that the program changes will have for NASA, technologists, small businesses and the commercial sector.

The structure and goals of the Space Technology program were established largely on the recommendations made by four National Academy reports that have come out since 2008. “With the start of the space technology program, we are trying to provide a critical mass of talented people from across the country working on what I call foundational technology activities,” explained Dr. Braun. “These are activities that may not affect the very next mission but are designed to strategically impact a whole suite of future NASA missions.”

The Space Technology Program changes NASA’s budgetary focus for funding advanced technologies. In the past, each mission directorate in NASA (Science Mission Directorate, the Aeronautics Mission Directorate or Exploration) had a portion of their budget focused on technologies. According to Braun, “It’s no secret that over time, in particular over this past decade, that those budgets have been reduced and so the total technology activity at NASA has been reduced.…NASA has been more near term mission focused.”

The new Space Technology Program is unique in that it is designed to reduce some of the previous barriers and potential valleys of death that NASA funded technologies or projects faced when moving from concept to flight readiness. The program is comprised of three main components: Early Stage Innovation, Game Changing Technology and Crosscutting Capability Demonstrations. Together these components provide a stage gate type approach that facilitates the realization of new concepts, figures out which ideas work and which do not (“proof of concept”), assists the maturation of technologies in a lab setting (prototype and demo/test), and for the most promising developments provides opportunities for flight testing. Each of the three components provides a number of public and private funding vehicles and incentives for technology development and maturation efforts at specific ranges of technology readiness levels (TRLs). (For more information concerning TRLs, see Dawnbreaker’s free portal of information at www.dawnbreaker.com/portals/p3p/definitions/technology-readiness.php)

According to Dr. Braun, “There were many valleys of death. There might have been one at TRL 4 and another one at TRL 6 as you matured the technology from concept all the way to flight. The Space Technology [program] actually consists of an integrated suite of ten programs that are managed together by the Office of the Chief Technologist so that there are no gaps, and so that over time we can move an idea from concept all the way to flight.”

The integrated suite of ten programs that Dr. Braun refers to are targeted toward addressing the maturation of technologies at various TRL levels, and as such, are grouped under the three Space Technology Program Components.

TRL 1–3 (approximately)
The Early Stage Innovation Program focuses on low TRL initial technology developments. The program uses five different funding vehicles to support these efforts, all of which are competitively awarded to academia and industry, as well as to NASA field centers. Of note, the SBIR/STTR program now resides under the Early Stage Innovation Program umbrella. The FY 2011 budget request for the Early Stage Innovation program element within Space Technology is $298.6M, and $1,523.2M is included in the five-year budget plan.

TRL 3–5
The Game Changing Technology program (see page 328 of budget) provides various support and funding vehicles to facilitate the maturation of technologies up to a TRL 4 and in some cases a TRL 5 or 6. The program focuses on demonstrating technology feasibility mainly through ground- or lab-based testing. More than 70% of the awards are made competitively under this program. Awards are fixed duration and are made to PI led teams comprised of government, academia and industry partners. It appears that the Game Changing program will make fewer awards, but will offer larger pools of money when compared to the early stage innovation program. As an example, the budget currently notes the Game Changing Developments project will provide two year awards of less than $45M with a third year option that cannot exceed $75M. The Small Satellite Subsystem Technologies project will also provide awards lasting two years that are less than $12M with an optional third year option that cannot exceed $18M.

TRL 4–6
The Crosscutting Capability Demonstrations program enables a select few technologies to be matured to TRL 6, flight ready. More than 70% of the funds are competitively awarded under this program. According to NASA’s budget “technical risk, technology maturity, mission risk, customer interest, and proposed cost are discriminators used in the selection process.” Teams comprised of NASA and Industry participants are required to have a sponsor or sponsors that are willing to take on a 25% cost share of the development efforts. Relevant initiatives under this program element include Technology Demonstration Missions – which will provide between 3 and 8 projects each year with $150M for flight test demonstrators, the Edison Small Satellite Demonstration Missions and the Flight Opportunities initiative, which does not offer direct award amounts but allots four “flight weeks” of time for technology flight (space station) demonstration and research.

The new Space Technology Program clearly takes a very different approach toward advanced technology investment and maturation, which was emphasized by Dr. Braun. “It is certainly a different approach from anything NASA has tried before,” he explained. “We crafted the approach to be open, to tear down barriers where they existed previously and to really start pumping these technology products through the agency and into our missions.”

This approach will also benefit small companies which have worked with, are currently working with, or plan to work with NASA, because the new program provides additional pathways for technology infusion and partnerships. “Because of the infusion paths we will create, I think that small businesses will benefit greatly from the fact that now there is a space technology program,” said Dr. Braun. “There are multiple infusion paths that are already in place now, or will be in place beginning in 2011, so the possibility of a small business innovator somewhere in the country taking their idea all the way from concept to flight has dramatically improved.”

Infusion opportunities for small business in the past have been limited to a specific mission directive. However, in 2011, that same company could move their idea into one of the other components within the Space Technology Program and then mature the technology from there. This is especially relevant for SBIR/STTR awardees, because the NASA SBIR/STTR program will reside under the Early Stage Innovation Component of the Space Technology Program beginning in 2011.

The Office of Chief Technologist will be the point of entry for small business, innovators and technologists looking to work with NASA. The Office of Chief Technologist’s position as point will, “Ensure that small firms do not need to worry about how large NASA is. They can just come to this office,” Dr. Braun explained. “And when I say “this office” I am not referring to headquarters necessarily, Washington, D.C., I am referring to the Office of the Chief Technologist, which is lead here in D.C., but has field offices at each of the 10 NASA centers. There are great ideas all around the country, and we want people to be able to get those ideas to NASA, hence the Center Chief Technologists are an extension of this office. They are an integral part of this office.”

Since the Apollo program launched men to the moon, the U.S.A.’s space capabilities and development activities have changed dramatically. NASA had once been the hot bed for radical concepts, high-risk developments, where innovators such as Wernher von Braun, John Hubolt and James Webb truly helped NASA make a place in history for itself. Armed with government funding, NASA and its innovators were allowed to take risks when developing truly innovative, radical, disruptive technologies – technologies that enabled new capabilities and allowed the U.S. to reach the moon first, establishing the U.S. as the worldwide leader in space technology.

Today some our most innovative thinkers like Antonio Elias, Burt Rutan and Elon Musk do not work at NASA. They have built or are a part of commercial entities. Even though many commercial space companies such as SpaceX and Orbital have often been backed by VC or angel funding, the company leaders have not lost focus of the realities of cost and performance. These companies cannot afford to expend dollars on high-risk R&D efforts because of the need to sustain profit levels, which leaves these commercial enterprises with little incentive to adopt risk-laden advanced technologies and unproven concepts. However, investments in advanced or “foundational” technologies are necessary to sustainably achieve space exploration beyond low earth orbit, and solidify the U.S.’s position as a leader in space technology. Moving forward, Dr. Braun clearly sees the role of NASA and the Space Technology Program as critical.

“The role of the government has always been to make those foundational investments in research and technology that enable these ideas, these seedlings of ideas, to be nurtured and to grow to a point where industry is willing to adopt them, taking the ideas to market,” said Dr. Braun. “The President’s vision for human space exploration is not that we are just going up and down to low earth orbit, it’s that we are going beyond low earth orbit. The way to do that, sustainably, requires technology investments today, so that we can get to those future missions tomorrow.”

NASA’s Space Technology program appears well situated to provide a programmatic approach for technology maturation that ensures innovative, radical and disruptive technologies can be matured to a point where either commercial space companies or actual mission programs are willing to adopt. This means that NASA will be the place where unmet needs are met and improved capabilities are realized and where, instead of having incremental innovations, we can – as a nation – truly gain by leaps and bounds in terms of our space capabilities.

 

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