As NASA’s Chief Technologist for the past two years, Bobby Braun’s job has been to invest in early-stage technologies that will pay off down the line for the agency’s science, aeronautics, and human spaceflight missions. He spoke with Senior Editor Tony Reichhardt in August, shortly before leaving NASA to return to academia.
Air & Space: Can you give examples of new technologies that have had a big impact on NASA missions?
Braun: Just recently, NASA launched the Juno spacecraft to Jupiter. The coolest thing to me is that it’s going to do the mission entirely on solar power. In fact, it’s the first mission that’s gone that far from the sun on solar power. We’ve had spacecraft that have gone farther, but they were all nuclear-powered. Ten years ago, I would have said we can’t do the science we want to do at Jupiter with solar power. But NASA has, through modest investments in technology, gradually improved the efficiency of solar cells launched into space.
Here’s another example of energy-related technology that has gone into use on Earth. I spent a couple of years working on a mission called the Mars 2001 Lander, that never actually launched. In a way, it did fly later, stripped down as Phoenix [but the original mission was canceled]. There was an experiment that was supposed to fly on the 2001 lander that was going to make propellant from the constituents of the Mars atmosphere. It was designed by a professor at Arizona State University, and after the mission was put on hiatus, he left Arizona State and started a small company in California. He realized that what he had designed, if you ran it in reverse, was a really efficient fuel cell. The company that he started is called Bloom Energy, and is now producing “BloomBoxes,” very efficient fuel cells, that are popping up all over Silicon Valley. They have Bloom Boxes at eBay headquarters and Google headquarters. The inventor originally was focused on Mars, but he took that idea and converted it to something that could become part of our nation’s energy future.
A & S: What are some of the technologies currently in the pipeline that we’re likely to see on future space missions?
Braun: Robonaut 2 is a partnership with NASA and General Motors. If you go into automobile manufacturing plants today, what you’ll find is that all the factory workers work in one part of the factory, and all the robotic arms work in a different part of the factory. The robots weren’t designed to work in proximity to humans. It’s actually dangerous. But there are some tasks that are best done together, by a human-robotic team. So GM is going to be using derivatives of Robonaut in their factories, and NASA is going to be using Robonaut on the space station to offload some of the more mundane tasks from the crew.
Down at the Marshall Space Flight Center, we are constructing large-scale composite tanks to hold cryogenic fuels. Traditionally all of our launch vehicles have used aluminum, or aluminum-lithium tanks. We believe there is a potential for a 30 percent mass savings with composites. These systems aren’t ready today, and they won’t fly on a launch vehicle tomorrow. What we need to do is to build a big tank, put it under loads, and show that it works. We can do that on the ground. And when we do, we will prove the technology for future incarnations of NASA’s heavy lift launch vehicle. Or perhaps the expendable launch vehicle industry might be interested. They also might be used on future planetary landers.