NASA’s Future in Technology

Bobby Braun shares what’s in the Agency’s R&D pipeline.

NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun addressing the AARP "Orlando @50+" Conference in Florida last year. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
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Another technology we’re advancing is for bringing things back from orbit. What you want is a very large entry system that has very low mass. There have been advances in soft, inflatable materials, and in 2009 we had a sounding rocket flight at Wallops Island, in partnership with a couple of companies, where we flew a subscale article of one of these hypersonic inflatable reentry vehicles, called IRVE-2. The idea is that the thing would compress into a very small volume [for launch], then in space you would inflate the device enough that it’s essentially rigid. Then you have this large structure to return payloads. This could be used to return payloads from the space station, or to land large payloads on Mars or other planetary bodies. In the sounding rocket test we got to Mach 6. We ultimately need to get to Mach 20. We’re testing a bigger system in 2012, then ultimately, a full-scale test article would prove the technology in orbit. 

One last example: Storing propellants in space. If we send humans to Mars, we’ll do so on a vehicle that’s almost 80 percent propellant. To assemble that [Mars] ship, we’ll need a number of launches just for fuel. Those launches will occur over a period of time, and currently when we send cryogenic propellants into space, we lose a lot of propellant. It boils away. So [using today's technology], we would have to include a couple of extra launches just to send up the fuel that we lost from the first launch. What we’re working on at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and Goddard  Space Flight Center in Maryland are technologies that will allow us to store that propellant in space and to move it around without significant loss. Some “zero boil-off” technologies would do it without any loss whatsoever, but we’re not quite ready for that yet. The first systems we do will be just improvements 

A & S: Will you be stepping up flight opportunities for testing technologies in space?

Braun: Our Technology Demonstration Missions will take things into space and prove them so they can be infused into one of NASA’s future missions. We just announced three of these: a solar sail, a demonstration of space laser communications, and a deep space atomic clock. We also have other programs using airplanes like the Zero-G “Vomit comet” and the commercial reusable suborbital program that will potentially use vehicles from Virgin Galactic, Armadillo, and other companies. 

So we’re trying to use all the tools in the toolbox. We want to advance as much technology as we can in the most cost-effective way. If we can advance it with a ground-based test, that’s what we’re going to do. And if we have to go to orbit, to the Space Station or maybe a free-flying spacecraft, then we’ll do that as well. 

A & S: In the past, NASA advanced technology programs have had trouble surviving. When flight missions get into budget trouble, the technology money dries up. 

Braun: NASA is always going to spend more money on missions and operations than on basic and applied research. That’s okay. But what would not be okay is if NASA made no investment in basic and applied research. That’s what enables our future missions 

NASA has always integrated three core competencies: basic and applied research; flight hardware and development for missions; and operations. NASA is the special place it is, in my view, because it’s not any one of those three. If all we did was operations, we would be like NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]. If all we did was basic research, we would be like NSF [the National Science Foundation]. NASA doesn’t want to be NSF, and it doesn’t want to be NOAA. To me it’s critical that all three of those core competencies grow over time. A NASA without basic and applied research is not NASA. 

But we’re not developing technologies just to play in the sandbox. The things that we’re funding, generally, are the things that NASA mission directors need, and want us to fund.

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