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A Constrained Space Exploration Technology Program: A Review of NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program 1 Introduction In January 2004, President George W. Bush announced new elements of the nation’s space policy by issuing the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE).1 Extracted from the document are the following key statements: The fundamental goal of [the VSE] is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program. In support of this goal, the United States will: Implement a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond; Extend human presence across the solar system, starting with a human return to the Moon by the year 2020, in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations; Develop the innovative technologies, knowledge, and infrastructures both to explore and to support decisions about the destinations for human exploration; and Promote international and commercial participation in exploration to further U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests. The National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Committee to Review NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program was asked to perform an independent assessment of NASA’s restructured Exploration Technology Development Program (ETDP) and to offer findings and recommendations related to “the relevance of ETDP research to the objectives of the Vision for Space Exploration, to any gaps in the ETDP research portfolio, and to the quality of ETDP research [emphasis added]” (see Appendix A). Because of the pointed reference to the VSE in the statement of task, the committee carefully reviewed the text of the VSE quoted above, consulted with NASA officials and other individuals who participated in the drafting of the statement of task, and interpreted the VSE introductory text and four bulleted points quoted above in the following way: The committee takes literally the implication of the VSE’s introductory text, which states that “a robust space exploration policy” is the means to “advance the U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests,” and not an end in itself. 1 National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), The Vision for Space Exploration, NP-2004-01-334-HQ, NASA, Washington, D.C., 2004, p. iii.
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A Constrained Space Exploration Technology Program: A Review of NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program The committee interpreted a “sustained” program in the first bulleted point of the VSE as one that will deliver value to its stakeholders now, and in such a way that it will not fail to deliver value in the future (this interpretation is consistent with the language of the hallmark Brundtland report on sustainability).2 In the context of space exploration, this implies that the program should deliver benefits to its stakeholders (enumerated as the nation’s “scientific, security and economic interests” in the VSE, and by reference others cited in the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, P.L. 85-568, as amended). In addition, a sustainable program of exploration must be affordable, must be robustly supportable in the political community, must seek the lowest practical level of risk to human life, and must clearly communicate the residual risk to key stakeholders. The committee interprets the challenge of “a human return to the Moon” in the second bulleted point as being integral with “preparation for human exploration of Mars.” One of the stated objectives of the policy and of NASA for a return to the Moon is to develop the technology, systems, and workforce capable of succeeding at the far more difficult challenge of Mars exploration. In considering the third bulleted point, the committee believes that in this study it is particularly responsible for critiquing the critical role chartered for technology not only to explore but also “to support decisions [emphasis added] about the destinations for human exploration.” This phrasing implies to the committee that the technology program should be a thought-leading element of the exploration program, enabling new approaches to a sustainable campaign of exploration. The fourth bulleted point touches on the need for the ETDP to engage the external community in technology development both commercially and internationally in order to further its interests. Thus the committee examined how the ETDP is engaging the external community. Because exploratory voyages lead to an understanding of the unknown, the benefits of exploration cannot be defined precisely in advance. The committee believes, however, that the development of technology for those exploratory missions can independently contribute value to the nation’s stakeholders, in particular, given the following: Preparing for exploration accelerates the development of technologies important for U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests; Inspiring young people to seek careers in science and engineering is critical to U.S. future competitiveness; and Discovering new knowledge about the universe will stimulate human thought and creativity in the sciences and the humanities. Specifically, the committee was asked to review the technology program supporting NASA’s exploration endeavor. Under the current NASA organization, the human exploration aspect of the VSE is entrusted to the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD). To meet its objectives, the ESMD must develop the enabling technologies for its missions of exploration. NASA’s ETDP is part of the Advanced Capabilities theme of ESMD, which also includes the Human Research Program (HRP) and the Lunar Precursor Robotic Program (Figure 1.1). As is emphasized in the committee’s findings and recommendations in Chapter 3, the interface between the ETDP (assigned the engineering portion of Advanced Capabilities) and the HRP (assigned the human portion of Advanced Capabilities) is vital and should be carefully maintained. In addition, the Lunar Precursor Robotic Program could offer a possible opportunity for technology demonstration that has not yet been realized. The ETDP develops new technologies that will enable NASA to conduct future human and robotic exploration missions, while reducing mission risk and cost. At present, the primary customers of the ETDP are the designers of flight systems in the Constellation Program, which is developing the Orion Crew Vehicle, Altair Lunar Lander, and Ares Launch Vehicles. As discussed in Chapter 4, the committee is concerned about the ETDP’s focus on near-term technologies to support these vehicles, which are all designed to operate in a relatively short duration 2 World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford University Press, New York, N.Y., 1987.
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A Constrained Space Exploration Technology Program: A Review of NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program FIGURE 1.1 An FY 2008 organization chart of NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD). The Exploration Technology Development Program is a part of the Advanced Capabilities theme. SOURCE: NASA. paradigm in which resupply from Earth is possible. It should be borne in mind in the ESMD that, by proxy, the developers of systems for which a project office has not yet been established (such as lunar surface systems and Mars exploration systems) are also customers of the ETDP. The ETDP has initiated 22 technology projects to meet the requirements that flow from the Constellation Program (the ETDP’s primary customer). Their assessment as individual projects is the first objective of this report. The projects are these: 01 Structures, Materials, and Mechanisms 02 Ablative Thermal Protection System for the Crew Exploration Vehicle 03 Lunar Dust Mitigation 04 Propulsion and Cryogenics Advanced Development 05 Cryogenic Fluid Management 06 Energy Storage 07 Thermal Control Systems 08 High-Performance and Radiation-Hardened Electronics 09 Integrated Systems Health Management 10 Autonomy for Operations 11 Intelligent Software Design 12 Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology 13 Automated Rendezvous and Docking Sensor Technology 14 Exploration Life Support 15 Advanced Environmental Monitoring and Control 16 Fire Prevention, Detection, and Suppression 17 Extravehicular Activity Technologies 18 International Space Station Research
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A Constrained Space Exploration Technology Program: A Review of NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program 19 In Situ Resource Utilization 20 Fission Surface Power 21 Supportability 22 Human-Robotic Systems/Analogs Chapter 2 of this report presents an assessment of each of these 22 individual projects. The objectives and status of each project are summarized. Ratings are assigned by the committee for the quality of the research, the effectiveness with which the research is carried out and transitioned to the exploration program, and the degree to which the research is aligned with the VSE. Gaps in the individual projects are discussed within these assessments. The committee’s findings on the 22 individual projects are indicated by the ratings in the text of the descriptions of the individual projects and are summarized in Table 2.1 in the next chapter. Chapter 2 also contains a general recommendation for improvement. Specific recommendations on the 22 projects are not made explicitly, but the commentary for each project contains observations that suggest courses of action that will strengthen the projects. The content of Chapter 2 is only slightly revised from that in the interim report of the committee issued in April 2008.3 The evaluation represents a snapshot in time as of late November and early December 2007. The dynamic nature of the ETDP and the Constellation Program may cause certain observations and recommendations to be overtaken by events, but within the scope of the NRC’s task, one comprehensive review of the projects was all that could be performed. At the conclusion of its study, the committee had developed an appreciation of the enormity of the task faced by the NASA workforce engaged in the Exploration Technology Development Program, especially in light of the significant constraints under which the ETDP operates. These include the following: The constraints imposed by a limited budget relative to the exploration goals, The still-dynamic nature of the requirements handed over from the Constellation Program, The timescale laid out to meet the requirements of the VSE, and The desire to fully employ the NASA workforce at all of its centers. In spite of these constraints, the committee was impressed with the intensity of the effort and with the dedication and enthusiasm that personnel showed for playing a part in contributing to the VSE. The committee was particularly impressed with the degree to which cooperation has developed between NASA’s field centers and with the fact that all 10 NASA centers are engaged in the program. This was quite evident in many of the briefings to the committee and in all of the program plans. NASA is to be complimented on this level of engagement. Reflecting on the overall ETDP, its interfaces with the other elements of the Advanced Capabilities office, and its interactions with the Constellation Program, the committee identified a number of crosscutting issues, discussed in Chapters 3 and 4. These two chapters attempt to consider the ETDP in a more holistic sense, taking a top-down approach to the whole program, compared to the more bottom-up approach of Chapter 2 and the interim report. Chapter 3 discusses findings and recommendations pertaining to gaps in the ETDP as a whole, including the interface with the Human Research Program. The committee’s statement of task asks for additional comments in certain areas (see Appendix A). Chapter 4, with a focus more on a programmatic level, provides findings and recommendations for increasing the effectiveness of the ETDP through its management, balancing near-term and far-term technology investments, engaging the external community, and making potentially greater use of testing in technology development. Indexing the contents of this report to the statement of task indicates the following alignment: The specific criteria for the committee to use are these: Alignment with the stated objectives of the VSE (for the individual projects: Chapter 2); 3 National Research Council, Review of NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program: An Interim Report, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2008.
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A Constrained Space Exploration Technology Program: A Review of NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program The presence of gaps in research (for the individual projects: Chapter 2; for the ETDP as a whole: Chapter 3); and The quality of research (for the individual projects: Chapter 2). NASA believes that it will be beneficial for the NRC to make additional comments and recommendations in the following areas: The effectiveness of the program in developing technology products and transitioning them to its customers (for the individual projects: Chapter 3; overall: Chapter 4); The balance between near-term and far-term technology investments (Chapter 4); The metrics used for assessing progress in technology development (commented on where appropriate: Chapter 2); The involvement of the broader community (commented on where appropriate: Chapter 2; overall: Chapter 4); The program management and implementation methodology (Chapter 4); and The overall capabilities of the research team (commented on where appropriate: Chapter 2).