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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs
The responsibility to provide for this advanced technology base for civil space activities rests with NASA, in partnership with universities, other government agencies, and industry. The “customers” for the products of technology are NASA, NOAA, industry, and military space programs in which multiple-use technology is applicable. Because of budget pressures and institutional priorities, however, NASA has largely abandoned its role in supporting the broad portfolio of civil space applications, and the space technology base has thus been allowed to erode and is now deficient. The former NASA advanced technology development program no longer exists. Most of what remained was moved to the Constellation Program and has become oriented specifically to risk reduction supporting the ongoing internal development program.11
To fulfill NASA’s broader mandate, an independent advanced technology development effort is required, much like that accomplished by DARPA in the DOD, focused not so much on technology that today’s program managers require but on what future program managers would wish they could have if they knew they needed it, or would want if they knew they could have it. This effort should engage the best science and engineering talent in the country wherever it resides—in universities, industry, NASA centers, or other government laboratories—independent of pressures to sustain competency at the NASA centers. A DARPA-like organization established within NASA should report to NASA’s Administrator, be independent of ongoing NASA development programs, and focus on supporting the broad civil space portfolio through the competitive funding of world-class technology and innovation projects at universities, federally funded research and development centers, government research laboratories, and NASA centers.
A solid technology base is essential to the U.S. civil space program. Yet financial support for this technology base has eroded over the years. The United States is now living on the innovation funded in the past and has an obligation to replenish this foundational element. Furthermore, the synergy between research and education will yield even greater benefits if funding supports an extramural program at U.S. universities. University research ensures a diverse approach, connection to a broad research community, and encouragement of a pipeline of technically talented men and women for the U.S. workforce.
Four foundational elements—an integrated strategy, a highly capable technical workforce, an effectively sized infrastructure, and a priority investment in
National Research Council, A Constrained Space Exploration Technology Program: A Review ofNASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2008.