A.1 Letter on NASA Advanced Technology Development
On October 24, 1996, National Research Council Chair Bruce Alberts sent the following letter, which was prepared with the consultation of the Space Studies Board and the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, to NASA Administrator Daniel S.Goldin.
I am writing to reaffirm the National Research Council’s interest in NASA’s technology research and development efforts and to share our view of the importance of long-term advanced technology research.
As you have often stated, NASA should be a technology development agency, and innovative technologies are key to achieving successful science missions at affordable costs. The NRC has issued several reports during the past decade intended to help strengthen NASA’s technology development efforts. These include Space Technology to Meet Future Needs (NRC, 1987), Improving NASA’s Technology for Space Science (NRC, 1992), Small Spacecraft Technology (NRC, 1995), and Managing the Space Sciences (NRC, 1995). The technology analysis chapter of this last and most recent report was prepared by a joint committee composed of representatives from the NRC Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and the Space Studies Board, and it emphasizes the importance of advanced space technology.
I have attached a few annotated quotations that summarize concerns from these NRC reports regarding longterm advanced technology research at NASA. As you know, to have a balanced technology effort, NASA needs a central focus and an agency-wide plan for both near- and long-term technology development. We hope the new Office of the Chief Technologist will help to fill these roles, and we are eager to support you and your staff in your efforts to ensure technology readiness for the future.
The Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board’s Committee on Advanced Space Technology is conducting a study on Space Technology for the 21st Century that we anticipate will be helpful to NASA in its planning process. This committee’s terms of reference encompass periodic reviews of the Integrated Technology Plan, but formal planning for technology development, both near- and long-term, still needs to be developed by NASA. In addition, the NRC continues to operate a Joint Committee on Technology for Space Science, managed jointly by the Space Studies Board and the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, and thus incorporating both scientists and engineers. This committee is currently working on a project related to reducing life-cycle costs for science missions. We would welcome any request from you and your implementation offices for analyses by either committee in areas that are of special interest.
We, of course, look forward to working with you and your staff to ensure that NASA’s technology programs provide the effective leadership that NASA and the country need. I would be pleased to attend a meeting with the ASEB and SSB committee chairs and you, if you think that would be helpful to move this important agenda forward.
Improving NASA’s Technology for Space Science defines an advanced technology program as having two components, a near-term “focused” program and a longer-term “base” program.(1) Managing the Space Sciences discusses in more detail the components of a near-term technology program and recommends it be largely managed by the relevant mission office.(2) The features of near-term technology were defined as:
Technologies that must be refined as part of a flight project. This category includes developments such as the initial use of well-understood, composite structures to accommodate weight growth elsewhere in the spacecraft, or the incorporation of well-understood, autonomous operations to reduce mission costs.
Advanced Technology Development in support of anticipated flight projects within a single space science office. This category includes projects such as the development of a new sensor array or a more effective in situ soil analyzer.
Focused technology development in support of anticipated flight projects in more than one space science office. This category includes projects such as the development of a smaller and more powerful flight control computer or a lighter attitude control system—items that might be used in Earth orbit or on missions to the planets.
Technology development in support of an approved program designed to validate technologies for future space science missions. Examples include projects under way as part of the Small Satellite Technology Initiative (SSTI) or New Millennium programs.
Managing the Space Sciences continues, “Far-term technologies (those requiring more than five years to be ready for a flight demonstration) should be selected for their potential to enhance performance significantly or lower the cost of undertaking science in space.” It recommends that “promising far-term technologies should be identified, funded, and managed by the Office of Space Access and Technology.” It further states, “These far-term projects should be carried out by the best-qualified individuals or teams within NASA, industry, or academia as determined by peer review. Tight budgets make it more important than ever that a regular and rigorous review process be put in place to identify those projects that ought to be terminated.”
Regarding the need for a central focus for technology, Improving NASA’s Technology for Space Science noted, “In spite of its pervasiveness and importance to NASA, there is no organized central control, information center, or focal point for all of NASA’s technology development efforts, which now are spread throughout the agency.”(3) It recommended, “The NASA Administrator should act to establish a coordinating position with the clear responsibility to ensure cooperation between technology development efforts within different parts of NASA. An appropriate early task would be…formulation of an agency-wide working plan for technology….” This recommendation remains valid, and by identifying and instituting appropriate coordinating mechanisms, an opportunity exists to bring greater coherence and effectiveness to NASA’s technology efforts.
With reference to the need for a technology plan, in 1991 the [then] Office of Advanced Space Technology produced an Integrated Technology Plan; however, there has not been an agency-wide plan for technology since then. Managing the Space Sciences states, “…the lack of an overarching strategy or process makes it difficult for the science offices to combine limited resources to acquire relevant technologies that span the needs of more than one office, or for the agency to sustain development of technologies over more than a few budgeting periods. Without a unifying plan, NASA cannot be confident that it has identified critical weaknesses in space technology— particularly for those technologies that are unique to the space environment…. While ad hoc decision making is often necessary within dynamic organizations, there is no virtue in the permanent absence of a well-understood plan.” The report continues, “The agency planning process may encompass the needs of all NASA space technology stakeholders, but the resulting plan must, at a minimum, incorporate the interests of all the science offices and the relevant activities of the Office of Space Access and Technology…. While the details of the plan will vary from year to year, the planning process should be stable.”