In his letter introducing the new 2011 Strategic Plan for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the administrator of NASA referred to the importance of “laying the groundwork for a sustainable program of exploration and innovation” (NASA, 2011, p. i). No aspect of laying that groundwork is more important than providing the advanced space technology base that is essential to NASA’s achieving important goals in space exploration and science. Technology roadmaps that lay out the time sequencing and interdependencies of high-priority advanced space technology research and development over the next 5 to 30 years will enhance the effectiveness of future missions.
Accordingly, the initiative by the Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT) to develop comprehensive space technology roadmaps is encouraging.1 The roadmap effort is a sorely needed national endeavor.
This study of the Steering Committee for the NASA Technology Roadmap will conclude with a final report, to be issued early in 2012, that will provide specific guidance on how the effectiveness of the technology development program managed by NASA OCT can be enhanced in the face of scarce resources by focusing on the highest-priority technologies. This interim report provides some initial observations, namely:
• The effectiveness of the NASA space technology program can be enhanced by employing proven management practices and principles, particularly with regard to the following:2
— Increasing program stability,
— Pursuing evolutionary improvements and adopting intermediate goals,
— Maintaining a balance between the focus and flexibility of the roadmaps in establishing technical approaches,
— Supporting adequate flight tests of new technologies,
— Addressing facility issues (to the extent appropriate in a technology development program), and
— Continuing NASA’s tradition of cooperative development of new technologies.
• The draft technology roadmaps would benefit from being updated in light of the contents of two decadal surveys on life and physical sciences and planetary science research (NRC, 2011a,b) that were released after the current draft of the roadmaps was issued.
• Because many of the capabilities critical to the future of space science and exploration require the successful development of diverse technologies, in many cases an integrated approach that includes cross-cutting systems analyses would be preferable in the development of technologies addressed in different roadmaps.
• Advanced modeling and simulation capabilities are critical to the successful development of many technologies, but predictive modeling capabilities for many technologies are at a low level of maturity or are outdated. In some cases, new testing technologies may be needed to enable adequate assessment of important technologies in a reasonable time frame and at an affordable cost.
1 The draft roadmaps are available at http://www.nasa.gov/offices/oct/home/roadmaps/index.html.
2 Clearly, NASA recognizes the importance of practices such as these, and the steering committee understands that some involve issues, such as facility capability and workforce needs, that are not directly OCT’s responsibility.
• Developers of space technology could more easily access and understand relevant human factors considerations if consolidated crew comments from prior missions were integrated into an existing electronic International Space Station database and made accessible to all U.S. developers of exploration technology.
This interim report also identifies some gaps in the technologies included in the individual roadmaps. To a large extent, these gaps are addressed by the committee through its proposed changes in the technology area breakdown structure for the draft roadmaps. For most of the roadmaps, few, if any, changes have been made in the structure. However, for technology area 04, Robotics, TeleRobotics, and Autonomous Systems, the steering committee made broad changes in the lowest level of the breakdown structure (the “level 3” technologies). In addition, in order for this roadmap to describe and provide supporting text for each of the level 3 technologies (as the other roadmaps do), the steering committee concluded that the 04 roadmap would have to be largely rewritten.
The report also addresses gaps in the draft roadmaps that go beyond the existing technology area breakdown structure. The content of the draft roadmaps could be improved by giving more consideration to the needs of the commercial space sector, perhaps by including commercial space at the second level of the structure in some roadmaps. This approach would show the commercial relevance of a broad range of technologies across many of the roadmaps and make these technologies easier to identify. In addition, advanced avionics technologies could improve the capability, performance, and reliability of a wide range of NASA missions, but they currently get very limited mention in the roadmaps. The roadmaps could also be improved by including technologies that address the full range of space weather phenomena, not just the effects of space radiation, which is currently the case. Advanced technologies are needed to improve space situation awareness, to provide dynamic models of the space environment, and to develop innovative approaches for mitigating the varied effects of space weather and to resolve operational failures and anomalies.
The success of OCT’s technology development program is essential, because technological breakthroughs have long been the foundation of NASA’s successes, from its earliest days, to the Apollo program, to a vast array of space science missions and the International Space Station. The technologies needed for the Apollo program and many other historical efforts were generally self-evident, driven by a clear and well-defined goal. In the modern era, in which the goals of space exploration and science have expanded beyond a single objective, the necessary technological developments have become less clear, and more effort is thus required to evaluate the best path for a forward-leaning technology program. The roadmaps under development by OCT should be a timely contribution to that effort.
NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). 2011. 2011 NASA Strategic Plan. NP-2011-01-699-HQ. Washington, D.C.: NASA Headquarters. Available at http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/516579main_NASA2011StrategicPlan.pdf.
NRC (National Research Council). 2011a. Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration: Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era. Space Studies Board. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. Available at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/13048.html.
NRC. 2011b. Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022. Space Studies Board. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. Available at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/13117/html.