Success in executing future NASA space missions will depend on advanced technology developments that should already be underway. However, it has been years since NASA has had a vigorous, broad-based program in advanced space technology. NASA’s technology base is largely depleted, and few new, demonstrated technologies (that is, at high technology readiness levels) are available to help NASA execute its priorities in exploration and space science. As noted in a recent National Research Council report on the U.S. civil space program:
Future U.S. leadership in space requires a foundation of sustained technology advances that can enable the development of more capable, reliable, and lower-cost spacecraft and launch vehicles to achieve space program goals. A strong advanced technology development foundation is needed also to enhance technology readiness of new missions, mitigate their technological risks, improve the quality of cost estimates, and thereby contribute to better overall mission cost management…. 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. (NRC, 2009, pp. 56-57)
A robust space technology base is urgently needed. The steering committee is encouraged by the initiative NASA has taken through the Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT) to develop technology roadmaps and seek input from the aerospace technical community via this study.1
Currently available technology is insufficient to accomplish many intended space missions. Consider the following examples:
• To send humans to the Moon, Mars, or other destinations beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), new technologies are needed to (1) mitigate the effects of space radiation from both the cosmic ray background and from solar flares; (2) advance the state of the art in environmental control and life support systems (ECLSSs) so that they are highly reliable, can be easily repaired in space, and feature closed-loop water, air, and food cycles; and (3) provide advanced fail-safe mobile pressure suits, lightweight rovers, improved human-machine interfaces, in situ resource utilization (ISRU) systems, and other mechanical systems that can operate in dusty, low-gravity environments.
• NASA’s future capabilities would also benefit greatly from new technologies to build robotic vehicles that can maneuver over a wider range of gravitational, environmental, surface, and subsurface conditions with a sufficient degree of autonomy to enhance operation at large distances from Earth.
• Commercial space activities in LEO and deep-space exploration would benefit from advanced launch and space transportation systems, some of which may need to store and transfer cryogenic propellants in space. In addition, deep-space exploration options could be opened up with high-thrust electric or nuclear upper-stage propulsion systems.
• To enhance the ability of spacecraft to land on a wide variety of surfaces in our solar system, new technologies are needed to provide guidance, navigation, and control (GN&C) systems with greater precision, and real-time recognition with trajectory adaptation for surface hazard avoidance.
1 The draft roadmaps are available at http://www.nasa.gov/offices/oct/home/roadmaps/index.html.
• Future space science missions capable of addressing the highest-priority goals in astrophysics will need a new generation of lower-cost astronomical telescopes that can utilize advanced coolers and camera systems, improved focal-plane arrays, and low-cost, ultra-stable, large-aperture mirrors. Likewise, high-contrast exoplanet imaging technologies with unprecedented sensitivity, field of view, and spectroscopy of faint objects are needed to enable discovery and characterization of exoplanets orbiting in the habitable zones of their host stars.
NASA’s 14 draft space technology roadmaps have identified a wide variety of opportunities to revitalize NASA’s advanced space technology development program. As it continues the process of identifying the highest-priority technology needs, the committee is making a distinction between technology development and engineering development. Technology development, which is the intended focus of the draft roadmaps, addresses the process of understanding and evaluating capabilities needed to improve or enable performance advantages over current state-of-the-art space systems. Technologies of interest include both hardware and software, as well as testing and evaluation of hardware (from the component level to the systems level) and software (including design tools) at various levels of technology readiness for application in future space systems. In contrast, engineering development, which generally attempts to implement and apply existing or available technology, is understood for the purposes of this study to be hardware, software, design, test, verification, and validation of systems in all phases of NASA’s acquisition process. In the final report, the set of high-priority technologies will not include items where engineering development is the next step in advancing capabilities. The highest priority will be assigned to areas that require technology development to improve capability, because engineering development generally does not fall within OCT’s scope.
The steering committee will issue a final report in early 2012. The purpose of this interim report is to provide some initial feedback on key topics related to the roadmaps. Chapter 2 includes high-level observations that the steering committee and its six supporting panels made in reviewing the draft technology roadmaps and interpreting some of the general cross-cutting themes from the workshop discussions and from other public comments received by the committee. Chapter 3 identifies gaps that the committee believes need to be brought to NASA’s attention through this interim report. The committee is addressing those gaps by changing the technology breakdown structure (TABS) as indicated in Table 3.1 and Appendix C. The evaluation and prioritization of high-priority technologies that will be presented in the final report are based on the TABS as modified by the committee in this interim report.
NRC (National Research Council). 2009. America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press. Available at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/12701.html.