Technological breakthroughs have been the foundation of NASA’s past success. The Apollo landings on the Moon are now an icon for the successful application of technology to a task that was once regarded as a distant dream. Exploration of the solar system is not an everyday task: it is inherently high risk and requires new technologies, new ideas, and bold applications of technology, engineering, and science to create the vehicles, support systems, and an entire new infrastructure for space operations. NASA has led in the development and application of many critically important exploration technologies. In addition, technological advances have yielded benefits far beyond space exploration itself: advanced space technologies developed by and for NASA have yielded many unanticipated public benefits.
The technologies needed for the Apollo program were generally self-evident and driven by a clear and well-defined goal. In the modern era, in which the goals of space exploration have expanded beyond a single target, the necessary technological developments have become less clear, and more effort is required to evaluate the best path for a forward-looking technology development program. NASA has now entered a transitional stage, moving from the past era in which desirable technological goals were evident to all, to one in which careful choices among many conflicting alternatives must be made. The final report for this study, which will be issued early in 2012, will provide specific guidance on how the effectiveness of the technology development program managed by NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist can be enhanced in the face of scarce resources by focusing on the highest-priority technologies.