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)
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 (ECLSS) 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, reduced-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.
• 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.
A robust space technology base is urgently needed. The Steering Committee for NASA Technology Roadmaps 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
The 2010 NASA Authorization Act, signed into law on October 11, 2010, directed NASA to create a program to maintain its research and development base in space technology:
It is critical that NASA maintain an agency space technology base that helps align mission directorate investments and supports long term needs to complement mission-directorate funded research and support, where appropriate, multiple users, building upon its Innovative Partnerships Program and other partnering approaches. (Public Law 111-267, Sec. 904)
On February 14, 2011, NASA issued its 2011 NASA Strategic Plan outlining agency goals and plans for achieving those goals in the 2011-2021 decade and beyond (NASA, 2011). The strategic plan highlights five strategic goals that relate directly to the scope of this study. The sixth strategic goal deals directly with the agency’s aeronautics mission, which as mentioned in the preface is outside the statement of task for this study. The 14 draft space technology roadmaps identify a number of critical enabling technologies that the steering committee and panels evaluated and prioritized. Together they represent a foundation upon which to build and achieve the strategic goals outlined in the 2011 strategic plan:
1. Extend and sustain human activities across the solar system.
2. Expand scientific understanding of the Earth and the universe in which we live.
3. Create the innovative new space technologies for our exploration, science, and economic future.
4. Advance aeronautics research for societal benefit.
5. Enable program and institutional capabilities to conduct NASA’s aeronautics and space activities.
6. Share NASA with the public, educators, and students to provide opportunities to participate in our Mission, foster innovation, and contribute to a strong national economy.
As part of the effort to develop a detailed plan for implementing the Space Technology Program, OCT developed a set of 14 draft technology roadmaps. These roadmaps establish time sequencing and interdependencies of advanced space technology research and development over the next 5 to 30 years for the following 14 technology areas (Tas):
• TA01. Launch Propulsion Systems
• TA02. In-Space Propulsion Technologies
• TA03. Space Power and Energy Storage
• TA04. Robotics, TeleRobotics, and Autonomous Systems
1The draft space technology roadmaps are available at http://www.nasa.gov/offices/oct/strategic_integration/technology_roadmap.html
• TA05. Communication and Navigation
• TA06. Human Health, Life Support, and Habitation Systems
• TA07. Human Exploration Destination Systems
• TA08. Science Instruments, Observatories, and Sensor Systems
• TA09. Entry, Descent, and Landing Systems
• TA10. Nanotechnology
• TA11. Modeling, Simulation, and Information Technology and Processing
• TA12. Materials, Structures, Mechanical Systems, and Manufacturing
• TA13. Ground and Launch Systems Processing
• TA14. Thermal Management Systems
For each TA, OCT established a cross-agency team to draft each of the 14 technology roadmaps. They were released to the public in November 2010 (see http://www.nasa.gov/offices/oct/home/roadmaps/index.html). The draft technology roadmaps identified a wide variety of opportunities to revitalize NASA’s advanced space technology development program. The draft roadmaps represented the starting point and point of departure for the steering committee to evaluate and prioritize technologies and recommend areas for improvement. Also, there were a number of common themes across the roadmaps where recommendations are made that if dealt with collectively would lead to improvements as a whole.
The roadmaps are organized through a technology area breakdown structure (see Appendix B), which in turn served as the structure for evaluating the technologies for this study. Level 1 represents the technology area (TA), which is the title of the roadmap. Each roadmap describes level 2 subareas and level 3 technologies.2 The draft set of 14 roadmaps produced by NASA contained 320 level 3 technologies. The panels assessed the technology area breakdown structure of the 14 roadmaps and developed a revised structure containing 295 level 3 technologies.3 (The full revised technology area breakdown structure is shown in Appendix B.) Of those 295 technologies, 83 were considered high priority by the panels and are summarized in Chapter 2. The steering committee then evaluated only those 83 technologies in its prioritization. In its first round of prioritization, the steering committee developed an interim list of 11-15 technologies per objective, for a total of 28 unique technologies. The final round of prioritization resulted in 7-8 technologies per objective, for a total of 16 unique technologies. These steps in the prioritization process are described in Chapter 3.
The purpose of the roadmaps is to establish a sustained collection of technology development goals for the next 5 to 30 years. In the process of defining level 3 technologies of interest, NASA mission directorates helped identify “pull” technologies that could contribute to specific future missions. The roadmaps also include emerging “push” technologies that may enable mission capabilities that lie outside the baseline requirements of planned missions and which may enable missions not yet envisioned.
This report is the second of two reports produced by this study. An interim report, released in August 2011, defines a modified set of level 3 technologies for many of the roadmaps. It also makes high-level observations associated with the roadmaps and identifies technology gaps that cut across multiple roadmaps. The interim report is available online at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13228.
Most of the technologies included in the roadmaps have multiple stakeholders where cooperative research and technology development is beneficial to all parties involved and combines resources where appropriate to achieve greater progress. Other agencies and departments in the government, such as the Department of Defense, as well as parallel efforts in industry and universities, have ongoing technology development efforts. NASA program managers
2 Many of the roadmaps also list and/or describe level 4 technology topics in text and/or figures. Per the statement of task, this report is focused at the level 3 technologies, of which there were more than 300. For the most part, space does not allow this report to address the even more numerous level 4 technology topics
3The evaluation process established by the steering committee was designed to focus on assessing the individual technologies and ranking them in priority order rather than on how the technologies were grouped into the 14 roadmaps.
and researchers need to work cooperatively with their peers outside the agency in a collaborative research and development partnership, where appropriate. Similarly, in the interest of expediting technology transition when OCT believes it is ready to hand off the technology for application, coordination with the end user needs to occur early and often. End users internal to NASA are the mission directorates in the agency in science, exploration, and operations. They are also partners. With a proactive culture of collaboration, OCT will encourage technology transition to end users in industry or other government agencies and departments, or in universities that might pursue new avenues outside NASA space objectives. The scope of this study included space technology needs of industry for commercial space and space technologies that address national needs like energy, medicine, etc. on a broader scale.
This report represents the compiled technical input, assessment, and prioritization of NASA’s draft roadmaps by six study panels and the steering committee. The panels, which were composed of subject-matter experts, were each responsible for evaluating one to four draft roadmaps. The steering committee was responsible for providing guidance to the panels, coordinating their work, and compiling both the interim report and this final report.
Chapter 2 describes the process used by each panel and summarizes their key results in the form of a prioritized list of top technical challenges and a description of high-priority technologies for each of the 14 draft roadmaps. A more detailed description of the results of each panel’s deliberations for each roadmap appears in Appendices D (for TA01) through Q (for TA14). Specifically, those appendixes contain the following:
• A description of the draft roadmap’s technology area, including changes made by the panels to the list of level 3 technologies associated with each technology area,
• The top technical challenges determined by the panel,
• A detailed numerical assessment of the level 3 technologies,
• A description and assessment of each of the highest-priority technologies,
• A brief explanation of medium- and low-priority technology ratings,4
• A discussion of development and schedule changes for technologies in the roadmap,
• Other general comments, and
• A summary of the public workshop held on the draft roadmap.
Chapter 3 describes the process used by the steering committee to take the inputs from the panels on each roadmap and develops recommendations on the highest-priority technologies for emphasis in the next 5 years of the 30-year window considered. Chapter 3 prioritizes the most important top technical challenges using an organizing framework defined by three technology objectives:
• Extend and sustain human activities beyond low Earth orbit.
• Explore the evolution of the solar system and the potential for life elsewhere (in situ measurements).
• Expand our understanding of Earth and the universe in which we live (remote measurements).
Chapter 4 addresses observations and develops additional recommendations for topics that transcend a single roadmap, including many of the topics addressed in the interim report (which did not include recommendations).
NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). 2011. 2011 NASA Strategic Plan. NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.
NRC (National Research Council). 2009. America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs. The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.