Historically, the United States has been a world leader in aerospace endeavors in both the government and commercial sectors. A key factor in aerospace leadership is continuous development of advanced technology, which is critical to U.S. ambitions in space, including a human mission to Mars.
While movies like The Martian have excited the public about a possible human mission to Mars and led to a record number of 18,300 applicants for NASA’s astronaut class of 2017 (significantly higher than the previous record of 8,000 in 1978), the fundamental technologies to accomplish many NASA missions are not keeping pace with the interest. Key technology challenges for a human mission to the Mars surface include mitigating the effects of space radiation; improving in-space propulsion and power systems; developing the ability to land heavy payloads on the surface of Mars; improving the reliability of environmental control and life support systems and closing the water, air, and food cycles; and providing the necessary spacesuits, rovers, human–machine interfaces, in situ resource utilization, and other engineering systems that can operate for an extended mission in the challenging environments in space and on the surface of Mars.
Human spaceflight is not the only NASA activity that requires new technology to remain viable. NASA successfully completed the survey of our solar system with the recent New Horizons mission to Pluto, again stimulating public interest and delivering surprising scientific results. To take the next steps in robotic exploration of the solar system, advanced technologies are needed to improve the ability of vehicles to travel to and navigate with greater autonomy in a wide range of gravitational, environmental, surface, and subsurface conditions at great distances from Earth.
Knowledge of the universe beyond our solar system is gained by missions like the James Webb Space Telescope, which will carry on the legacy of the Hubble Space Telescope and other historic space science missions. In order for future missions to maintain a steady cadence of new discoveries, investments must be made in key technologies, especially those related to scientific measurement technologies and the spacecraft that support the instruments.1
Commercial space ventures in recent years have been proliferating, with investments coming from the traditional aerospace industry, from new aerospace companies, and from nonaerospace companies such as Amazon and Google. These commercial space ventures are creating important new opportunities for NASA collaboration. NASA’s authorizing legislation, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 2010, Sec. 20102(c), directs it to “seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.” NASA has provided markets both for commercial crew and cargo delivery to the International Space Station (ISS) and for space
launch services for other missions. Even so, NASA could do more to create “a proactive and sustained partnership between NASA and industry that goes beyond treating the private sector as a contractor, which is typically the case when NASA funds industry to achieve NASA goals.”2
To continue to achieve progress, NASA is currently executing a series of aeronautics and space technology programs using a roadmapping process to identify technology needs and improve the management of its technology development portfolio. The NASA Authorization Act of 2010, 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. (National Aeronautics and Space Act of 2010, Sec. 904)
In response, NASA established a stand-alone, crosscutting space technology mission directorate and created the Space Technology program with the goal of rapidly developing, demonstrating, and infusing revolutionary, high-payoff technologies for the benefit of NASA missions, the aerospace industry, government agencies, and other national needs. NASA also created a set of 14 draft technology roadmaps in 2010 to guide the development of space technologies. These roadmaps were the subject of a comprehensive independent review by the National Research Council (NRC), which issued a report in 2012 entitled NASA Space Technology Roadmaps and Priorities: Restoring NASA’s Technological Edge and Paving the Way for a New Era in Space.3 Among other things, that report succinctly identified a fundamental issue facing NASA today:
The technologies needed for the Apollo program were generally self-evident and driven by a clear and well defined goal. In the modern era, the goals of the country’s broad space mission include multiple objectives, extensive involvement from both the public and private sectors, choices among multiple paths to different destinations, and very limited resources. As the breadth of the country’s space mission has expanded, 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.4
NASA has been addressing this issue. Major effort has gone into characterizing its technology portfolio and improving the roadmapping process since the 2012 NRC report. The appointment of a chief technologist at NASA (which took place before the 2012 study), the creation of a Strategic Space Technology Investment Plan (SSTIP), and the development of the TechPort database are all positive steps toward improving the understanding of NASA’s more than 1,400 diverse space technology projects with an annual cost of nearly $1 billion.5
In 2015, NASA took another important step by updating the 2010 draft technology roadmaps, resulting in a new set of roadmaps. The 2015 roadmaps assess the relevance of the technologies by showing their linkage to a set of mission classes and design reference missions (DRMs) from the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and the Science Mission Directorate. The 2015 roadmaps also include a new roadmap for aeronautics. The relevance of the new aeronautics technologies is indicated by their linkage to a set of aeronautic thrusts from the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate that could be executed in the next 20 years. In the spring of 2015, the updated roadmaps were released to the public for review and comment.6
2 National Research Council (NRC), 2009, America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., pp. 56 and 57.
3 NRC, 2012, NASA Space Technology Roadmaps and Priorities: Restoring NASA’s Technological Edge and Paving the Way for a New Era in Space, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
4 NRC, 2012, NASA Space Technology Roadmaps and Priorities, pp. 10 and 11.
5 NASA Office of the Inspector General, 2015, NASA’s Efforts to Manage Its Space Technology Portfolio, Report No. IG-16-008, Washington, D.C.
6 NASA, 2015, NASA Technology Roadmaps: Introduction, Crosscutting Technologies, and Index, Washington, D.C., July. (In addition to this introductory volume, there are 15 additional volumes, one for each technology area. All are available at http://www.nasa.gov/offices/oct/home/roadmaps/index.html; accessed May 14, 2016.)
Also in 2015 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine were asked to assemble a committee to prioritize new technologies in the 2015 NASA roadmaps for TA 1-14 (that is, technologies in the 2015 roadmaps for TA 1-14 that had not been assessed in the 2012 NRC report). Per the study statement of task (see Appendix A), the new technologies have been prioritized using the same process and criteria that were used in the 2012 NRC report. The aeronautics roadmap is not included in this review because it uses the 2012 NRC report as a baseline, and there was not an aeronautics roadmap for the prior study to review. This review did not revisit the prioritization of the technologies already assessed in the 2012 NRC report, nor did it consider whether any technologies should be added to or dropped from the 2015 NASA roadmaps.
The committee was also tasked with recommending “a methodology for conducting independent reviews of future updates to NASA’s space technology roadmaps, which are expected to occur every 4 years. The recommended methodology takes into account the extent of changes expected to be implemented in the roadmap from one generation to the next and the amount of time since the 2012 comprehensive NRC independent review of the roadmaps.”
The 2012 NRC report included 11 findings and recommendations related to observations and general themes (see Appendix E). This study was not tasked either with reviewing those findings and recommendations or assessing NASA’s response to them. However, some of the topics addressed by these findings and recommendations are mentioned in some of the recommendations in this report.
The content of the 2015 roadmaps is organized using a four-level technology area breakdown structure (TABS). Level 1 represents the technology area (TA), which is the title of the roadmap:
- TA 1, Launch Propulsion Systems
- TA 2, In-Space Propulsion Technologies
- TA 3, Space Power and Energy Storage
- TA 4, Robotics and Autonomous Systems
- TA 5, Communications, Navigation, and Orbital Debris Tracking and Characterization Systems
- TA 6, Human Health, Life Support, and Habitation Systems
- TA 7, Human Exploration Destination Systems
- TA 8, Science Instruments, Observatories, and Sensor Systems
- TA 9, Entry, Descent, and Landing Systems
- TA 10, Nanotechnology
- TA 11, Modeling, Simulation, Information Technology, and Processing
- TA 12, Materials, Structures, Mechanical Systems, and Manufacturing
- TA 13, Ground and Launch Systems
- TA 14, Thermal Management Systems
- TA 15, Aeronautics
Each roadmap describes level 2 technology subareas, level 3 technologies, and level 4 research tasks. The 2012 NRC report focused its review on the level 3 technologies. The TABS for the 2010 draft NASA roadmaps contained 320 level 3 technologies. The modified TABS recommended in the 2012 NRC report contained 295 level 3 technologies. The TABS for the new 2015 roadmaps contains 340 level 3 technologies. The net change in the number of technologies in the various TABS arises from many factors: Technologies have been added, deleted, revised, merged, and so on. A detailed comparison of the technologies in the 2010, 2012, and 2015 TABS (see Appendix B) revealed that 42 technologies met the criteria for review in this report.
The 2012 NRC report was based on a comprehensive review that considered all 320 level 3 technologies in the NASA’s 2010 draft roadmaps (TA 1 through TA 14). The review established evaluation criteria (also used in this study), identified gaps, and recommended priorities for the technologies (see Appendix C). NASA augmented each of the draft 2010 roadmaps with a new section that summarized the NRC’s recommendations and comments and
released a final version of the roadmaps to the public in April 2012. The NRC’s guidance also heavily influenced the technology priorities presented in the NASA 2013 Strategic Space Technology Investment Plan.
Chapters 2 and 3 describe the new technologies addressed in this report and their prioritization by the committee. Also presented is where the new technologies fit with respect to the previous prioritization of technologies in the list of 83 high-priority technologies and the list of 16 highest-priority technologies in the 2012 report.
Chapter 4 describes a recommended methodology for conducting independent reviews of future updates to NASA’s technology roadmaps. This methodology takes into account the improved process that NASA used to generate the 2015 roadmaps and the value that independent reviews can bring.