The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is responsible for developing advanced space technologies that will lower the cost and improve the performance of existing space activities and enable new ones. Although NASA has recently proved adept at incorporating modern technologies into its spacecraft, the agency currently supports relatively little work in long-term space technology development. To enable ambitious future space activities and to achieve its long-term goals, NASA needs to engage in space research and technology development (R&T) in critical areas needed for the long term.
NASA requested that the National Research Council (NRC) examine the nation's space technology needs in the post-2000 time frame and identify high-risk, high-payoff technologies that could improve the capabilities and reduce the costs of NASA, other government, and commercial space programs. The NRC was also asked to suggest how NASA can work more effectively with industry and universities to develop these technologies. To accomplish these ends, the Committee on Advanced Space Technology, under the auspices of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, undertook a systematic process of information gathering and technology assessment.
One outcome of this process was a list of six key technologies that the committee believes NASA should support with low-level (about $3 million to $5 million a year for each technology for three to five years) R&T funding. All six are high-risk, high-payoff technologiesthere is no guarantee that they will prove to be viable, but if they are, they could greatly reduce the cost or increase the capabilities of future space activities. This list does not include all of the high-
risk, high-payoff technologies NASA should pursue. The six technologies were extracted from a larger list by filtering out technologies that would not be enabling for future missions, were already under development elsewhere, or would have required more than low-level funding to produce major improvements. In three to five years, NASAor a group sponsored by NASAshould re-examine potential space technologies and technology requirements to rewrite or modify this list. The six chosen technologies represent a small but broad investment portfolio that appears to hold high promise for large future benefits at the cost of a small investment today.
Wideband, High Data-Rate Communications over Planetary Distances
Wideband, high data-rate communications over planetary distances could enable live transmissions of high-resolution images from robotic rovers, orbiters, and astronauts on missions to other planets. Although several U.S. Department of Defense agencies and some private companies are currently working on wideband, high data-rate communications, NASA will need to take the lead in developing technologiesincluding high-precision spatial acquisition and tracking systems and high-efficiency lasersto support such communications over planetary distances.
Precisely Controlled Space Structures
Structures in a weightless environmentespecially structures that are unique to spacepose difficult control challenges. These challenges must be met to enable the next generation of instruments for space-based astronomy and to support the development of very large antennas for communications and remote sensing. NASA is uniquely suited to conduct this type of research in areas such as controlling deformable reflectors and formation flying of spacecraft to create distributed sensors.
Microelectromechanical Systems for Space
Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) could enable the development of small, relatively low-cost spacecraft devices and subsystems with very low mass, volume, and power consumption. MEMS could be used to enhance conventional spacecraft or to create miniature spacecraft that could enable a broad range of new space activities. Although a vigorous government and industry-supported MEMS research effort is under way, little of this work is aimed at space applications. Low-level NASA funding in areas such as spacecraft bus technologies and NASA-unique sensors could therefore lead to significant advances.
Space Nuclear Power Systems
Advanced space nuclear power systems will probably be required to support deep space missions, lunar and planetary bases, extended human exploration
missions, and high-thrust, high-efficiency propulsion systems. A major investment will eventually be needed to develop advanced space nuclear power sources, but low level R&T investments can make the systems that are eventually developed more efficient, less expensive, and safer. Currently, limited work is being done on advanced space nuclear power to enable ambitious future space activities. Unless NASA supports R&T in areas such as innovative conversion methods or innovative packaging and integration, future space nuclear power systems will probably be more expensive and less efficient.
Low-Cost, Radiation-Resistant Memories and Electronics
Radiation in the space environment can damage sensitive electronics, disrupt signals, cause single-event phenomena, and degrade microelectronic devices. Low-cost, high-capacity, low-mass, radiation-resistant memories and electronics are not currently available. NASA's support is needed to lay the groundwork for major improvements in radiation-resistant memories and electronics. NASA R&T support should focus on exploratory research in low mass shielding, reducing the frequency of and improving recovery from single-event upsets, and the use of radiation-resistant materials.
Extraction and Utilization of Extraterrestrial Resources
The capability to extract and utilize space resources can significantly improve the performance and lower the costs of planetary exploration, reduce the cost of constructing and shielding human habitats, and enable and accelerate the development of new generations of in-space capabilities. Virtually no other organization is working in this field, so NASA must support R&T in certain areas, such as planetary material handling, materials processing technologies, and systems design and engineering to optimize process efficiencies.
Cooperative Development Of Key Technologies
Finding the most effective ways to develop new technologies is as important as choosing which technologies to pursue. The committee examined how NASA currently manages technology development and how the agency could work more effectively with industry and academia to develop advanced space technologies.
The committee found that NASA's new approach to decentralized R&T management is appropriate but faces challenges in providing support for advanced R&T on cross-cutting technologies or technologies that will pay off only in the long term. For NASA's new approach to work, the Office of the Chief Technologist will require strong and continued support from NASA senior leadership.
Although the agency has been successful in conducting cooperative R&T, NASA has often had difficulties conducting cooperative R&T with universities
and private companies. To ensure that the most capable people and resources are involved in its R&T, NASA must involve both industry (including small businesses) and academia in its R&T programs. The Office of the Chief Technologist should work with the NASA centers to organize cooperative programs among NASA centers, universities, and industries to leverage NASA's investment in new technology. NASA should also develop a ''fellows" program to place superior employees into universities for periods of one to two years and support subsequent collaborative efforts after they have returned to the agency.