Advanced space technologies are needed to enable many potential space activities and to reduce the cost and improve the performance of others. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), directed the agency to conduct the nation's civil space activities to contribute materially to "the preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology…" (Space Act, 1958). Subsequent national space policies have reaffirmed NASA's responsibility for the development of advanced civil space technologies (The White House, 1989, 1996).
In the agency's early years, NASAoften working through private contractors and university grantsdeveloped many technologies for use in its space missions. A 1987 report by the National Research Council (NRC), however, found that "since the Apollo program, little has been done to enhance or develop the basic technologies that will enable future missions or provide the nation with a variety of options for the space program" (NRC, 1987). Since the late 1980s, NASA's space technology program has continued to evolve as agency priorities have shifted in response to changes in the larger environment.
One change in NASA's environment has been the rapid growth in the availability of technologies from outside NASA that are applicable to space uses. These new technologies are being developed by the rapidly growing commercial space industry and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), which has made its new technologies available to NASA and the commercial sector with increasing frequency. Rather than producing new space technologies, NASA has often used technologies developed outside the agency. Technology developers outside NASA, however, are generally not focused on achieving the agency's long-term goals.
Budget constraints have also had a major impact on NASA since the late 1980s. The agency has recently responded to constrained budgets by developing small spacecraft that incorporate modern technologies, increasing the number of missions and reducing the cost of transportation to orbit. These efforts, however, are intended to yield clear benefits in the relatively near termthe agency currently supports very little work on long-term space technology development.
If NASA is to continue its drive for more capable and cost-effective missions into the twenty-first century, it will need advanced and innovative technologiessome of which may require years to develop and mature. The commercial space industry and other government agencies could provide some of these technologies, but some critical technologies will require long lead-time NASA research and technology development (R&T) to ensure that they are available when required. NASA also will have to develop a plan and mechanism to support advanced technology development for the long term if it intends to be a source of technology for industry and other government programs in the new century.
The NRC Committee on Advanced Space Technology examined future technology needs and opportunities to create a technology development portfolio of six enabling space technologies that would maximize the impact of the small amount of technology development funding that NASA is expected to be able to provide in a constrained budget environment. In this report, the six enabling space technologies are examined in detail, and key areas for future NASA support are identified. Suggestions are also offered for improving NASA's approach to space technology development, focusing primarily on how the agency can work more effectively with industry and academia.
National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (Space Act), Public Law 85-568, 72 Stat., 426. July 29.
NRC (National Research Council). 1987. Space Technology to Meet Future Needs. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
The White House. 1989. National Space Policy Directives and Executive Charter NSPD-1. November 2.
The White House. 1996. National Space Policy Fact Sheet. September 19.