of Space Technologies
Finding the most effective means of developing new technologies is as important as choosing which technologies to develop. If the task of technology development is not given to the right people, the results could be disappointing. If the approach is not well organized, valuable technologies could be overlooked rather than incorporated into spacecraft. This chapter examines how NASA currently manages technology development and suggests how the agency could work more effectively with industry and universities to develop advanced space technologies.
NASA's Current Approach
In the past, many NASA resources were oriented toward operations. New programs tended to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and technology development was centralized to ensure that R&T critical to NASA's future was being addressed and given budgetary priority. NASA's technology development program had its own budget and its own associate administrator. Once a technology had been developed by the technology organization, it was offered to the agency's mission developers for use in space missions.
NASA's current technology organization reflects the fundamental shift in the agency's vision and direction under the present administrator's efforts to reinvent NASA (see Box 4-1). The agency's four enterprises (Human Exploration and Development of Space, Earth Science, Space Science, and Aeronautics and Space Transportation Technologies) are now being challenged to establish performance requirements for missions that can only be met by incorporating new
technologies. Each enterprise is responsible for acquiring or developing the required technologies.
The four-person Office of the Chief Technologist is responsible for overseeing agency-wide technology development (NASA, 1997). The chief technologist and his staff are responsible for monitoring NASA's technology development to ensure it is in line with overall agency goals. The chief technologist's influence is based on his relationship with the NASA administrator. With the administrator's support, the chief technologist can veto enterprise budgets that do not have enough R&T funding.
NASA management also plans to shift agency priorities by shifting the agency's focus from developing space systems and conducting flight operations to engineering R&T that will enable future space systems. As NASA's new Strategic Plan states, the agency ''will focus on what we do best by reestablishing NASA's role as a research and development agency" (NASA, 1997).
Assessment of the New Technology Development Process
NASA's new approach of decentralizing control of technology development seems to be in keeping with the agency's goals of pushing frontiers and defining missions that have challenging requirements. This model has many similarities with the approach commercial organizations have taken to successfully managing technology development when time-to-market is critical, by placing a premium on developing highly relevant technology and efficiently produced products.
However, NASA's task is broader than simply developing technologies and rapidly incorporating them into products. The agency's statutory charge of expanding human knowledge in space, improving space vehicles, and preserving the leadership of the United States in space science, technology, and applications (Space Act, 1958) requires that NASA also pursue R&T that goes beyond the immediate requirements of the enterprise missions. Because NASA enterprises are necessarily mission-oriented, however, their primary charters do not require them to support R&T that leads to the development of technologies that are broadly useful across a wide variety of future space activities (including commercial space activities) or technologies that will pay off over the long term.
Finding. NASA's new approach to decentralized R&T management is appropriate to the agency's new vision but may not sufficiently support advanced R&T on cross-cutting technologies or technologies that will pay off only in the long term.
Office of the Chief Technologist
The chief technologist does not have a large budget or staff. Therefore, a key to the success of the decentralized R&T approach, including NASA's ability to develop the kinds of long-range technologies discussed in this report, will be the interest shown by the NASA administrator and the authority he grants the chief technologist to act on his behalf. For NASA's new approach to work, the administrator will have to support the chief technologist as the agency's "technology conscience" who ensures that the R&T conducted by the enterprises is in keeping with the overall strategic plan of the agency.
In this enterprise-driven model, the associate administrators of the enterprises must be responsible and accountable for pushing the state of the art in technology for future missions and for protecting resources budgeted for R&T. Unless the enterprise organizations budget and protect R&T resources, the committee believes those funds would almost certainly be used as discretionary reserves to solve the inevitable problems that arise in mission area programs. (The history of research, both in the private sector and government, is rife with examples of the vulnerability of research budgets during times of fiscal constraints.) NASA centers performing researchthe center directors in particularwill have to be both R&T advocates and the first line of defense in protecting resources earmarked for R&T.
We believe that the process would be much less vulnerable if the Office of the Chief Technologist were given explicit authority to initiate and fund research projects within the enterprises and to protect some projects from fiscal attack. The modus operandi now relies heavily on creative tensions, good will, and consensus; but the commitment to R&T, especially to generic, long-term research, may not be strong enough to survive without institutional protection.
Finding. For NASA's new technology development approach to work, the chief technologist will need strong, continuous support from the NASA enterprises, the center directors and, most important, the NASA administrator.
Emphasizing Engineering Research and Technology Development
NASA management's plan to increase the agency's focus on engineering R&T for future space systems (and reduce the agency's focus on space system product development and flight operations) has the potential both to improve the agency's ability to conduct long-term R&T of the type described in Chapter 3 and to increase cooperative R&T with academia and industry. However, strong organizational barriers could hinder an orderly, gradual, and graceful change.
One potential barrier could arise from internal competition for limited agency funding. Space flight operations and development will inevitably encounter problems that require additional funding to resolve. Because NASA will probably be operating under budgetary constraints for the foreseeable future, thee may be strong pressure to resolve these near-term problems by diverting funding from longer-term R&T that will not pay off for years. The pressure is likely to increase if R&T funding is designated for researchers in universities and private companies rather than to researchers at NASA centers.
The culture at some NASA centers might pose additional barriers to the agency's transformation. The agency's flight centers (Marshall, Goddard, and Johnson), for example, have strong operational mind-sets and have historically relied on older technology for their flight programs. These centers have often resisted new ideas from outside the NASA community, or even from other NASA centers. Plans to increase cooperative R&T or to reorient funding from space systems development and operations to R&T will have to take these historical factors into account.
Government agencies, private companies, and universities operate on different time scales, bring different assets to bear on problems, and have different motivations. Understanding these differences is essential to developing successful cooperative strategies for advanced space technology development.
Private companies necessarily focus on the near term. Because failure to implement a new technology affects the bottom line, they tend to be conservative about using their own funding to explore new technologies, and they only implement technologies that have a high probability of success and payback in the near term (less than five years). The advantages private companies offer include experienced workers, the ability to dedicate resources rapidly to a task, and experience with fast-paced projects. Private companies are willing to participate in cooperative projects as long as they can realize a profit.
NASA approaches R&T very differently for many reasons. Rather than trying to make a return on investment, NASA must maintain a high level of support from Congress, taxpayers, and the president. Thus, the agency is encouraged to plan for the long term and on a grander scale than industry. The agency may also be forced to distribute funding geographically rather than to where it would be most useful from a technical standpoint. Government regulations (as well as budgetary considerations) have also hampered NASA's efforts to revitalize its workforce.
NASA has many experienced people, as well as the ability to implement and test new ideas and technologies. But the agency has also encountered difficulties in the past in conducting cooperative space R&T. A major reason is that the NASA centers have traditionally focused on space operations rather than on sponsoring fundamental space engineering research in universities and in the aerospace industry. (This is in contrast to NASA's aeronautics R&T, which is largely conducted in close coordination with academia and industry.) NASA program managers at the working level often see university researchers as competitors for funds for individual projects. In addition, some NASA centers have reputations for using the outside community as sources for ideas that they then develop internally, which has led to mistrust.
Universities operate quite differently from both private companies and NASA. Universities essentially provide no funding of their own for R&T but do educate students and provide high-quality researchers. University researchers are motivated by the desire to produce innovative work, the requirement to train new generations of students, and the need for funding. Universities thus often work on more theoretical issues, developing far-reaching ideas unencumbered by the need to show a profit. Researchers typically represent diverse disciplines, and individual faculty members may have great expertise because of their long-term specialization in a single area. Universities also have innovative students and many new technologies from outside the traditional space enterprise.
Cooperative programs must take the special characteristics of universities into account. For example, training graduate students to perform state-of-the-art research tends to require that research schedules be coordinated with the time it takes graduate students to complete their studies. The desire of university faculty members and research groups to engage in cutting-edge work means they are generally less suited than private companies to work on narrowly defined problems with highly focused objectives.
To gain the maximum benefit from cooperation with industry and academia, NASA must recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each and design cooperative programs that take these characteristics into consideration. NASA must also monitor its own practices carefully to ensure that it does not discourage university and industry researchers from cooperating with NASA.
Finding. NASA, universities, and private companies each have unique qualities that they can contribute to space R&T programs. To take advantage of these
qualities and ensure that the most capable people and resources are involved in NASA's R&T, the agency must include industry (including small business) and academia in its R&T programs.
Building Cooperative Programs
By opening up its space R&T to the larger aerospace community, NASA will be able to fund a large number of projects with a limited budget, harness the brain power and creativity of universities, and take advantage of industrial expertise. Coalitions of university, industry, and NASA center personnel could also become a powerful combination of stakeholders in shaping future programs.
To reap these benefits, however, NASA's cooperative efforts will have to be well designed. Experience from other cooperative programs between various combinations of government agencies, private companies, and universities has shown that success requires that certain conditions be satisfied. These include:
economic and intellectual advantages to each participant
contributions proportional to the benefits received
commitment to seeing projects through to completion
If these conditions are not met, productivity will be limited, as some of NASA's recent cooperative R&T efforts have shown. Although individual principal investigator grants, for example, have many good points, they have often treated university faculty members as "workers for hire" and have not taken advantage of a university's inherent capability for innovation. University space engineering centers that once involved many students and faculty members in coherent efforts proved to be rigid and unresponsive to changes in technical focus and have all been closed down. The centers for the commercial development of space have involved several companies in NASA-funded work but have not been successful in attracting a significant amount of non-NASA funding into NASA efforts at space commercialization.
Examples of successful government/academia/industry R&T programs abound, however. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), for example, has for many years conducted a successful cooperative R&T program. Another example that shows the benefits of unconventional government/ university cooperation in R&T is the Landsat program. Box 4-2 describes how the Landsat program was established in response to an unsolicited proposal from academia.
Two potential approaches to cooperative space R&T are outlined below. Although these are not the only promising approaches NASA could adopt, the committee believes they are very likely to improve the quality of NASA's space R&T. The key to both approaches, and to any other approach to improving NASA's
space R&T, is taking advantage of the full potential of the nation's technical and intellectual resources. NASA's space R&T must be conducted not just within NASA but in a spirit of true cooperation with the U.S. aerospace community. NASA will have to seek partnerships aggressively with both private companies (including small businesses) and universities to achieve this goal.
Potential Cooperative Approach 1: Technology and Personnel Transfer
One way NASA could tap into the intellectual vigor of universities would be to initiate a vigorous program of sending distinguished NASA scientists and engineers to work at universities for periods of approximately one year. To enhance the prestige of these appointments, these scientists and engineers would be designated NASA fellows. While at the universities, they would work with teams of faculty and students on NASA-funded research. These integrated teams would study new concepts and explore the application of new technologies to the NASA mission, drawing from the wide range of technologiesincluding technologies from outside the space arenaavailable at the university. As viable concepts were found, the NASA fellows would make substantial efforts to transfer the technology to the NASA enterprises, both personally and by arranging for the students they had worked with to work in NASA centers. Finally, returning NASA personnel would be given some discretionary funds for a period of a few years to continue their collaborative work.
This approach could yield a number of benefits. It would provide NASA with new technologies and new ideas. NASA researchers would be exposed to
new technologies and would develop working relationships with university faculty members. University students would have an opportunity to work on "real-world" problems and establish relationships that could lead to future employment or collaboration. Finally, participation in this program might be an incentive to NASA's best and brightest researchers to stay with the agency. Once the program proved viable, it could be broadened so that NASA fellows could work at industrial research laboratories that conduct forward-looking R&T.
Potential Cooperative Approach 2: NASA-Funded University/Industry R&T
The Office of the Chief Technologist could sponsor R&T projects (in some or all of the areas recommended in this report) that would be accomplished cooperatively by private companies and universities. An announcement of opportunity for research in the six key technology areas would be developed by the Office of the Chief Technologist. A joint university/industry team would propose the concept to NASA, along with the required budget. Winning proposals would be selected by peer review groups comprised of NASA, university, and industry representatives. The participant from industrysomeone with expertise in the technology areawould be funded to review the project, brainstorm concepts for further exploration, remain involved throughout the project, and review the analyses, findings, and results. The industry expert would, of course, understand that the technology might not be applied for several years and that the project would not be constrained by the need to solve current problems quickly.
This approach also has numerous advantages. First, NASA would benefit from high-quality research involving both university innovation and industry expertise. University researchers would have an opportunity to work on relevant and challenging projects and to collaborate with industry experts. In the process, students would be exposed to space-related engineering R&T and would be better prepared to work in the field after graduation. Industry, which would only have to invest time, would be able to form links with possible future employees and to gain early experience with promising technologies. The peer review by representatives from NASA, industry, and universities would help to ensure open competition, prevent overly close relationships from forming between NASA and particular university groups, and result in R&T that is forward looking but directed towards future real-world applications.
Recommendation 3. The Office of the Chief Technologist should work with the NASA centers to organize cooperative programs among NASA centers, universities, and private companies (including small businesses) to leverage significantly NASA's investment in new technology.
Recommendation 4. NASA should develop a fellows program to send superior employees to universities for periods of one to two years and support their follow-on collaborative efforts after they return to the agency.
Landgrebe, D. 1997. The evolution of Landsat data analysis. Photogrammetric Engineering and Remote Sensing 63(7): 859–867.
NASA. 1997. NASA Strategic Plan. Washington, D.C.: NASA.
National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (Space Act), Public Law 85-568, 72 Stat., 426. July 29.
The lead organization responsible for space technology development at NASA has undergone a number of transformations since the late 1980s. The Office of Aeronautics and Space Technology (OAST) became the Office of Aeronautics, Exploration and Technology (OAET) in 1990. In 1992, OAET turned into the Office of Advanced Concepts and Technology (OACT), which became the Office of Space Access and Technology (OSAT) in 1994. OSAT was dissolved in 1996. The responsibility for space technology development now rests with NASA's mission enterprises, as advised and coordinated by the Office of the Chief Technologist.
In the early 1960s, the idea was suggested of using spacecraft to monitor the Earth's resources. From the initial idea, which originated outside of NASA, three universities came together to create what eventually became the Landsat program (Landgrebe, 1997). NASA's role was to fund and monitor the universities rather than to direct them. Instead of telling university personnel to "take pictures of the Earth's surface and research picture processing methods to analyze them," NASA allowed them to devise their own approach. University personnel hit upon the idea of identifying the contents of individual image pixels based on measurements in 12 to 18 spectral bandsthe so-called multispectral approachwhich was much simpler and less expensive then existing alternatives, although before the fact it had appeared unlikely to succeed.