New Focus on NASA's Technology Development Programs

New Focus on NASA's Technology Development Programs

Renewed interest in NASA’s technology development activities has been spurred by several recent studies calling attention to the faltering status of basic technology development at the agency. The topic was the focus of today’s meeting of the National Research Council’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) and next week the House Science and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on “Strengthening NASA’s Technology Development Program.”

Budgetary constraints have sharply curtailed spending on technology development that is not directly related to a specific mission. This is often referred to as “low TRL” research in reference to the Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) that indicate whether a technology is ready to be incorporated into a flight mission. The higher the TRL, the more ready it is to be used.

Among the studies calling attention to the issue are the recent Augustine Committee summary report and at least three National Research Council (NRC) studies:

Bobby Braun, co-chair of the “Fostering Visions for the Future” study, and Ray Colladay, ASEB chair and vice-chair of the “America’s Future in Space” study, are scheduled to testify at the House hearing, along with NASA’s Chris Scolese.

Synopses of the three NRC studies were presented at today’s ASEB meeting as a prelude to NASA presentations about ongoing agency activities reviewing the state of technology development at the agency. The presentations on the three NRC reports by NRC staffer Brant Sponberg and Brian Dewhurst, who recently left the NRC to join NASA, highlighted what the studies recommended about the need to invest in technology development.

Dr. Laurie Leshin, Deputy Director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and Benjamin Neumann, Director of the Advanced Capabilities Program in NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, briefed the ASEB about ongoing reviews of NASA’s technology development activities.

Dr. Leshin and Dr. Neumann indicated that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and NASA leadership have a very strong interest in rejuvenating NASA’s technology development portfolio to enable long-term capabilities rather than focusing only on the near-term. Although no decisions have been made, establishing a “DARPA-like” office within NASA is one possibility, a recommendation made in the NRC’s “America’s Future in Space” study. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is often cited as a successful example of investing in low-TRL technology development. Utilizing the International Space Station (ISS) and engaging the external community would be two elements of expanded NASA investment in technology development.

A more complete summary of the ASEB meeting will be posted soon on under “Our Meeting Summaries.”

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