NRC Prioritizes 16 Technologies for NASA Development, Calls Again for Pu-238 Restart

NRC Prioritizes 16 Technologies for NASA Development, Calls Again for Pu-238 Restart

The National Research Council (NRC) released the final report from its committee that has been reviewing NASA’s technology roadmaps for the past year.  The roadmaps were developed by NASA’s Office of Chief Technologist (OCT), then headed by Bobby Braun.  Braun returned to Georgia Tech shortly after the NRC committee released an interim report last fall.  This final report identifies 16 high priority technologies for NASA investment over the next five years.

The technology priorities in the report are not tied to specific NASA missions, but instead to one of three “technology objectives” — extend and sustain human activities beyond low Earth orbit, explore the evolution of the solar system and the potential for life elsewhere, and expand our understanding of Earth and the universe in which we live.   The NRC committee stressed that the “objectives are not independent, and more than one objective may be addressed by a single mission….”

Taking into account the constrained budget environment NASA faces in the years ahead, the committee selected a “short list” of 16 technologies that need investment in the next five years.   (The table in the report showing the 16 technologies is arranged by the three technology objectives.  Some technologies appear under more than one objective, however, so there are 16 rather than 23 as a quick reading might infer.)  The committee believes the 16 could be “reasonably accommodated within the most likely expected funding level available for technology development by OCT (in the range of $500 million to $1 billion annually).”  The 16 are:

  • Radiation Mitigation for Human Spaceflight
  • Long-Duration Crew Health
  • GN&C
  • (Nuclear) Thermal Propulsion
  • Lightweight and Multifunctional Materials and Structures
  • Fission Power Generation
  • Solar Power Generation (Photovoltaic and Thermal)
  • Electric Propulsion
  • In-Situ Instruments and Sensors
  • Extreme Terrain Mobility
  • Optical Systems (Instruments and Sensors)
  • High Contrast Imaging and Spectroscopy Technologies
  • Detectors and Focal Planes
  • Active Thermal Control of Cryogenic Systems

The committee identified two technologies that it considered to be at a “tipping point” where a relatively small investment could produce a large payoff in readiness:  Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generators (ASRG) and On-Orbit Cryogenic Storage and Transfer.

ASRGs require less plutonium-238 (Pu-238) than today’s radioistope power systems, but still require some, and the committee emphasized that restarting Pu-238 production is still “urgently needed.”  The NRC already highlighted the need for restarting Pu-238 production in two earlier reports — one specifically addressing the Pu-238 issue in 2009 and the planetary science decadal survey published in 2011.   Congress has provided NASA with its half of the funding needed to restart production, but the other half is in the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) budget and DOE’s appropriators remain unconvinced that DOE should pay any of those costs.  DOE owns the facilities where the production would take place, but it is NASA that needs the Pu-238. 

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