NASA’s Future in Technology

Bobby Braun shares what’s in the Agency’s R&D pipeline.

NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun addressing the AARP "Orlando @50+" Conference in Florida last year. NASA/Bill Ingalls

As NASA’s Chief Technologist for the past two years, Bobby Braun’s job has been to invest in early-stage technologies that will pay off down the line for the agency’s science, aeronautics, and human spaceflight missions. He spoke with Senior Editor Tony Reichhardt in August, shortly before leaving NASA to return to academia. 

Air & Space: Can you give examples of new technologies that have had a big impact on NASA missions? 

Braun: Just recently, NASA launched the Juno spacecraft to Jupiter. The coolest thing to me is that it’s going to do the mission entirely on solar power. In fact, it’s the first mission that’s gone that far from the sun on solar power. We’ve had spacecraft that have gone farther, but they were all nuclear-powered. Ten years ago, I would have said we can’t do the science we want to do at Jupiter with solar power. But NASA has, through modest investments in technology, gradually improved the efficiency of solar cells launched into space. 

Here’s another example of energy-related technology that has gone into use on Earth. I spent a couple of years working on a mission called the Mars 2001 Lander, that never actually launched. In a way, it did fly later, stripped down as Phoenix [but the original mission was canceled]. There was an experiment that was supposed to fly on the 2001 lander that was going to make propellant from the constituents of the Mars atmosphere. It was designed by a professor at Arizona State University, and after the mission was put on hiatus, he left Arizona State and started a small company in California. He realized that what he had designed, if you ran it in reverse, was a really efficient fuel cell. The company that he started is called Bloom Energy, and is now producing “BloomBoxes,” very efficient fuel cells, that are popping up all over Silicon Valley. They have Bloom Boxes at eBay headquarters and Google headquarters. The inventor originally was focused on Mars, but he took that idea and converted it to something that could become part of our nation’s energy future. 

A & S: What are some of the technologies currently in the pipeline that we’re likely to see on future space missions? 

Braun: Robonaut 2 is a partnership with NASA and General Motors. If you go into automobile manufacturing plants today, what you’ll find is that all the factory workers work in one part of the factory, and all the robotic arms work in a different part of the factory. The robots weren’t designed to work in proximity to humans. It’s actually dangerous. But there are some tasks that are best done together, by a human-robotic team. So GM is going to be using derivatives of Robonaut in their factories, and NASA is going to be using Robonaut on the space station to offload some of the more mundane tasks from the crew. 

Down at the Marshall Space Flight Center, we are constructing large-scale composite tanks to hold cryogenic fuels. Traditionally all of our launch vehicles have used aluminum, or aluminum-lithium tanks. We believe there is a potential for a 30 percent mass savings with composites. These systems aren’t ready today, and they won’t fly on a launch vehicle tomorrow. What we need to do is to build a big tank, put it under loads, and show that it works. We can do that on the ground. And when we do, we will prove the technology for future incarnations of NASA’s heavy lift launch vehicle. Or perhaps the expendable launch vehicle industry might be interested. They also might be used on future planetary landers. 

Another technology we’re advancing is for bringing things back from orbit. What you want is a very large entry system that has very low mass. There have been advances in soft, inflatable materials, and in 2009 we had a sounding rocket flight at Wallops Island, in partnership with a couple of companies, where we flew a subscale article of one of these hypersonic inflatable reentry vehicles, called IRVE-2. The idea is that the thing would compress into a very small volume [for launch], then in space you would inflate the device enough that it’s essentially rigid. Then you have this large structure to return payloads. This could be used to return payloads from the space station, or to land large payloads on Mars or other planetary bodies. In the sounding rocket test we got to Mach 6. We ultimately need to get to Mach 20. We’re testing a bigger system in 2012, then ultimately, a full-scale test article would prove the technology in orbit. 

One last example: Storing propellants in space. If we send humans to Mars, we’ll do so on a vehicle that’s almost 80 percent propellant. To assemble that [Mars] ship, we’ll need a number of launches just for fuel. Those launches will occur over a period of time, and currently when we send cryogenic propellants into space, we lose a lot of propellant. It boils away. So [using today's technology], we would have to include a couple of extra launches just to send up the fuel that we lost from the first launch. What we’re working on at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and Goddard  Space Flight Center in Maryland are technologies that will allow us to store that propellant in space and to move it around without significant loss. Some “zero boil-off” technologies would do it without any loss whatsoever, but we’re not quite ready for that yet. The first systems we do will be just improvements 

A & S: Will you be stepping up flight opportunities for testing technologies in space?

Braun: Our Technology Demonstration Missions will take things into space and prove them so they can be infused into one of NASA’s future missions. We just announced three of these: a solar sail, a demonstration of space laser communications, and a deep space atomic clock. We also have other programs using airplanes like the Zero-G “Vomit comet” and the commercial reusable suborbital program that will potentially use vehicles from Virgin Galactic, Armadillo, and other companies. 

So we’re trying to use all the tools in the toolbox. We want to advance as much technology as we can in the most cost-effective way. If we can advance it with a ground-based test, that’s what we’re going to do. And if we have to go to orbit, to the Space Station or maybe a free-flying spacecraft, then we’ll do that as well. 

A & S: In the past, NASA advanced technology programs have had trouble surviving. When flight missions get into budget trouble, the technology money dries up. 

Braun: NASA is always going to spend more money on missions and operations than on basic and applied research. That’s okay. But what would not be okay is if NASA made no investment in basic and applied research. That’s what enables our future missions 

NASA has always integrated three core competencies: basic and applied research; flight hardware and development for missions; and operations. NASA is the special place it is, in my view, because it’s not any one of those three. If all we did was operations, we would be like NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]. If all we did was basic research, we would be like NSF [the National Science Foundation]. NASA doesn’t want to be NSF, and it doesn’t want to be NOAA. To me it’s critical that all three of those core competencies grow over time. A NASA without basic and applied research is not NASA. 

But we’re not developing technologies just to play in the sandbox. The things that we’re funding, generally, are the things that NASA mission directors need, and want us to fund.

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