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A new focus on exploration worries space technology advocates

A high-power solar electric thruster undergoing a test in a NASA lab. Plans to shift NASA’s space technology work into its exploration program worry some people, who fear technology programs not linked to exploration will be dropped. (credit: NASA)

NASA’s space technology program has long struggled to find its place within the agency. While the idea of investing in new technologies to enable the agency’s wide range of missions has its logic, that program has often been irresistible to appropriators looking to find a little extra funding for other programs. Throughout the previous administration the space technology program typically received a little less than requested, and often with some of that funding directed for specific programs.

NASA’s space technology program is facing a different issue in the administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request released a month ago. That proposal seeks to radially restructure the space technology program, effectively placing it under the exploration program rather than as a standalone entity. While NASA argues it provides more resources, and more focus, for that work, others are worries it could jeopardize the program.

The budget proposal replaces the Space Technology account with a new “Exploration Research and Technology” account. It combines the old space technology account with NASA’s Human Research Program and some parts of Advanced Exploration Systems, which were both previously part of NASA’s exploration budget.

That change, the agency said in its budget request, is intended to keep those programs focused on exploration needs, including supporting human missions to the Moon and Mars. “A driving requirement of the Exploration Research and Technology strategy is to serve as a key technology and risk reduction provider for NASA’s exploration missions,” the budget document states. “The FY 2019 budget is restructured to align with the Administration’s new space exploration policy by consolidating and refocusing existing NASA technology development activities on space exploration.”

The Exploration Research and Technology effort will include the same wide range of technology programs as the current program, from SBIR and STTR grants to the Centennial Challenges prize program and Flight Opportunities, which offers flights on parabolic aircraft and suborbital vehicles for technology experiments. It also includes some larger programs, like work on solar electric propulsion and satellite servicing.

The budget, though, suggests that many of those programs, which today support work in a wide range of technologies, may be more closely focused on needs of the “Exploration Campaign,” what the budget calls its new lunar-centric approach to spaceflight beyond Earth orbit.

“For solicitations announced in FY 2019, NASA will prioritize investments towards proposals that align with NASA’s Exploration Campaign objectives,” the budget states in a section on Early Stage Innovation and Partnerships, which includes programs like NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NAIC).

In the case of Flight Opportunities, housed under a program called Technology Demonstration, for “solicitations announced in FY 2019, NASA will prioritize Flight Opportunities to align with NASA’s Exploration Campaign objectives.”

Those shifts and other changes had led some to worry that the budget was “overweighted” towards exploration at the expense of technology development and other programs. Those concerns came up at last week’s hearing by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee on the NASA budget proposal.

“There is an emphasis on exploration, but it seems to be at the expense of a lot of the other missions at NASA, one of which is the Space Technology Mission Directorate,” said Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO).

Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, disagreed. “The Exploration Research and Technology budget that we proposed is $1 billion,” he said. “Today the Space Technology budget is roughly $700 million. What we’ve done is we’ve aligned that technology budget with the exploration initiatives.”

There is more money for technology development, although the difference is not quite as big as Lightfoot said: the Exploration Research and Technology program would get $1 billion in the request, compared to the $826 million the same elements of that program, in Space Technology and Exploration, received in 2017. (Congress has yet to complete fiscal year 2018 appropriations for NASA or other agencies, five and a half months into the fiscal year.)

Perlmutter, at the hearing, submitted for the record a letter by former NASA chief technologist Bobby Braun, now the dean of the college of engineering and applied sciences at the University of Colorado. Braun, in that letter, makes clear his strong objections to the proposed changes to NASA space technology.

Part of his concern is combining technology development with development programs, like Space Launch System and Orion. “Past history has shown that large development programs and technology development activities cannot and should not exist together, as a small hiccup in the development programs eats the budget of the basic research and technology advancement needed to accomplish more in space,” he wrote.

He also criticized the administration for trying, in essence, to sneak this change into the budget proposal. “Most striking, the Administration is proposing this re-organization without any discussion with Congress, industry or the university community, and without a NASA Administrator in place,” he wrote. “This can only be described as an egregious over-reach by political appointees without an appreciation for the long-standing scope of the Agency.”

In a separate letter, Mason Peck, another former NASA chief technologist now at Cornell University, also criticized the proposal. He worried that moving the space technology program to inside exploration, combining it with elements Advanced Exploration Systems (AES), was misguided. “AES advances technologies that directly impact the near-term needs of the directorate,” he wrote. “In contrast, Space Technology engages in the cross-cutting technology development that no single mission directorate prioritizes.”

He worried NASA “has already begin dismantling Space Technology” by currently studying how to embed that program within exploration. “This direction is gravely misguided,” he warned.

Both Braun and Peck recalled when NASA last made sweeping changes to technology development programs in the mid-2000s to focus more on exploration, changes they said had long-lasting, and negative, effects on technology work. In that previous effort, NASA “lost its edge in space technology, as development activities were eviscerated, setting back our Nation’s capabilities in space exploration and science,” Peck wrote.

Braun used similar language. “In fact, when integrated in this manner approximately a decade ago, NASA’s space technology activities were eviscerated,” he wrote. “That 2005 decision is the primary reason NASA’s leadership in technology development is just now starting to come back. NASA and the nation need a space technology program that is the envy of the world, not one buried within the bowels of the bureaucracy.”

Later in the hearing, Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), ranking member of the space subcommittee, noted that “we’re happy” about the space technology budget increasing, but he and others were concerned about it being focused more on exploration. “We do have a worry that more of the budget for space technology is going to focus on exploration missions as opposed to the cross-sectional multi-mission piece,” he said.

“That’s a concern of mine as well,” Lightfoot responded. “We worry about that in the agency all the time.” He said NASA “has put some things in place” to ensure that development programs don’t go after technology funding, in the form of internal reviews.

“There’s still some cross-cutting budget in there. It’s just that the majority of it is going to be focused to exploration,” he added of the technology program. “There’s some early-stage activities still there: a small amount, but it’s still in there, to make sure we’re keeping that seed corn not just all exploration-focused. But most of it is.”


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