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NASA hopes to launch high-tech demos early and often

Posted: July 13, 2010

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NASA's new space technology development program is taking a page from Google.

The innovative Internet firm's mantra of launching products early and often could be the tagline for NASA's consolidated initiative to develop revolutionary space capabilities, according to the agency's chief technologist.

"Google has a saying that they borrowed from the space program," said Bobby Braun, NASA's leading technology official. "Launch early and launch often. That's the kind of thing we're going to do in this program."

President Obama proposed spending $5 billion over the next five years to put a charge into NASA's technology development programs, which have suffered from draining budgets and a decentralized management structure.

Congress has not acted on the White House's proposed budget, but if it is passed and the technology office is funded, NASA could fill its mission roster with an array of new demonstration missions.

More launches and flight opportunities will directly translate to more risk, according to Braun.

"We are going to fail," Braun said Tuesday in a technology forum at the University of Maryland, College Park.

But the biggest discoveries often come in the aftermath of failures, Braun said, cautioning engineers to never be afraid of setbacks.

The flagship technology demos, each costing between $400 million and $1 billion, could prove atmospheric aerocapture, in-space propellant storage, advanced ion and plasma propulsion, inflatable modules, automated rendezvous and docking, and closed-loop life support systems.

But that list is not all-inclusive, according to NASA.

The most costly flight demonstrations could begin in 2014, with subsequent missions launching every 12 to 18 months.

NASA's first flagship test flight could be a powerful plasma engine bolted to the International Space Station in 2014. The VASIMR engine, an experimental electric rocket designed by former astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, is scheduled to launch to the station within about four years, if the technology is ready.

Braun's vision for a more tech-oriented NASA will reach across the spectrum to relatively inexpensive small satellites to test focused technologies.

NASA announced the next round of Centennial Challenges on Tuesday. The competitions include a challenge to launch a tiny satellite into Earth orbit twice in one week.

The winner would receive a $2 million prize, but NASA first has to select a non-profit organization to manage the competition. Officials are also seeking sponsors.

"This is to stimulate innovations in launch technology and also to encourage the creation of commercial nanosat delivery services," said Andy Petro, manager of the Centennial Challenges program.

The satellite's must have a mass of more than 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, and the craft must measure at least 10 centimeters, or 3.9 inches, on a side.

Petro said the nanosatellite launch competition, along with a night rover and sample return robot demonstration on the ground, are the first Centennial Challenges NASA has announced since 2005.

Centennial Challenges are aimed at small businesses and students.

"NASA sponsors prize competitions because the agency believes student teams, private companies of all sizes and citizen-inventors can provide creative solutions to problems of interest to NASA and the nation," Braun said in a statement. "Prize competitions are a proven way to foster technological competitiveness, new industries and innovation across America."

The space agency also plans two small satellite programs to expedite the development of spacecraft subsystems and test them in flight.

Named after inventors Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison, the subsystem and flight programs would mature low-cost small satellite technologies from the drawing board to orbit, said Brant Sponberg, a manager in NASA's small satellite technologies program.

Once fundamental technologies are proven in the Franklin program, NASA would select capabilities for full development in the Edison demonstration line.

Sponberg said NASA would pick one or two Edison missions per year with costs between $1 million and $10 million. The small satellites would have design and construction timelines of two years before launch as a secondary payload on an existing rocket.

NASA plans to release a draft broad agency announcement Aug. 9 to solicit ideas from academia, industry and federal agencies.

The Edison program must not duplicate the work of other federal small satellite demonstration programs, Sponberg said, including the Pentagon's Operationally Responsive Space office, which aims to rapidly and cheaply develop spacecraft for tactical military needs.

Braun said the refocused space technology program will be managed by a single office at NASA Headquarters, consolidating projects that were spread across the country.

The technology office could also ease pressures on scientific missions to innovate on the fly, which drives up costs and stretches schedules.

"It takes something like this, a focus on rebuilding the research and technology competency of the agency, to get my juices going," Braun said. "And believe me, they're going."