Sunday, February 28, 2010

Say Hello to NASA's New Tech Guru

Jeremy Hsu, Contributor – Fri Feb 19, 2:00 pm ET

NASA hopes to jumpstart its new direction in space exploration by refocusing on transformational technologies, and the agency has a new tech guru to help lead the way.

As part of the shakeup, NASA administrator Charles Bolden named Robert Braun as the U.S. space agency's new chief technologist. Braun is currently an aerospace engineering professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, but returns to NASA after spending 16 years working on robotic space exploration at the NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia. spoke with Braun near the end of his first week doing what he calls his dream job. The chief technologist talked about how NASA can tap new innovations and game-changing technologies to realize any number of possible futures for exploring the moon, the asteroids, Mars and beyond: So what's your job as NASA's new chief technologist?

Braun: As chief technologist, I report directly to the NASA administrator. I'm his principal advisor and advocate concerning matters of technology across the agency.

I consider what types of technology the agency should pursue, what are the proper investment strategies, what are the appropriate mechanisms for engaging the larger aerospace community, what kind of partnerships should we establish with other government agencies, and how to best invest NASA's technological capital on the significant needs facing society today. I'll be directly managing a new space technology program that invests in early-stage and game-changing technologies for future application in NASA missions or other national needs.

S: How has NASA's shift in space exploration changed its emphasis on different areas of technology?

B: Previously NASA was marching toward a single human exploration future, if you will, where it was leveraging Apollo and Shuttle technologies to return to moon.

When I think about the future now, I see a lot of possibilities. I see humans going to moon, to the asteroids, and eventually to Mars. I see robotic explorers traveling throughout the solar system and eventually into interstellar space. I see the possibility of identifying life on other planets and exploring worlds around other stars.

I see an Earth observation system that can accurately forecast the emergence of major storms and natural disasters. I see NASA supporting an emerging commercial spaceflight industry and being a significant contributor to solving our nation's technological needs. In my opinion, through a focus on innovation and technology, NASA's new strategy is much more likely to accomplish these possible futures. To me, that's extremely exciting. As a university professor, I imagine young people all around the country may feel the same way.

There are several major tenets to this strategy. One is to fully utilize the International Space Station [ISS]. This human spaceflight laboratory is now a major piece of our human space exploration strategy. We're going to fully utilize the ISS to learn what it takes to send humans beyond low Earth orbit. To me, that's one benefit of the new approach. In addition, we will focus on the development of game-changing technology and early-stage innovation. NASA is going to cast a wide net for the best ideas from industry, academia, NASA centers, or partnerships with other agencies. These innovations will enable the development of new approaches to our current mission set and allow us to pursue entirely new missions for the country.

S: What transformational technologies are needed to realize NASA's goals for robotic or human space exploration?

B: I'm going to be in a position where I'm responsible for the selection of some of these things, and so I can't tip my hand. But in general, we clearly need better materials. We clearly need more lightweight structures.

We perhaps need more inflatable habitats or technologies which could be used to get around the limitations of existing launch vehicle volumes. We need advanced propulsion for heavy lift, but also for in-space transportation. In-situ resource utilization — we need to learn how to live off the land, so to speak, at the moon and Mars.

S: What destinations or goals would you like to see for NASA's robotic missions in the near future?

B: First of all, I started out with NASA because I was interested in human Mars exploration. My first job at NASA Langley was to figure out how to send humans to Mars and land them safely. I worked with the first President Bush on his space exploration initiative. I honestly thought we were going to Mars, when I was right out of college as a young engineer.

When human Mars exploration fell apart, I worked with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on sending out a variety of landers to the surface of Mars. The technological challenges of that alone were significant. I learned how hard it is to land even small rovers on Mars. NASA's been getting better at that, leading up to the Mars Science Laboratory that will land around 2012.

I'd like to see us continue on the scientific pathway we're on. It started out as follow the water, then became follow the carbon, and there's no doubt the Mars program is on the path to one day address the question of life. I think that's really exciting. Was there life on Mars, could there be life in Mars? Those questions have major implications for our society and our world. The ramifications are pretty significant regardless of whether the answer is yes or no.

In parallel to that, I think we need to start working on human precursor missions. If we want to someday send humans to Mars — and I do want to send humans to Mars — we need to know how to land the really huge payloads needed for human exploration. If you think of the Mars Science Laboratory as a small car, humans need a two-story house. That's a big leap.

S: Are there any overshadowed technologies that people don't typically think of as important for space exploration?

B: As you're probably aware, there's been a revolution in IT [information technology], robotics, nanotechnology, and in bio-inspired design. The reason I'm excited about those three or four topics is that there's a huge research world centered on those topics outside NASA. In academia or industry, people want to invent the next Internet, or the next big Internet application. What we need to do is tap into those innovations that are occurring outside NASA and bring some of those innovations inside NASA.

S: Do you think NASA has not looked to outside innovation so much in the past?

B: I left NASA in 2003, so I've been outside the agency for the past seven years. As an outside observer, it appeared to me that NASA was all about "let's go to the moon with existing systems, let's build what we can now to get there." Given the budget and schedule constraints they were working within, this was likely the only viable approach.

However, this also meant that NASA had to forego any substantial technology investments. While I do believe this nation needs to go back to the moon, I think America's plan should be bigger than that. In order to get to a range of other destinations and accomplish other missions, a significant technology development effort is required.

America should be about innovation. America should be about pushing the boundaries scientifically and technologically. If we are going to send humans back to the moon and one day on to Mars, I'd like to think of us taking a technological approach that's economically viable.

The NASA administrator announced the other day that seven companies are going to compete for commercial access to space. In what other nation in the world could that happen?

S: Do you hope NASA can create more spin-off technologies that private companies can license?

B: That is definitely a big part of the greater goal, to spin in and spin out technologies. I'm interested in spinning off NASA technologies to use in applications that help solve national needs. I think it's true that the space program has always been a very good investment for America, for a number of reasons.

One, I think it's inspiring. It's a great model, an inspirational model, and it draws in a lot of young talent to related technological fields. There's a lot of commercialization potential and partnership potential that started in government and transitioned to industry. Over time, through the new space technology program, a number of new businesses could be created — in theory, whole new industries.

S: What new technology investments do you think will have huge benefits for Earth as well as space exploration?

B: The area where NASA could perhaps lead — an area which could affect society greatly — is robotics. NASA is doing amazing things in both robotics and human exploration assisted by all kinds of autonomous systems. There's a large number of applications right here on the ground that will benefit from NASA research in that area.

S: What personal gadgets do you like?

B: I like all gadgets. When a new gadget comes out, I'm not usually the first one to get it. Being a university professor, I have engineering students around all the time who love technology. I basically watch them. This is an example of them teaching me. So when the students came out with all the social networking stuff, I learned about that from students. When the iPhone came out and was all the rage on campus, I learned about that from students.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Astronauts Hold Winter Olympics In Space

Tariq Malik, Managing Editor – Fri Feb 19, 2:00 pm ET

They don't have snow or ice, but an international team of astronauts held their own weightless Winter Olympics this week. Their venue: a $100 billion space station.

The 11 astronauts aboard the linked shuttle Endeavour and International Space Station (ISS) tried their hand at several space Winter Olympics events this week during breaks from adding a new room and observation deck to the outpost.

Their events? Space skiing, the zero-G luge and a graceful weightless figure skating. The crew beamed some space sports video of their antics to Mission Control.

Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, a space station resident, even donned a pair of short space skis for his slalom and jump events.

"I did send out my ski jump on ISS," Noguchi told reporters in Japan late Thursday.

Endeavour shuttle pilot Terry Virts took a shot at the luge, floating down a space station module feet first. His crewmate Kathryn "Kay" Hire twirled endlessly in what the spaceflyers called the ultimate "figure skating triple-lindys."

Virts said he and his crewmates have enjoyed looking down at Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada, where the 2010 Winter Olympic Games are in full swing.

"We've been having some really nice night passes over the Olympics," Virts radioed Mission Control early Friday.

They also squeezed in some zero gravity diving — basically somersaulting while floating in place — though admittedly they should probably save that for the Summer Olympics, the astronauts said.

And like the Olympics, the shuttle and station astronauts even have a special emblem. But instead of five interlocked rings, they have mission patches emblazoned on their space clothes and equipment.

Playing sports in space is nothing new.

Astronaut Alan Shepard — one of the first seven NASA astronauts — played golf on the moon in 1971 during the Apollo 14 mission. His first swing was a bust, but he hit home on the second try — his ball going for "miles and miles," he radioed Mission Control at the time.

Thirty-five years later, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin whacked a golf ball off the International Space Station as part of a publicity stunt. A golf jacket is still on the space station today.

But there are some sports that have cropped up that defy any Olympic category.

Space station astronauts have come up with their own zero gravity sports. One involves tossing hefty bags of water around like medicine balls, then jumping on them while they move to see how far they could ride in weightlessness.

They have also held relay races from one end of the space station to another and challenged one another to float as far as they could without touching anything. The space station has about the same living space as a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

Still, Earth's Winter Olympics stoke the international spirit of the space station and shuttle astronauts. Currently, there are six astronauts on Endeavour — all from NASA and American. But one, mission specialist Nicholas Patrick, was born in England.

The space station is home to five spaceflyers: two Russians, two Americans and Noguchi.

Noguchi, who represents the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, told reporters in Japan that he has been keeping up with the Winter Olympics as much as possible, particularly because Japan has won a few medals.

His favorite so far: ski jumping and figure skating. Noguchi has been using the station's Internet connection to keep current on the Olympic standings.

"I know that there are wonderful athletes there, so we're hoping for great medals," Noguchi said in a message of support to the Olympic athletes. "I look forward to that. Good luck to you all."

Noguchi and his crewmates will say a final farewell to the Endeavour shuttle crew later today. The shuttle is due to undock from the space station tonight at 7:54 p.m. EST (0054 Saturday GMT).

Mission Control congratulated the crew late Thursday on a “mission of 'Olympic' proportions.”

"You are officially the only folks who are able to get more hang time then Shaun White," Mission Control said in a message.

White, the American snowboarder, took the gold Wednesday night in the men's halfpipe at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.

Endeavour and its crew are wrapping up a 14-day mission that delivered the new Tranquility room and Cupola observation deck to the $100 billion space station. The astronauts locked themselves inside the shuttle early Friday morning to prepare for tonight's undocking, after saying farewell to the station crew.

"Quiet dinner," Noguchi wrote on his Twitter page (Astro_Soichi) after saying farewell. "I already miss the shuttle guys."
Other Links of Interest:

Friday, February 12, 2010

Who to Watch In Private Space Taxi Field

By The Associated Press The Associated Press – Sun Jan 31, 8:32 am ET

Here are some leading companies that are or could be developing a private space taxi system to take astronauts to the International Space Station. More firms may join in.

• THE COMPANY: Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif.

THE BASICS: Run by PayPal founder Elon Musk, this company has already built and tested a private rocket, Falcon, and has a capsule, Dragon. It already has a demonstration contract for private cargo with NASA. It is considered a leader in the field and has connections with Google.


• THE COMPANIES: Boeing Co. of Chicago and Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas.

THE BASICS: An interesting pairing. Boeing is one of the oldest companies in aerospace with corporate history going back to Mercury missions. Bigelow is a pioneer in the private space business that is developing a commercial space station/hotel. Boeing has its own much-launched rocket family, the Delta, and also is partners with Lockheed Martin Corp. in a firm that launches Delta and Atlas rockets.


• THE COMPANY: Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev.

THE BASICS: A high-tech government contractor that recently bought one of the early private space firms, SpaceDev Inc.


• THE COMPANY: Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.

THE BASICS: One of the first private space companies. It has its own in-use rocket family, Taurus, which launches from Wallops Island, Va. It also has a demonstration contract for private cargo with NASA.


• THE COMPANY: Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., or as part of United Launch Alliance of Denver.

THE BASICS: Lockheed Martin had been building the capsule for NASA's moon mission that is being canceled. It is an aerospace giant with a long history in manned space and has its own family of decades-old rockets, the Atlas. It could compete on its own or as part of the United Launch Alliance, which is a joint venture with Boeing that launches unmanned commercial rockets.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Businessman to Fly African Flags On Space Trip

by Staff Writers
Nairobi (AFP) Feb 9, 2010

A Dubai-based businessman who has signed up to be a spacetourist said Tuesday he planned to fly the flags of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda on his out-of-world journey in honour of his childhood in Africa.

Real estate magnate Ashish Thakkar was in Nairobi to receive a Kenyan flag from Prime Minister Raila Odinga ahead of a space voyage expected next year.

"I feel honoured that I will be the first to take Kenya's flag into space," said Thakkar, 28.

"I believe Kenya can use this historic trip to market itself internationally. I want to boost Kenya's image abroad," he said.

Thakkar, co-founder of the international Kensington Group real estate agency, is among 40 people who have paid 200,000 dollars for a trip on Richard Branson'scommercial rocket plane SpaceShipTwo.

He was born in Britain but spent 15 years of his childhood in Africa before his family returned to Britain. He has been in Dubai for the past eight years.

Thakkar has already received the Tanzanian flag from President Jakaya Kikwete and is due to also meet Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who will hand him the country's flag.

Friday, February 5, 2010

NASA's 7 New Space Pioneers Are Companies

By SETH BORENSTEIN, AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein, Ap Science Writer – Tue Feb 2, 5:09 pm ET

WASHINGTON – A half century ago the Mercury Seven embodied America's space future. Now it's the merchant seven — space companies for hire.

Mimicking a scene 51 years ago when the Mercury astronauts were revealed, NASA's boss beamed Tuesday as he introduced the "faces of a new frontier:" representatives of the seven companies that NASA is funding to develop future private spacecraft.

And more money is coming. In President Barack Obama's proposed budget, he not only killed his predecessor's $100 billion moon program, he proposed spending $6 billion over five years to develop private space taxis. NASA would then pay them to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.

Some of the players include companies run by Internet pioneers Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Elon Musk of PayPal. Bezos runs Blue Origin, a Kent, Wash., company that until Tuesday had only talked about going into suborbital space; now it will compete to go into orbit as a space taxi. Musk runs SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif. and already has built a rocket called Falcon and a capsule called Dragon.

Others include Boeing Co. of Houston; Paragon Space Development Co. of Tucson, Ariz.; Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev.; United Launch Alliance of Denver, and Orbital Science Corp. of Dulles, Va.

NASA on Tuesday detailed $50 million worth of seed grants for development of a space taxi to Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Paragon, United Launch and Blue Origin.

A year ago, the space agency gave $3.5 billion in contracts to Orbital Science and SpaceX for 20 commercial cargo resupply flights to the space station. Both are likely to develop crew taxis too, with Musk of SpaceX saying he could fly astronauts within three years of a final contract. And he said he could do it for $20 million a head, less than half the price NASA pays Russia for astronauts flying on that country's Soyuz capsule.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden and officials from the companies said just because space will become for-profit, safety will not be forgotten, as some congressional critics worry.

"It's all about crew safety," United Launch Alliance President Mike Gass said. Gass's company got a $6.7 million NASA grant so the firm's Atlas and Delta rockets could be better monitored to provide safety for any astronauts sitting on capsules on top of them. Bezos' Blue Origin received $3.7 million from NASA to work on a new type of launch escape system for a crew on top of a rocket.

"I know personally the great challenges involved in sending humans into orbit and have lost friends in trying to do so," said Bolden, a former shuttle commander. "I pledge to you that I will make it my job everyday to ensure that everything is done efficiently and safely."

There won't be just one winner, officials said. NASA hopes there will be multiple spaceships carrying crews, pushing costs down and safety up. There may be even more than just these seven, Bolden said.

With the dramatic changes ordered by the Obama administration, NASA is going back to its pre-Apollo 1959-60 roots, when it was a research-and-development powerhouse more than an engineering factory, said Harry Lambright, a professor of public policy at Syracuse University.

"It turns NASA inside out; it takes it back to the old days, pre-Apollo days," Lambright said. He called it a gamble that might not work.

What's happening is part spin, part needed reinvention, said American University space policy and historian Howard McCurdy.

"Clearly what they're trying to do is it make it look positive. Instead of making it a story of cancellations, it's a story of new beginnings," McCurdy said. "It probably is in some ways as dramatic as the appointment of the first new astronauts."

Ken Bowersox, a former astronaut and now a SpaceX vice president, was one of those introduced and said he couldn't help but notice the parallel to the Mercury astronauts — right down to the number seven.


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