Jeremy Hsu, SPACE.com Contributor space.com – 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.
SPACE.com 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:
SPACE.com: 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.