When the NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) was created in February 2013, it marked both a step into the future and another into the past, all the way back to NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).
“NACA pioneered the way for American aviation and we’re trying to do the same for deep space. We certainly embrace many of the approaches taken by NACA and think that is how we can best serve NASA and the nation.”
“There is a really strong tie-back to NACA, from a culture and purpose perspective. They were doing R&D to solve problems. One striking thing is they were tackling real problems industry didn’t know how to solve. It also was a very test-rich program – flight tests, wind tunnels – a very applied, go-figure-this-out approach,” according to Michael Gazarik, associate administrator for STMD.
“We are here because technology drives exploration and trying to really get back to the NACA culture of workforce in the labs – flying, testing, occasionally breaking – and that’s OK because we’re learning along the way, developing technology and knowledge broadly applicable to the national aerospace community.”
During its first three years, STMD has conducted an array of technology developments, running from early-stage research to flight demonstrations, with a primary focus on problems NASA faces in future deep space exploration missions.
“We run a series of projects that invest in technology – ranging from better materials, advanced manufacturing, advanced solar arrays, composite cryo tanks, optimal communications – the agency needs in deep space. And like NACA, we get our hands dirty – test, fly, test again, etc.,” Gazarik said.
Key areas in which STMD is invested include entry, descent, and landing on another planet, such as Mars, where Gazarik said the “scorecard, globally, is about 50/50.”
“Landing anything on Mars is very challenging – and we’re at the limit of everything we’ve learned from our previous efforts. But looking at going there with humans means landing more than a metric ton – the most we’ve done to date – so we are working on a number of ideas on how to slow down and land on Mars. A lot of the technologies we do are applicable to both robotic and manned missions.
“In Hawaii, we tested a rocket-powered vehicle, dropped from a high-altitude balloon, where the atmosphere is thin, like Mars, and descending at Mach 4. That would support not only larger science but also future human missions. In the Hawaii test, our supersonic decelerator worked great, but when we inflated the world’s largest supersonic parachute at Mach 2, it shredded in less than a second – but we learned a ton of things. Even with a supersonic parachute, we’re not going to get more than 1 metric ton or so of mass to the surface of Mars – and we need to get to 20 metric tons. So our work on entry-descent-landing will be unbelievable.”
Other technologies STMD is pursuing include the ability to get data back from deep space – optimal communications. Gazarik noted most of the images robotic probes have taken on Mars remain there because there is not sufficient bandwidth to transmit them back to Earth.