Another example is propulsion. One of the most efficient ways to move is solar electric propulsion (SEP), which provides a low-level but steady thrust. The first major SEP spacecraft, Dawn, was launched in September 2007 to visit the two largest objects in the Asteroid Belt – one year orbiting the 330-mile-diameter protoplanet Vesta in 2011-12, then 16 months circling Vesta’s big sister, the dwarf planet Ceres (590-mile diameter), beginning in March 2015.
STMD is working to enhance the power available from the sun, with a goal of 50 kilowatts, twice what current Earth satellites are able to generate. Increasing that power level means bigger solar arrays, pending the development of future new technologies that might pull more power from smaller arrays, as well as a better thrusting system.
“We started a few years ago without much traction until we could really tell the story of the program and why we need it.
“We are pioneering, not only for NASA, but for the entire aerospace industry, the ability to acquire these high power levels for SEP – which is applicable across the board, including military and commercial spacecraft. That is a great example of a very NACA-like investment in technology by the government, where it is difficult for industry to do alone, and really making a difference,” Gazarik said.
“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.”
Another tie-back to NACA is STMD’s efforts to create renewed strong links with the nation’s universities.
“We’ve seen, in the past, when NASA loses that connection, it can have long-term negative results,” he continued. “So we are trying to rebuild that, and academia is doing some fantastic research for us. They are the next generation coming through who can take these flying sources to altitude, make the parachutes succeed, work on optimal communications, etc.”
With that “step into the past of NACA” bolstering their technology developments, STMD also represents a return to NASA’s early years, when the space agency was charged with sending a man to the Moon – and returning him alive – in less than a decade. At the dawn of the 21st century – more than 40 years after the last human walked on the lunar surface – STMD has turned an NACA/early NASA-style focus on a new piloted destination: Mars.
“The horizon goal we have is Mars exploration. We’re on Mars today with a number of robots, but to go there with more powerful rovers, do sample return and eventually humans, requires developing and maturing a whole host of technologies. That sets the tone for our next two decades – getting more than a ton to the surface, life support, propulsion, recycling water and air,” Gazarik explained. “When we look at Mars, simplistically, we have to get there, live there, and return. So we will continue to work on radiation protection, power systems we can use on the surface, better spaceflight computers that can withstand the rigors of the environment.
“We also see, moving forward, exploration of the outer planets – such as possible liquid under the surface of Europa. That requires a lot of new technologies to allow spacecraft to live and explore on those outer planets. And that requires lead time. There is some early mission planning going on now that would put us into the mid- to late ’20s for a mission to Europa. Of course, funding drives a lot of that as we deal with the technology challenges. Orion and the deep space heavy-lift rocket will be coming online in the next few years, and by 2019, we should have a lot of that ready to go, which will set a lot of the tone on what we can do in terms of missions.”
In the meantime, STMD believes they have time to mature near-term technologies, which have to be infused and used by the mission.
“The reason we fly and test as NACA did is to make sure we understand the risks so the technology can be used, making the mission more affordable and capable,” he said. “Another important thing we’re doing is an early stage portfolio for the out-years. NACA pushed on technologies others couldn’t even think of that were critical to building the foundation for the airlines we have today, which also is true for deep space exploration. And after only three years, we already have a really healthy portfolio of early-stage work that is ready to be matured and moved to the next level, which is key, long term, for the agency and the nation.
“We started a few years ago without much traction until we could really tell the story of the program and why we need it. Since then we’ve gotten great support from Congress. But starting a new directorate and program and funding line in the midst of sequestration is groundbreaking – and a testament to the need for such an organization. NASA spent 30 years operating the [space] shuttle and building the International Space Station [ISS], which was fantastic; now we’re getting back to that NACA culture, developing technologies in the lab, flying above the centers, getting dirty to really solve some of the problems we face as we explore deep space.”
Some of the technologies STMD has pursued may not seem as important, but the directorate sees them all as critical to the future of space exploration. One of those, working with Boeing, was construction of the world’s largest composite cryogenic tank.
“A failure many years ago on a project called X-33 set the tone for decades that a composite tank couldn’t be used. We’ve shown that is no longer true and in the future can reduce vehicle weight by up to 30 percent. That will have a huge impact,” Gazarik said. “The use of high-power propulsion for DOD [the Department of Defense], NASA, and commercial spacecraft will be another big thing. Laser-comm/optical-comm already is being seen in use, not only for deep space communications, but NASA tracking and even commercial cable.