“Manufacturing in space has always been a goal, especially additive manufacturing. The world’s first 3-D printer on the ISS was successful in printing the first parts in space, which will really change the way we explore and operate in space. In another area, today most spacecraft use hydrazine to maneuver. It performs well, but is very toxic to humans, both on the ground and in space. In a year or so, we will fly a less toxic, better-performing chemical we’re calling green propellant – AF-315, made by AFRL [the Air Force Research Laboratory] and integrated by Ball Aerospace. It’s an aluminum base – hydroxyl ammonium nitrate.”
STMD has programs at all 10 NASA centers, including independent research and development. The Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) and NASA Glenn Research Center are doing the most work for the directorate, according to Gazarik, but the others are not far behind. Although not heavily funded – about $600 million each year since it was stood up – he believes that this consistency in funding demonstrates the value NASA and Congress see in STMD’s work.
Those funds pay for roughly 800 civil service employees, plus programs at 125 universities and more than 50 companies, a number Gazarik expects will continue to grow. The directorate’s proposal and competition process has attracted some 11,000 proposals that have been evaluated in the last three years.
“The NASA centers, with their incredible workforce of more than 17,000 civil servants, provide much of our workforce, many coming from shuttle and ISS efforts. We’re also recruiting from both industry and academia, with more than 200 graduate fellows doing research,” he said, adding STMD has a serendipitous role in encouraging more American students to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) majors.
“We’ve had a very healthy competition and been able to be very selective in the awards we make. And we think we’re part of the STEM solution, providing hands-on cutting-edge work to students to attract and keep them in engineering. By design, for example, JPL had a lot of early career people on the Hawaii program, doing a lot of cross-discipline work that really became a space technology badge of honor. And moving on from that to some of the flight projects, such as JPL’s 2020 Rover. So the type of projects we have involve real hands-on work.”
“Technology takes time to mature – problems to solve, things to learn. So by default, the trick is to learn quickly, ‘fail quickly,’ we call it, and keep a sustained investment.
Given STMD’s DARPA-like (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) approach to pursuing technologies others consider too difficult – if not impossible – it is not unexpected the two organizations share some problems, as well as mutual solutions and investments, maintaining close contact to ensure they stay aligned in their efforts. DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), created with NASA in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, was then and has been unique among government agencies anywhere in the world – not only is it allowed to pursue what have since become known as “DARPA-hard” technologies and solutions, it is allowed to fail in those efforts without penalty or criticism.
“Technology takes time to mature – problems to solve, things to learn. So by default, the trick is to learn quickly, ‘fail quickly,’ we call it, and keep a sustained investment. NASA’s ‘failure is not an option’ culture is important, certainly for human spaceflight, but for technology, risk intolerance probably is a failure. We are trying to do things more the DARPA way – doing the hard things and, on occasion, breaking things, in an agency that is not used to failing in any shape or form,” Gazarik concluded. “Technology drives exploration and we have a lot of exciting work to do, now that we are established and on our way, pushing boundaries and developing new knowledge and technologies the nation needs to explore.
“In just a few more years, we will have more exploration capability than the world has ever seen. We’re in the trenches right now, but in a few years, we’ll look back and say, ‘Wow.’ One paradigm shift we’ve seen already is the use of commercial capabilities to get to LEO [low-Earth orbit] and eventually to the Moon, and dealing with the resources there. American industry has always built the hardware we use, so it’s just a slight paradigm shift to greater involvement by the private sector, as with NACA and the airline industry. We will do this together and I think that will prove to be the smart way to pave the way for future exploration.”
This article first appeared in the NACA/NASA: Celebrating a Century of Innovation, Exploration, and Discovery in Flight and Space publication.