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Next giant leaps for NASA tech

Rocket refueling stations and new kinds of engines for deep-space travel are high up on NASA's wish list for new technologies. So is a heavy-lift launch vehicle, which happens on Congress' wish list as well. But exactly what kind of next-generation rocket will NASA get? As far as Bobby Braun is concerned, the answer to that question is best left to engineers rather than lawmakers.

Braun, who is the space agency's chief technologist, discussed heavy-lifters and more today in a teleconference conducted during his visit to NASA Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley. Braun's main task is to get NASA's high-tech mojo working again, decades after the space agency made Tang, Teflon and Velcro famous.

NASA didn't actually invent Velcro fasteners, Teflon coating or Tang powdered drink mix - instead, it took those commercial innovations and adapted them for high-profile applications in outer space. Those applications, in turn, heightened public awareness and acceptance of new technologies. Something similar could happen again if NASA pushes through a new burst of technological innovation.

Today, NASA does spaceflight using a space transportation system that's been updated through the years, but really isn't dramatically different from what it was nearly 30 years ago. With the impending retirement of the space shuttle fleet, Braun and his fellow technology planners at NASA have an opportunity to do things in a radically different fashion.

During today's telecon, Braun said the new NASA will be spreading out its technological bets a lot more. "If we're going after grand challenges, which we are in the space technology program. ... For us to do that, we're going to have to take a little bit of risk," he said.

That means taking a risk-balancing "portfolio approach" to high-tech development. Some of the technologies NASA is betting on will result in new, even revolutionary, solutions to space challenges. "But frankly, we have to admit up front that some will not, and that has to be OK," he said.

The latest NASA-backed Centennial Challenge competitions, announced last month, focus on the kinds of technologies the space agency is looking for. The Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge, for instance, would award $2 million to folks who can demonstrate new ways to launch small satellites into orbit quickly and reliably. "Small sat is an important part of space technology," Braun said. "We actually called it out as a separate program, because in the formulation of space technology, I was worried, frankly, that if we didn't ... it would get lost in the larger technology pieces."

Other prize programs are aimed at producing more efficient solar-powered rovers as well as interplanetary robots capable of collecting soil samples without human intervention. Such technologies would be needed for more ambitious Mars missions ... and would surely be put to good use on Earth as well.

Braun's office is also reviving the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, or NIAC, under a new name (NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts). He said NASA is refocusing the program on research that could produce real-world technologies in less than a 40-year time frame.

"One of the problems that NIAC had previously, because it was so revolutionary, is that there were no technology programs to carry on that NIAC innovator's idea," he said. "There was no place for that idea to go."

Finally, there's human spaceflight: Although Braun isn't in charge of how astronauts get into space and back, he said he serves as NASA Administrator Charles Bolden's "primary advocate" for technology matters throughout NASA. And he has some definite ideas about how spaceflight technology should be done:

• Rocket refueling in orbit: Last year's review by an independent panel highlighted on-orbit fuel depots as a new approach for facilitating trips beyond Earth orbit, and it sounds as if Braun is totally on board with the idea. "When we send a human mission to Mars one day, we already know that about 80 percent of the mass in low Earth orbit for that mission is propellant," he told me. "So if we had technologies for propellant transfer and storage, you can imagine a lot of ways to get that propellant to low Earth orbit. Maybe it goes on one heavy-lift launch. Maybe it goes on many smaller-vehicle launches and is stored and transferred about in low-Earth orbit for the ultimate vehicle."

• New in-space propulsion systems: Braun noted that rocketeers have been talking about a wide range of architectures for future spaceships, ranging from shuttle-derived launch systems to kerosene-fueled approaches to experimental plasma propulsion systems such as VASIMR. Heck, you could even talk about solar sails or ion drives. "We need an in-space propulsion system, and you could imagine a number of advanced technologies, whether they be low-thrust or medium-thrust or high-thrust systems, to enable us to travel out beyond low Earth orbit. Now, the more efficient those systems are, the less mass we need to lift on the heavy-lift vehicle."

• In-situ resource utilization: "When we get to our destinations," Braun told me, "are we going to bring everything with us to an asteroid or to Mars? Or are we going to use the resources available on those bodies ... perhaps for consumables like life support, perhaps for propellant for the return journey home. Perhaps for materials, to manufacture a variety of devices at these destinations. Answers to these technology questions inform our beyond-low-Earth-orbit exploration architecture ... and greatly impact the requirements for the heavy-lift vehicle."

• Heavy-lift launch vehicles: That leads up to the multibillion-dollar question ... what kind of heavy-lifter should be designed and built? Legislation now making its way through Congress would provide NASA with an answer: Build a new rocket capable of putting 70 to 100 metric tons of payload into orbit by 2016. That's more than twice the weight of the space shuttle's biggest payload, but significantly less than the capacity of the Saturn 5 moon rocket.

Braun indicated that he didn't care for the idea of setting a legislative requirement for future rockets, because so much was dependent upon the other elements of a next-generation space transportation system:

"NASA is filled with technically strong people who could study the heavy-lift problem and relatively quickly determine the way forward. The agency is in the middle of doing that. In fact, we had a heavy-lift and propulsion technology broad agency announcement that was released by the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. We're in the process of reviewing the industry inputs to inform our decision process. To make the most efficient and best use of taxpayer dollars ... I think that's NASA's job to think about these things, and to make the proper technical decisions on the proper time scale."

When it comes to revolutionary propulsion technologies, Braun said "there are some approaches out there that appear to show some promise." He declined to provide details, however, because NASA is in the midst of a competitive industry cycle.

"On top of that, I would like to look at it from a systems perspective," he said. "It's not all about the rocket. It's about getting beyond low Earth orbit."

Will Braun and NASA get it done? And on what time frame? A lot of questions about that will be hanging in the air over the weeks and months (and years?) to come ... but you don't have to wait until 2016. Feel free to weigh in with your own suggestions and observations in the comment space below.

Update for 9:25 p.m. ET: The San Jose Mercury News mentions a couple of technology programs that NASA Ames Research Center will be working on: a spacecraft that can fly off a runway like an aircraft and carry up to 20 metric tons (44,000 pounds) into orbit, and an inflatable system that can shield spacecraft from the intense heat of atmospheric re-entry.

There's also a project to be conducted jointly with the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, looking into beam-powered space propulsion. That follows up on NASA's Power Beaming Challenge, which paid out $900,000 to the Seattle-based LaserMotive team during last year's Space Elevator Games.

We may hear more about beamed power systems at the 2010 Space Elevator Conference, which takes place this week on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., just down the street from my msnbc.com newsroom. Stay tuned ...

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