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NASA's top techie speaks out

NASA

An artist's conception shows a solar sail rising above Earth in space. Solar sailing is one of the fields supported by NASA's technology development program.

Four decades after the moon landings, has NASA lost its technological mojo, its life force, its essence, its Right Stuff? That question has been getting asked quite a bit in recent years, but for the engineer who's just been named NASA's next top techie, the answer is clear: The mojo is still there, baby.

"Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" may not be quite the right movie reference for Cornell Professor Mason Peck, who takes over NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist in January. He's actually more of a "Star Trek" guy.

"We allow ourselves to geek out about space technology," he was quoted as saying in a 2009 Cornell University feature article. "I'm not above including a 'Star Trek' reference in a lecture or providing a science-fiction story among the required readings."


A big part of his new job at NASA is to communicate how the agency's technologies will benefit future space missions as well as everyday life here on Earth. He's also tasked with leading NASA's technology transfer and commercialization efforts, and building contacts with industry, academia and other government agencies.

NASA's arrangement with Peck keeps him on Cornell's engineering faculty — which is a good thing, because he is currently the principal investigator for the Cornell-built CUSat in-orbit technology demonstration satellites, due for launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in 2013. He's also the principal investigator for Cornell's Violet satellite, which will test technologies for improved Earth observations and eventual exoplanet studies. 

Cornell

Cornell Professor Mason Peck has been named NASA's next chief technologist.

While Peck prepares to take up his new duties, his predecessor as chief technologist, Bobby Braun, is returning to his own teaching and research position at Georgia Tech after 19 months in the NASA post.

During an interview this week, Peck talked about the status of NASA's tech mojo and related themes. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:

Cosmic Log: How can new technologies help America and its partners explore the final frontier more fully and efficiently?

Peck: There are definitely a lot of things at stake here. First of all, NASA has not had much of a technology program for a while. When Bobby Braun took the chief technologist position, that was the first time it had been filled for quite a while. You could say NASA's technology pipeline was kind of empty, or it had a minimum level of investment. So he put in place a number of programs. It's remarkable how much progress he made during the relatively short time that he was there. I'm very fortunate to inherit the programs he put in place. These will provide the means to refill that technology pipeline.

A lot of the new ideas are going to come from the people that OCT [the Office of the Chief Technologist] sponsors to do this work, within NASA and outside NASA.

It's key to recognize that innovation drives economic success. It inspires people, it provides new directions for new businesses, and that's always been the case. We're lucky that Congress agrees with the president that NASA needs this kind of technology program. It provides innovation that creates jobs, stimulates the economy — and for NASA particularly, provides a path for NASA's future.

Q: What's your view on the balance between human spaceflight and robotic exploration?

A: There's clearly a role for both. Both get me excited in really fundamental ways. I don't think it's fair to claim that NASA needs to sacrifice one for the other, to be honest. That might sound like I'm dodging your question. ... I think that there's no shortage of new technology efforts at NASA, in human spaceflight or robotic exploration. By "robotic," I guess I mean a number of things. We could be talking about near-Earth activities that have to do with science, or commercial activities, or we could be talking about exploration of different planets. I guess what I'm saying is that there are plenty of things that can be done.

Q: I feel as if we should be talking about the prospects for specific technologies, such as the orbital fuel depots that folks have been discussing.

A: Well, I'd just as soon not talk about orbital fuel depots, just because that's become a little political. But I can say that OCT is looking at cryogenic propellant storage because this is what technology needs to be at NASA. It's all about solving multiple problems, without necessarily having a specific mission in mind. There are mission-specific technologies that get worked on, and that happens in the individual mission directorates. But the role of OCT is to develop technologies that are fundamental and have a broad impact.

Cryogenic fuel storage is really a capability we need for a number of things, including the Space Launch System. It's not a matter of one technology competing with the other. They're very much complementary.

Q: When you mention SLS, that brings up another question people have. Some people say we don't really need dramatically new technologies to go forward in space. But at one point, people were saying NASA would have to develop entirely new technologies in order to extend the space frontier. Is it a matter of applying existing technologies, or will completely new technologies have to be invented to get us where we want to go?

A: I don't think it's either-or. There's a lot we can do in the near term with mature technologies. But often when it comes to space, a mature technology is not just something that someone cooked up in a lab and showed that it worked on a desktop. There's a lot involved in maturing a technology to the point where the risk is low enough to use it in space, let alone for human space. There's a level of risk that at NASA one is willing to take on for robotic exploration or some science missions that wouldn't be appropriate for human space.

There are a lot of more near-term technologies that make a lot of sense for human space applications, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be pursuing the more innovative, radical technologies that could drive missions 10 or 20 years out. This is the idea behind the NASA technology pipeline. For a number of years, there hasn't been enough investment in technology for us to make the progress we need to make to prepare for the future. Now we're trying to fill that gap in the pipeline.

Q: What would you like to put into that pipeline first?

A: This is the nature of the current OCT programs. There are some near-term technologies being considered: One is the deep-space atomic clock, which is not a propulsion technology, but it enables navigation for a number of new missions. There's laser communications. This technology allows for very high-bandwidth, very dense communication across long distances. These are at the level of technology demonstration missions. In a few years, we'll be demonstrating these technologies in space at a level that will make them viable possibilities for near-term missions.

Down at the lower level of technology readiness, that's where a lot of OCT's effort is spent, because that's how the pipeline gets filled. One of the more exciting parts of the OCT portfolio is the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts. Thirty new NIAC projects have just been funded. There'll be a meeting coming up very soon to kick off some of those projects. ...

One of the great things about working at NASA, and working in the U.S., is that innovation drives a lot of what we do. We're ready for it, we just need the means to do it.

Q: Some people talk as if NASA has lost its mojo. They remember the can-do, "failure is not an option" spirit of the Apollo program, and wonder if that spirit is still alive at NASA. How do you channel that legacy of NASA as the agency of innovation, and use that legacy to move forward?

A: Well, first of all, that NASA hasn't gone anywhere. The challenges that NASA faces are simply budgetary. NASA has the technical talent to innovate. It innovates all the time. NASA is the premier space organization in the world, bar none. I have no doubt about that. I'm only concerned that NASA may not have the means to do so. NASA's workforce is very talented. They're brilliant and highly motivated people. The folks who are doing the engineering, in general, could get jobs elsewhere and probably make more money. It's not merely money that drives them. It's not merely career advancement. It's something deeper. That's a great environment to work in, and that's what you get at NASA.

Now there's funding for the first time in a long time for innovations aimed at solving problems at the level of NASA's centers, and ideally across NASA. I think this will make a big difference, because engineers love nothing more than to innovate. That's why most of us got into this business.

I don't think NASA is losing its mojo. It's a combination of budget, because times are tough across the country, and just the fact that we've struggled to maintain a consistent path over the years. This is a hard problem. Remember, in the Apollo days, NASA's proportion of the national budget was 10 to 15 times as high as it is now. One thing I'd like to accomplish as chief technologist, among many, is to communicate to Americans how valuable NASA really is in their lives. The thing is, that's not hard to do. In fact, most people already believe it. We just have yet to hear those voices.

Q: I know you haven't even started the job yet, but how do you think your own personal approach to innovation will make a difference at NASA?

A: I'd like to think that OCT can be seen as an organization that is courageous in its pursuit of technology. By "courageous," I mean we are driven first by technology — not by politics, or by the parochial concerns that drive a lot of the decision-making within an organization. We're about the technology. We're about doing the right thing. I've got to say that I'm following in some pretty big footsteps here. Bobby Braun set up a fantastic set of programs here. I think he and I see things very similarly.

I would like to think that people will see the risk-taking that I would encourage in technology development as being at the right level — that is, responsible risk-taking. We want to explore new ideas, we want to move toward new frontiers in technology so we can take the next steps at NASA. We don't want to get stuck repeating the same things over and over again, just because we can't do any better. What we've done already at NASA is fantastic, but my goal is to encourage a culture change toward accepting the right level of risk.

There is some level of risk we don't take on. We don't want to risk human life, right? Doing human space, there's clearly a line we don't cross.  But in many other areas, there are lots of opportunities, particularly for science or robotic exploration, where maybe more risk is acceptable. Maybe it cuts down on costs, or maybe we can push some boundaries and actually do more science by creating the right balance. I would like to think that we can take on risk in the right way.

More about the tech frontier at NASA:


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