Technology: Analysis and Findings
The committee's task group on technology was charged to perform a broad analysis of the role of technology in the space sciences. As noted in Chapter 2 and Chapter 3, NASA is beginning to emphasize the benefits of new technologies for ameliorating the effects of diminished budgets. NASA refers to these new technologies as enabling both “faster, better, cheaper” missions and “smaller, faster, cheaper ” missions. The “smaller” and “faster” adjectives draw upon Freeman Dyson's observations about the compelling scientific advantages of simple and rapid experimentation.1The “cheaper” adjective is a reflection of the current budget environment and was introduced to NASA by Administrator Goldin in 1992.
The slogan “faster, better, cheaper” is often misunderstood to mean that the new approach can be expected to yield “better” science. In fact, NASA's prior emphasis on scientific performance over cost often produced excellent science that may not be equaled by cost-limited missions. The “smaller, faster, cheaper” technologies may, on the other hand, be “better” primarily in the sense that they enable vigorous space science programs at an acceptable cost.
THE NEW RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TECHNOLOGY AND THE SPACE SCIENCES
The development and utilization of “smaller, faster, cheaper” technologies offer many opportunities to energize the space sciences. The vision of frequent launches of small probes is an appealing one for rapid discovery, testing of hypotheses, and extension of understanding. While the laws of physics dictate that large, capable spacecraft will be needed for some missions, the new technologies should restore the balance between “large” and “small” science and lessen the cost of the remaining large missions.
Some new technologies will require adjustments in the practice of science. In addition to more frequent launches, “smaller, faster, cheaper” flight projects will often employ new technologies in sensors and for the interpretation of data. These new instruments may not measure everything that is possible, but only what is necessary, and, in some cases, data from new instruments and systems will not have the heritage of data from earlier instruments. Scientists will have to learn to use these new data, to relate them to older data where appropriate, and to replace through insights enabled by improved analyses what the new data may lack in desired breadth. In the process, accepted practices in the space sciences will change and science will evolve.
Dyson, F., Infinite in All Directions, Harper and Row, 1988.
On the other hand, development of technologies for the space sciences should be driven by significant science objectives. For new technologies to have the desired effect on the space sciences, NASA must be sensitive to boundaries that cannot be crossed without exchanging valid science for mere technology demonstrations. The identification, development, and utilization of new technologies must be subject to the discipline of meeting high-priority science objectives. The criterion for judging new technologies should be their potential for enabling more high-quality science within the constraints of realistic budgets. This judgment should be made through reviews by scientists and engineers who represent the best scientists and technologists in NASA and other agencies, in industry, and in academia.
The Integration of Science and Technology
If “smaller, faster, cheaper” missions are to yield high-quality science, scientists and engineers must work more closely during design, development, integration, flight operations, and data archiving than has been the general practice with large missions. The synergism of talents that is possible in team environments has proven effective in industry and should prove equally effective with flight projects. The necessary compromises and the mutual learning among scientists and engineers can best be realized in these team settings where everyone understands the enabling value of new technologies and recognizes that science and technology are mutually supportive in ensuring the future vitality of the space sciences.
A key to the success of integrated projects is balance between immediate scientific results and the validation of technologies that not only enable these immediate results, but also improve scientific capability for future missions. While that balance might lie anywhere between the extremes of “science is supreme” to a “validation of technology,” a moderation should be sought. The former does not help achieve better or more affordable science later; the latter may ultimately prove of little or no value unless the technologies selected for flight validation are based on real space science needs.
The development of new technologies for the space sciences should be coupled to current science objectives. NASA will not have the resources to develop every technology in the anticipation that a few will prove of eventual value to science. Nor will it have the resources to develop a broad range of technologies in the belief that the process will significantly enhance the competitiveness of U.S. industry. While many new technologies will have some commercial value, it would be unwise to distort space science priorities in anticipation of large, but unspecified, benefits to industry or science.
A wide-ranging study of the civil space program was delivered in December 1990 by the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program2 (chaired by Norman Augustine). One recommendation of this report that is relevant to the current study was “that an agency-wide technology plan be developed [for NASA] with inputs from the Associate Administrators responsible for the major development programs, and that NASA utilize an expert, outside review process, managed from headquarters, to assist in the allocation of technology funds.” The study also recommended “a two- to three-fold enhancement of the current modest budget [for advanced technology development].”
NASA's Office of Aeronautics and Space Technology (OAST) responded to the call for a technology plan by developing the 1991 Integrated Technology Plan for the Civil Space Program (ITP)3 and by having its Space Systems and Technology Advisory Committee (SSTAC) review that ITP.4
Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program, Report of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program, December 1990.
NASA, Integrated Technology Plan for the Civil Space Program, 1991.
NASA, Advanced Technology for America's Future in Space, 1991.
In December 1991, NASA's OSSA and OAST suggested that the existing NRC Space Studies Board/ Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board Joint Committee on Technology for Space Science and Applications review NASA's plans for developing new technologies in support of future space science and applications programs as described in the ITP. The NRC assembled a broadly representative group, named the Committee on Space Science Technology Planning (CSSTP) and composed of 26 engineers and scientists (including 7 members of the SSB/ASEB Joint Committee), to conduct the review. The CSSTP convened a workshop in June 1992 and delivered its report, Improving NASA's Technology for Space Science,5 in February 1993. This study and report formed the background and starting point for the work of the present committee. Summary recommendations of the report are provided in Appendix C. The Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board Committee on Advanced Space Technology published a relevant report on small spacecraft technology in 1994.6
The present committee found that NASA lacks an agency-wide process for identifying, developing, and using new technologies in its space science missions. While each of the science offices has developed, or is in the process of developing, independent plans of varying quality, the lack of an overarching strategy or process makes it difficult for the science offices to combine limited resources to acquire relevant technologies that span the needs of more than one office, or for the agency to sustain development of technologies over more than a few budgeting periods. Without a unifying plan, NASA cannot be confident that it has identified critical weaknesses in space technology—particularly for those technologies that are unique to the space environment. The planning process should foster closer interaction between scientists and technology developers so that relevant scientific data can be used in technology development and so that needed directed research is identified and done.
Principal recommendations of both the report of the Augustine Committee (Appendix C) and the NRC's Improving NASA's Technology for Space Science (Appendix C) were that NASA develop an agency-wide Integrated Technology Plan (ITP) and that the ITP undergo periodic external review. As described above, NASA briefly had an ITP in 1991 (which was reviewed again in 1992), but because that plan was tied to the extraordinary budget growth recommended by the report of the Augustine Committee that never occurred, the ITP was never more than an extensive list of technologies that might be developed if funds became available. There has not yet been a successor to the 1991 ITP. In the interim, OSAT has funded candidate space science technologies without the benefit of explicit priorities. While ad hoc decision making is often necessary within dynamic organizations, there is no virtue in the permanent absence of a well-understood plan.
The agency planning process may encompass the needs of all NASA space technology stakeholders, but the resulting plan must, at a minimum, incorporate the interests of all the science offices and the relevant activities of OSAT. The planning process should consider the needs of the operational federal agencies that use NASA technologies in their operational systems (e.g., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey). The plan should reflect realistic budgets and indicate how each new technology will be validated, that is, whether through flight or though ground demonstrations. It should include a strategy for ensuring an adequate systematic knowledge base for designing systems that must operate efficiently and reliably in the space environment. While the details of the plan will vary from year to year, the planning process should be stable.
NRC, Committee on Space Science Technology Planning, Improving NASA's Technology for Space Science, National Academy Press, 1993.
NRC, Committee on Advanced Space Technology, Technology for Small Spacecraft, National Academy Press, 1994.
The plan should be generated through project-level queries within the science offices to identify desired near-term and far-term technologies and through queries among the scientific and technology-developing communities to identify the far-term technologies that would enable important new science. The aspects of the plan relevant to space science should be reviewed annually by a committee chaired by the NASA Chief Scientist and made up of the NASA Science Council plus recognized scientists and engineers from inside NASA, from industry, and from academia. The first recommendation of a 1993 NRC report, Improving NASA's Technology for Space Science, has gone unheeded: “The NASA Administrator or OAST [now OSAT] Associate Administrator should act to establish a coordinating position with the clear responsibility to ensure cooperation between technology development efforts within different parts of NASA—from early research through the various stages of technology development and readiness.”
Recommendation 6-1: NASA should establish an agency-wide process for identifying, developing, and using technologies for the benefit of the space sciences. The aspects of the plan relevant to space science should be reviewed annually by a committee chaired by the NASA Chief Scientist and made up of the NASA Science Council plus recognized scientists and engineers from inside NASA, from industry, and from academia.
Technology development suffers from the paradox that if no new missions needing new technologies are started, then no new technologies are needed; but if no new technologies are developed, then no new missions requiring new technologies can be started. The cycle can be broken only if the risks and costs of technology development are amortized over a number of missions. Therefore, the risk and cost of first flight demonstrations of new technologies must be charged to a program rather than to a single specific flight project. Unless NASA can uncouple the cost and risk of technology development from first flight applications, the most innovative new technologies are unlikely ever to fly.
At least four categories of near-term technology development (development times of less than five years) can be identified:
Technologies that must be refined as part of a flight project. This category includes developments such as the first use of well-understood, composite structures to accommodate weight growth in another part of the spacecraft, or the incorporation of well-understood, autonomous operations to reduce mission operations costs.
Advanced Technology Development (ATD) in support of anticipated flight projects within a single space science office. This category includes projects such as the development of a new sensor array or a more effective in situ soil analyzer.
Focused technology development in support of anticipated flight projects in more than one space science office. This category includes projects such as the development of a smaller and more powerful flight control computer or a lighter attitude control system—items that might be used in Earth orbit or on missions to the planets.
Technology development in support of an approved program designed to validate technologies for future space science missions. Examples include projects under way as part of the Small Satellite Technology Initiative (SSTI) or New Millennium programs.
Recommendation 6-2: The space science offices should have primary responsibility for identifying and reviewing near-term technologies. This arrangement gives the science offices the greatest control of the technologies that most immediately affect the success of their programs. Each science office should allocate a significant fraction of its resources to ATD activities and should be willing to pool resources to achieve shared objectives. Most importantly, the implementation of all categories of technology development should be undertaken by the best-qualified individuals or teams within NASA, industry, or academia, as determined by peer review. The overall processes for near-term development would be coordinated by the Chief Scientist (or a designated representative of the Chief Scientist) through the NASA Science Council.
Category (1) technologies (above) should be identified, funded, managed, and reviewed within their associated flight projects. Category (2) technologies should be identified, funded, and reviewed by the science offices, but management would be where the expertise can be found —either within a science office or within OSAT. Category (3) technologies should be identified and reviewed jointly by the space science offices and OSAT, but they should be funded and managed by OSAT. Category (4) projects would be best funded by OSAT and the science offices and managed by OSAT, because they would provide the platform and operations to serve more than one customer.
Far-term technologies (those requiring more than five years to be ready for a flight demonstration) should be selected for their potential to enhance performance significantly or lower the cost of undertaking science in space. These should not be projects designed to yield a 10 percent improvement, but rather they should attempt to double the cost-effectiveness or entirely change the way some aspect of science in space is undertaken. Such technologies need not involve space flight; for example, they might include high-altitude aircraft or new balloon technologies if these promise a significant improvement in quality or reduction in cost of the space sciences. Currently, OSAT states that it allocates 20 percent of its space science technology funds to primarily in-house, far-term technologies.
Recommendation 6-3: Promising far-term technologies should be identified, funded, and managed by the Office of Space Access and Technology (OSAT). Projects should be reviewed jointly by the science offices and OSAT. These far-term projects should be carried out by the best-qualified individuals or teams within NASA, industry, or academia as determined by peer review. Tight budgets make it more important than ever that a regular and rigorous review process be put in place to identify those projects that ought to be terminated.
Note that the allocation of $31 million for FY 95 on far-term projects (as seen in Figure 2.7) at OSAT seems small, especially because of the inherent risk in far-term projects.
The Role of NASA Headquarters
As part of NASA downsizing, OSAT plans to reduce its Headquarters staff and transfer some of its functions to field centers. In one interpretation of this change, detailed management of the Spacecraft Systems Division—the OSAT organization that is responsible for space science technology—might move to the Engineering Directorate at Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). In this scenario, by 1997, an office within the GSFC Engineering Directorate would coordinate among all NASA centers the identification and prioritization of needed technologies for future space science missions and would manage issuance of announcements of opportunity, peer-reviewed selection, and performance reviews of
technology development projects. The technology development projects would be competed among industry, academia, and the NASA centers.
This GSFC-based function would encourage GSFC flight project managers and resident user scientists to cooperate in identifying, developing, and using new technologies. This cooperation would be particularly appropriate for near-term technologies seeking a flight opportunity. However, it is not clear how outside scientists would be heard in this arena, how a GSFC-based function could achieve the same coordination role for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), or why GSFC is the appropriate environment for managing far-term technology development for the space sciences. The centers have an obvious conflict of interest in make-or-buy decisions; they tend to out-source on the basis of critical path decisions rather than the merit of proposed work, and they tend to use universities as low-cost alternatives to industry for deliverables rather than as places best suited for the development of the scientific underpinnings of far-term technologies.
Recommendation 6-4: NASA-wide oversight of technology for the space sciences belongs at Headquarters. While field centers might be asked to manage the day-to-day affairs of programs, it should be Headquarters' role to maintain a comprehensive, formal technology plan and to manage announcement, selection, and review of technology grants and contracts.
The Role of the Field Centers
As previously noted, NASA and the Department of Defense have been successful in building technological competence within industry and academia, so that national leadership in many aspects of space science technology development now resides outside of government laboratories. NASA field centers continue to develop needed technologies, particularly those associated with unique facilities, but they also invest in internal projects that are duplicative or below the standards of those now within industry and academia. Whatever their merit, a characteristic of many of these internal projects is that they are starved for resources to maintain and upgrade facilities.
Recommendation 6-5: NASA field centers should explicitly define those technological subdisciplines that require in-house research and development, for example, those associated with mission development, integration, testing, and operations; with a unique, national facility; or with “smart buying” of external technologies. Field centers must rely on the research and development capabilities of other NASA field centers and of laboratories of the Departments of Energy and Defense, industry, and academia wherever it is reasonable to do so. The essential, in-house capabilities should be sufficiently supported to ensure their quality as a national resource. Their effectiveness should be reviewed periodically by experts from other NASA field centers, industry, and academia. Evidence of continued excellence might include significant contributions to NASA technology development initiatives, key contributions to the technological advancement of their subdiscipline, journal publications, presentations at technical conferences, and patents.
The two science field centers—GSFC and JPL—have attempted to become largely self-sufficient by acquiring in-house talent either through federal employment or through support contracts. Both science centers take pride in the stability of their technology/engineering workforce. At the same time, they resist constructive exchanges of technology or of responsibility for technology between themselves, between themselves and NASA's research centers such as the Ames Research Center or the Lewis Research Center, or between themselves and industry or academia. The consequent isolation of these centers has led to a “not invented here” culture that distorts “make-or-buy” decisions and impedes technology infusion. This field center behavior must be modified so that centers seek common cause among
themselves and seek success through marshaling the broader science and technology communities to achieve the most effective space science projects that are possible for the available budget. While the current process of clarifying center responsibilities (essentially Earth orbit at GSFC and deep space at JPL) should help reduce competition between centers for similar projects, their insular culture is so deeply embedded that it may not be sufficient to achieve the desired cooperation.
Recommendation 6-6: NASA should develop aggressive programs for changing the insular culture of the field centers. Among these should be programs for personnel exchanges among the centers, industry, and academia. A fraction of the engineering/technology workforce should be viewed as transient.
Rotation of personnel might be achieved through increasing the participation of postdoctoral engineers in the Resident Research Associateship Program (as “NRC Fellows”) and in NASA-funded Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) exchanges between the field centers and academia and by coupling promotions to extended visits to other field centers or to industry. These exchanges should be for a year or more so that the participants have opportunities to both teach and learn new technologies. While scientists accept the need to publish and to present papers, engineers and technologists are slower to do so. NASA should encourage these professional communications and the seeking of patents as mechanisms for ensuring awareness of new technologies.
Participation of Industry and Academia
Competence in space science technology has successfully diffused through industry and the universities. NASA must increasingly view its role as marshaling these skills and building on them for the benefit of the space science programs. While NASA has traditionally been willing to seek out-of-house talent to develop near-term technologies, far-term technology development has generally been the province of the field centers. This practice restricts the use of potentially useful technologies that reside in industry and academia. Talent and innovation that can be found in industry and academia, and the technology transfer and educational value of funding technology development outside NASA, should not be ignored.
Recommendation 6-7: NASA should use the nation's best talent to develop both near-term and far-term space science technologies. Grants or contracts for space science technology development should be awarded on the basis of peer-reviewed proposals, and progress should be critically reviewed annually. Other funding from the agency should be provided on the basis of informed and conscious decisions by NASA upper management (at Headquarters or a center) and not as an automatic allocation to support the indefinite perpetuation of a laboratory or facility. Where NASA in-house capability is unable to compete on the basis of quality, NASA should decide whether to abandon the activity or to improve its quality so that it can compete.
While most levels of NASA recognize that the future of the space science programs requires “smaller, faster, cheaper” technologies, the project managers who have to absorb these technologies are not given sufficient incentives to do so. Because projects are driven by cost, schedule, and mission success, and new technologies are perceived as a threat to all three, project managers resist incorporating technologies that have never been used on a flight. There is also a tension between the desire to use new technologies and the strong penalty provisions in new NASA contracts. There are several ways to encourage the use of new technologies: JPL assigns a technology advocate to each major project; GSFC
uses edicts from engineering management; and NASA Headquarters has created the SSTI and New Millennium programs to fund flight demonstrations of new technologies.
Recommendation 6-8: NASA should make special efforts to ensure that the emphasis it has newly placed on the incorporation of new technology in missions truly carries over to the processes for evaluation and selection of proposals. If increased use of new technology on NASA missions is valued by the agency, it should ensure that this value is explicit in the selection criteria for new projects. Furthermore, there should be stronger incentives for project managers to incorporate new technologies.
First, project managers should participate in the selection and review of technology development projects so that they are familiar with new technologies and, in some sense, have committed themselves to their use. Second, the project's objectives should include references to the use of new technologies. Third, the cost of incorporating a new technology in a flight project should be borne by the parent program so that there is an incentive for the manager of an individual project to use the new technology. While the committee concurs with the value of flight demonstration programs like New Millennium, it urges that every technology demonstration flight that is to benefit the space sciences use the new technology to accomplish valid science. Technology development that is divorced from its application is much less likely to prove fruitful.
The prospect of decreasing budgets has forced NASA to recognize that the vitality of its science programs depends on the infusion or development of new technologies and the incorporation of new practices in the development, integration, and operation of flight projects. The New Millennium program has been created to increase the demand for needed technologies and practices. However, the relevant expenditures by the science offices and OSAT have not increased sufficiently to foster a level of technology development appropriate to these new realities. While $30 million to $50 million per year is to be available for technology demonstration flights, the committee was not apprised of a corresponding allocation of resources to develop the technologies that could be meaningfully demonstrated.
Recommendation 6-9: While the committee endorses NASA's creation of programs like New Millennium, such programs should be coordinated across the agency to ensure that their appetite for technology is balanced by appropriate technology development budgets, that the new technologies truly serve the space sciences, that validation flights test technologies through the incorporation of real science objectives, and that there is an appropriate balance in the spectrum between flights that are dominated by the immediate needs of science and flights that devote significant resources to the incorporation of technologies that enable better or lower-cost science in the future.