Technology

Getting NASA's Groove Back


A panel of leading American scientists is calling for the U.S. space program to shift priorities in the years ahead to become more innovative and competitive. The panel's report, issued July 7 by the National Academy of Sciences, says the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) could better serve the country's interest if it aligned its work with economic, environmental, and strategic goals. Among other things, the reports suggests the creation of an independent organization within NASA to develop cutting-edge technologies—much like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) does for the Defense Dept. "Many people no longer believe that NASA is pushing the frontier in space," says Ray Colladay, vice-chairman of the panel, in an interview. The report comes at a challenging time for NASA. The space shuttle fleet, which has brought American crew and cargo to the International Space Station for the past decade, is aging and set to be retired at the end of the month. This leaves the U.S. unable to take astronauts into space on its own until the Shuttle's successor, the Orion, is ready to take off. That is expected to happen no earlier than 2015. In the meantime, America will have to rent seats on Russia's Soviet-era Soyuz ships to take crew to the Space Station. Nostalgia for Apollo This transport gap comes at the tail end of a shuttle era that experts in the space industry say has been disappointing in terms of technological advancement. "I grew up watching the Apollo landings," says Jeff Greason, chief executive of , a California company that plans to bring tourists into space. "A lot of people thought we would be much further along by now. We thought space would be part of the economic sphere, a place where people could live and work and develop economic activities that are part of our lives." In Greason's childhood, it took only 10 years for the U.S. to put an astronaut on the moon. In the 30 years since the creation of the shuttle system, there have been no major developments in its propulsion system. NASA did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the report. Budget priorities changed from the time of Greason's childhood. Although NASA's budget has risen to nearly $18 billion from $4.5 billion in 1966, it constitutes less than 1% of the federal budget now, down from more than 4% at the height of the Apollo program. But budget issues are only part of the reason for the technical lag. NASA's emphasis in research and development has been on specific missions and related goals, instead of long-term advancements. "The development of advanced technology is mission-oriented and tied to mission risk mitigation rather then pushing advanced technology for future development with what the country would like to do 20 years from now," says Colladay. Colladay says that more emphasis on long-term R&D could have led to a new generation of more advanced shuttles, as well as more innovation in reusable propulsion systems and in compact nuclear energy for longer space-based missions. Calls for R&D Push The panel believes that an emphasis on R&D will allow NASA to have a greater effect on the wider population. The development of solar panels in space, which could send microwave electricity back to earth, and better monitoring of global warming are two areas in which NASA could have a strong impact, says Colladay. The new, DARPA-like research arm could focus on developing key technologies in advance of specific missions. The group could draw talent from far afield in private companies, universities, or even other government agencies, in a more competitive model. "[The research arm would be] focused not so much on technology that today's program managers require, but on what future program managers would wish they could have if they knew they needed it, or would want if they knew they could have it," the panel's report states. "This effort should engage the best science and engineering talent in the country wherever it resides, in universities, industry, NASA centers, or other government laboratories independent of pressures to sustain competency at the NASA centers." Space industry experts say that R&D talent is exactly what NASA is lacking. "There are some that say that NASA should be more of an R&D program instead of operating a legacy business," says Clay Mowery, president of , a French company that launches satellites for government and private companies. "There is an interest in making it more cutting-edge, but there is a question of whether they have this [capability] in-house anymore. A lot of cutting-edge engineering is not in government hands anymore. It's in the private sector." Although companies like Boeing ( (BA)) and Lockheed Martin ( (LMT)) compete for contracts to build spacecraft, the design and development process itself is done largely in-house by NASA engineers. Inspired by Apple A stronger R&D wing could be an effective recruitment tool for getting top-notch engineers, according to spokesperson Brendan Curry. "A lot of the people in the space program are older," he says. "There are younger people who are thinking about working at NASA but might choose Apple ( (AAPL)). It takes Apple only one year to make a new iPhone, but NASA has had the same ship for 30 years." With an R&D organization that could hold competitions and focus on long-term projects, NASA could reinvigorate the drama surrounding the space program and draw cutting-edge talent, says Curry. Still, Colladay is careful to emphasize that NASA can't do everything at once. Given the agency's current budget, it would be difficult to spend much money on long-term R&D. The report says that current budget levels make it difficult for the agency even to accomplish the shorter-term goals set by Congress. "You can't set up an organization to push ahead of technological requirements if you don't have the money to pursue technological development," says Colladay.
Schectman is a reporter at BusinessWeek.

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