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NRC Report: A Constrained Space Exploration Technology Program: A Review of NASA's Exploration Technology Development Program

Status Report From: National Research Council
Posted: Thursday, August 21, 2008

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NRC Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB)

Full Report

Summary

In January 2004, President George W. Bush announced new elements of the nation's space policy by issuing the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), which instructed NASA to "Extend human presence across the solar system, starting with a human return to the Moon by the year 2020, in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations." NASA was also directed to "develop the innovative technologies, knowledge, and infrastructures both to explore and to support decisions about the destinations for human exploration," among other objectives. As acknowledged in the VSE, significant technology development will be necessary to accomplish the goals it articulates. In the past four years, NASA has mobilized and focused its resources on the critical new tasks assigned, including the maturing of the technologies necessary for exploration.

NASA's Exploration Technology Development Program (ETDP) is designed to support, develop, and ultimately provide the necessary technologies for the agency's new Constellation flight program. The Committee to Review NASA's Exploration Technology Development Program is broadly supportive of the intent and goals of the VSE, and finds the ETDP is making progress towards the stated goals of technology development, but is operating within significant constraints which limit its ability to successfully accomplish those goalsthe still dynamic nature of the Constellation Program requirements, the constraints imposed by a limited budget, the aggressive time scale of early technology deliverables, and the desire to fully employ the NASA workforce. The ETDP is comprised of 22 technical projects; each was assessed by the committee in terms of the quality of the research, the effectiveness of transitioning the findings into the flight program and the degree of alignment of the projects with the VSE.

The committee found that in 20 of the 22 ETDP projects, corrective action leading to project improvement was either warranted or required. However, the committee felt that the ETDP contains a range of technologies that will, in principle, enable the realization of many of the early endeavors currently imagined in the Exploration Systems Architecture Study architecture, i.e., the development of a transportation system to the International Space Station, and the early human exploration of the Moon. The committee concluded that the ETDP, if adequately and stably funded and executed in a manner consistent with the planning process, would likely make available the required technology on schedule to its customers in the Constellation Program.

Because of the constraints cited above, NASA has created in the ETDP a supporting technology program very closely coupled to the near-term needs of the Constellation Program. This program contains only incremental gains in capability and two programmatic gaps (with regard to the integration of human systems and nuclear thermal propulsion). NASA has effectively suspended research in a number of technology areas traditionally within the agency's scope, and has in many areas effectively ended support for longer term technology research, traditionally carried out within NASA and with strong university collaboration.

This could have important consequences for those portions of the VSE beyond the initial short-duration lunar missionsincluding extended human presence on the Moon, human exploration of Mars, and beyond. With respect to management of the program, the ETDP contains good processes for tracking requirements levied by the Constellation Program, establishing the formal mechanics of technology transfer and for managing the programmatic risk of its own technology developments. However, there is a lack of clarity and completeness in the Constellation Program requirements as seen by ETDP projects, a need for improvement in the human side of the technology transfer process and a need for clarification in the way that technology developments contribute to a reduction in Exploration (i.e., Constellation) programmatic risk.

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