In response to Trump budget, NASA ending separate technology plan
Even though Congress has yet to formally consider President Trumpâs new budget for NASA, the space agency is already moving swiftly to implement some of its core principles. Among those is a White House desire to end a separate program within the agency focused on the development of advanced new spaceflight technologies intended to keep NASA at the cutting edge.
With an annual budget that has varied between $500 million and $1 billion, the Space Technology Mission Directorate was created in 2010 to develop the kinds of technology NASA needed to explore deeper into space, such as advanced propulsion and power systems, in-space manufacturing, and new means of landing on far-off worlds. If humans really were to expand beyond low-Earth orbit, research and development of these new technologies was deemed critical.
The presidentâs fiscal year 2019 budget for the space agency seeks to realign the space technology program by folding it into NASAâs âExplorationâ program, which is managing development of deep space hardware Congress has directed the space agency to buildâ"the Space Launch System rocket, Orion spacecraft, and ground systems at Kennedy Space Center.
According to internal emails obtained by Ars, this process is already happening. The emails characterize the change as a ârestructuringâ and assign NASA official James Reuter to serve as acting associate administrator for the space technology program. Prior to coming to NASA headquarters from Marshall Space Flight Center in 2015, Reuter played a management role overseeing development of the SLS rocket and Orion.
Some fo rmer space technology officials have begun sounding the alarm about these changes being made without oversight from Congress. âDisastrous news!â tweeted Mason Peck on Thursday morning. He served as the space agencyâs chief technologist earlier this decade. âNASA is already dismantling STMD even though the President's budget is only a month old. Don't give up. We need Space Technology if we want NASA to have a bold future. I hope Congress will reject this gutting of NASA's technology investments.â
Eating seed corn
Shortly after the budgetâs release, Ars spoke with Bobby Braun, who served as NASAâs chief technologist in 2010 and 2011 leading implementation of the space technology program after its creation by President Obama and authorization by Congress.
Like Peck, he too expressed concern about dissolving a separate budget line for space technology and transferring those funds into the exploration budget. âI think itâs a very d angerous proposition, and a slippery slope for the future of the agency, and what NASA represents to our country,â said Braun, who is now dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
Braun said he is principally concerned that, when research activities are combined with hardware-development programs, it never works out in favor of research into advanced technologies. The large development programs have huge, immediate needs for funding. âAll one of those long-term programs do is need to burp, and it eats up the seed corn of the technology program,â Braun said.
A similar situation occurred during the 2000s when NASA formulated the Constellation Program to send humans to the Moon and then Mars. Because of vast funding needs for the Ares line of rockets and a spacecraft that became the Orion vehicle, agency officials cannibalized technology research to pay for hardware. Running way behind schedule, the Constellation P rogram was canceled in 2010â"in the same budget that created the space technology program.
Braun also noted that President Trump signed a NASA Authorization Act last year that affirmed support for a separate space technology program, which had been upheld by both Democratic and Republican Congresses since 2010. Now, without input from industry, academia, or Congress, the White House has unilaterally revoked the concept.
For an agency that is supposed to live at the cutting edge of technology, it does not make sense to hamper its ability to invest in the future, Braun said. During the last decade, the space technology program has supported research into optical communications for communicating with deep space probes, environmental propellants, and nuclear thermal propulsion, among many other areas.
NASA has ambitious plans for human missions in deep space and performing scientific surveys of the oceans beneath Europaâs ice. The more audacious of those ideas wo nât be realized without technology research now, Braun said. âIf we donât make those investments, NASA is never going to be able to do these compelling missions,â he said.
In response to concerns raised by Braun and others, the associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate, Steve Jurczyk, released a statement to Ars.
âSTMDâs Early Stage Development and Technology Maturation programs will not go away. There are some Space Technology efforts that have been terminated in the policy shift to Exploration, including the WFIRST Coronagraph technology demonstration mission," Jurczyk said. "This focuses and reprioritizes technology investments to align to the eight exploration key focus areas, resulting in deletions of the Regional Economic Development, Space Observatory Systems, and Robotics projects.â
Jurczyk said the agency is considering two options to realign the space technology program and huma n exploration program to support the Trump administrationâs plans to send humans to the Moon.
The first of these concepts would create two new exploration-focused directorates within NASA, one that would focus on the International Space Station, commercial operations in low-Earth orbit, and technologies such as rocket propulsion. A second directorate would focus on deep space mission elements and technology.
The second plan calls for the creation of a single, âexploration-focusedâ mission directorate that would pull together all of the exploration content at NASA. The space agency is presently assessing these options, Jurczyk said, and will be prepared to implement them at the beginning of fiscal year 2019, which begins October 1 of this year.
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