NASA PROGRAM UPDATE
NASA recently sponsored a series of flights from Ellington Field in Houston to test technologies in reduced-gravity conditions. The flights marked the third year of operations for NASA’s Facilitated Access to the Space Environment for Technology program, called FAST.
The 16 research teams that participated were comprised of small businesses, university groups and NASA researchers from Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Texas and California. The teams were selected competitively based on the value of their technology to NASA and the potential to improve the technology through testing in the unique, reduced-gravity environment.
“University students from Florida to California, private companies and NASA centers all participated in this latest round of technology test flights,” said NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This commercially-provided test platform allows small technology innovators a unique way to test systems before they reach the harsh and unforgiving environment of space, providing a proving ground at the high frontier.”
The FAST program is designed to help reduce the risk of using new technologies during space missions. The flights also provide insight into why some technologies may fail before deploying them on a costly ride into the unforgiving environment of space.
The flights were on a Boeing 727 airplane operated under contract to NASA by the Zero Gravity Corporation in Vienna, Va. They simulated the weightless environment of space and the reduced-gravity conditions of the moon. The FAST program paid for the flight time and operations while each research team secured separate funding for their technology development.
The aircraft provides a series of short periods of reduced gravity lasting about 25 seconds. By repeating the maneuver, researchers obtain approximately 15 minutes of cumulative test time during each flight. Two flights with lunar gravity conditions and two flights with zero gravity conditions were conducted with approximately 10 projects and 25 to 30 researchers on each flight.
The tested technologies addressed important capabilities such as using resources on the moon, assembling structures, managing space propellant depots and monitoring human performance in microgravity conditions. Demonstrating these technologies in the reduced-gravity environment helps improve their designs and reduces risk for their use in future missions.
NASA’s Innovative Partnerships Program has managed the FAST program for the past three years. Beginning in 2011, it will be part of the Flight Opportunities Program in NASA’s new Office of the Chief Technologist in Washington.
The FAST program will solicit proposals for reduced-gravity testing opportunities for three or more flight weeks per year, pending the availability of funding.
The Reduced Gravity Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston supervised the test operations. NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland coordinated the preparations for the project teams.