NASA Space Technology Progress in 2014

Technicians prepare the 18-foot-diameter (5.5-meter) tank during manufacturing at the Boeing Developmental Center in Tukwila, Wash. (Credit: Boeing)
Technicians prepare the 18-foot-diameter (5.5-meter) tank during manufacturing at the Boeing Developmental Center in Tukwila, Wash. (Credit: Boeing)

WASHINGTON, DC (NASA PR) — NASA’s technological toolkit to further America’s space exploration goals is on sound footing thanks to major accomplishments in 2014 by the space agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD).The directorate manages nine major technology development programs performed at each of NASA’s ten centers.

STMD’s 2014 agenda of game changing and cutting-edge endeavors stretched across an array of technologies, such as: advancing the use of high-performance, non-toxic, “green” propellant in space; demonstrating the use of commercial, off-the-shelf smartphone electronics to fashion extremely low-cost, yet capable satellites; and carrying out a high-altitude test of a novel entry, descent and landing system that can be applied to future robotic and human landings on Mars.

Strategic investments

The STMD portfolio of progress was made possible by strategic investments in chiefly eight key technology areas: 1) High-Power Solar Electric Propulsion; 2) Space Optical Communications; 3) Advanced Life Support and Resource Utilization; 4) Mars Entry, Descent, and Landing Systems; 5) Space Robotic Systems; 6) Lightweight Space Structures; 7) Deep Space Navigation; and 8) Space Observatory Systems.

In 2014, NASA’s STMD produced more than 26 new technical first-in-the-world accomplishments’ across a variety of technical areas. STMD fostered 45 activities with 43 other government agencies, and 10 activities with 14 international organizations. The directorate evaluated more than 2,000 proposals and funded more than 600 selections for awards, investing more than $240 million in the nation’s innovation economy.

International Space Station's 3D printer during flight certification and acceptance testing at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. (Credit:  NASA/Emmett Given)
International Space Station’s 3D printer during flight certification and acceptance testing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. (Credit: NASA/Emmett Given)

Cross-cutting demonstrations

“We are engaged in a very broad number of programs from a technological perspective,” explains NASA’s Michael Gazarik, Associate Administrator of STMD. “Each undertaking has a story, something that’s different and unique from a technology perspective, but all of which contribute to NASA’s current and future missions.”

For example, Gazarik points to the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project that successfully flew a rocket-powered, saucer-shaped test vehicle high above Earth in late June from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii. This first of three flights of the hardware verified that a balloon-launched, rocket-powered vehicle could reach the altitudes and airspeeds needed to test breakthrough technologies destined for future Mars missions.

The LDSD cross-cutting demonstration mission, Gazarik points out, tested technologies that will allow large payloads to be safely landed on Mars and at higher altitude sites to augment the ability to explore the Red Planet and beyond.

Missions of tomorrow

Gazarik underscores STMD’s distinctive role to build, test and fly the technologies needed for NASA’s missions of tomorrow.

“The key for us is building…building technology for a reason, for a purpose. We are about infusion, asking the questions of where is a technology going to take us and what missions can that technology help make happen,” says Gazarik.

Another STMD area of notable growth is within solar electric propulsion. Working with commercial partners, advanced solar array systems were tested and validated in 2014. For example, large, flexible, radiation-resistant solar arrays that can be stowed into small, lightweight packages for launch are in development. This type of array will yield far more solar energy to power spacecraft, at levels never attained before.

Solar array advancement is a critical technology to enable cost-effective treks to asteroids, to Mars, and other destinations. In fact, NASA’s new solar electric propulsion system will use 10 times less propellant than a comparable, conventional chemical propulsion system.

Moreover, the work in solar electric propulsion also supports a wide variety of commercial spaceflight activities, helping power and guide American commercial spacecraft well into the 21st century, while retaining a competitive edge in the global marketplace of space technology.

Improving the state-of-the-art

One of the most significant STMD achievements in fiscal year 2014 is the NASA and Boeing collaboration on a Composite Cryogenic Propellant Tank. The result: the largest, out-of-autoclave composite cryogenic propellant tank ever manufactured.

The 18-foot (5.5-meter) diameter tank endured a rigorous series of tests over the course of five months that mimicked the physical stresses launch vehicles experience during flight. During testing, the tank successfully maintained fuels at extremely low temperatures and operated at various pressures. This structurally efficient design has proven the ability to move forward and develop a large-scale cryogenic tank that is 30 percent lighter than the state-of-the-art, with a 25 percent reduction in production costs.

In-space testing

From the ground up into Earth orbit, STMD payoffs also involved demonstrating technologies aboard the International Space Station (ISS). In August, high-tech legs were attached to the torso of Robonaut 2, a state-of-the-art, highly dexterous, humanoid robot. This kind of automaton can work alongside humans or in places and situations where the risks are too great for people.

Other technologies that were demonstrated on ISS include a microgravity fluid slosh data experiment that can validate models for predicting the behavior of fluids in space for future exploration missions.

One more success story is that the Made in Space “Portal” 3D Printer was installed on the ISS. Using additive manufacturing to print components in microgravity, this technology is leading the way to a future where parts can be built on-demand in space. This equipment was matured through multiple STMD programs, including the Small Business Innovative Research Program and Flight Opportunities Program. Early use of this technology in December showcased the ability for in-space production of a tool: a wrench, which marked the first time an object designed on Earth was transmitted to space and produced off-planet.

Challenges ahead

Gazarik reiterates the need for pushing ahead to continue the development of technologies that will advance space exploration and commercial enterprise, why STMD was established some three years ago.

“We have learned over those years what works, what doesn’t. And we’ve experienced some of the pitfalls of doing technology development,” Gazarik says. “We are always looking for ways to get value for the taxpayer dollar, while also striving to achieve NASA’s goals.”

At the end of the day, Gazarik emphasizes, “we have to build and not just study…and we think that’s the best way to progress.”

The work done and achievements made by STMD in 2014 also helps cultivate a talent base of young, creative individuals willing to tackle new challenges.

“You can see it in the NASA, commercial, and university teams that make possible our STMD-supported efforts. It’s this workforce that can carry us into the future. It is the next generation that will get us to Mars,” Gazarik concludes.

For insight into the projects discussed and other advances made by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, please go to: http://www.nasa.gov/spacetech