Q&A With NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate Chief Steve Jurczyk

Steve Jurczyk (Credit: NASA)
Steve Jurczyk (Credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — Earlier this year, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden named Steve Jurczyk as the agency’s associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Jurczyk and technology have long been linked given that his career began in 1988 at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. A skillful and well-recognized engineer, his talents led to key leadership positions at Langley including deputy center director prior to becoming center director.

During his tenure at Langley, Jurczyk shaped the direction of research and technology endeavors in a wide array of areas, from aerodynamics, aerothermodynamics and acoustics to structures, materials and airborne systems – all in support of NASA’s aeronautics, exploration systems, science and space operations.

In taking the helm of STMD, Jurczyk sees an impressive set of programs and activities. “My focus is assuring that we have solid plans and we execute on those plans,” he explains. “There are some really exciting efforts we have underway now.”

In a recent interview, Jurczyk outlined the opportunities and challenges ahead and his agenda for action at STMD.

Q: After your first few months in STMD, what’s on your current priority list?

A: We have several major launches coming up in roughly the next 18 months. We just conducted a very important test flight of the low-density supersonic decelerator (LDSD) technology. That was a second test flight of LDSD out in Hawaii that gathered data on technologies to land increasingly heavier payloads on Mars.

Other significant technology demonstration missions coming up include the green propellant infusion mission, demonstrating in space a new environmentally friendly fuel. Then there’s the Deep Space Atomic Clock, now being readied as a secondary payload aboard a Colorado-based Surrey Satellite Technology spacecraft. That device is going to help improve timing of GPS satellites for Earth application, as well as for deep space navigation.

Q: What else is on your schedule?

A: We also have four small spacecraft missions being readied. They will advance formation flying of CubeSats, demonstrate optical communications and new sensors, as well as evaluate an integrated solar array and reflector antenna, which is pretty cool.

We are also moving forward on the technology demonstration mission for high-power solar electric propulsion technology. That’s part of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, or ARM for short. Two major high-tech pieces of that solar electric propulsion demonstration that we’ll be procuring involve the thrusters and electronics to drive those thrusters and the crucial, power-providing solar arrays.

Q: Is it fair to say that this flight rate for STMD is unprecedented?

A: I think it is…given the maturity level of these programs after working on them for several years now. We have solid plans for these projects, and they are being executed very well. I’m very excited about being part of all the launches coming up.

Q: How important is having technology take flight? Do you have a philosophy regarding the why of in-flight testing?

A: It’s important to build a technology with a transition path to a NASA mission or a commercial application. There’s a phrase we used about the mid-technology readiness level…the so-called “Valley of Death.” It’s relatively inexpensive and less risky to develop a new technology at lower levels of technology readiness. But it takes talent and resources to move a technology to a higher level of readiness, enough for a project to transition that technology into a mission. There’s a need for people to “see it fly” and, moreover, demonstrate its performance in flight.

The philosophy here is to fly technology, that’s really important…to demonstrate a technology and have a transition path so that technology will be used and not sit on a shelf.

Q: What other emerging technologies would you like to demonstrate in the future?

A: There are a few in the pipeline, such as deep space optical communications – a game changer. Then we’re also looking at several entry, descent, and landing technologies. One is hypersonic inflatable entry vehicle technology. Another is deployable heat shield technology, which along with the inflatable technologies, increases drag area to slow the vehicle down more quickly as it flies through the atmosphere. This kind of technology would enable us to deliver higher mass payloads to the surface of Mars.

Q: When you push the envelope of technology, it’s risky business and there’s a potential for failure, no?

A: In my view — in a research and technology activity — it’s only a failure if you don’t get the data. If you get the data but the technology didn’t perform as you expected it to…to me, that’s not a failure in research and technology development.

When you are pushing the envelope, you’re going to try things that have never been done before. So even if a technology doesn’t perform as expected, you’re going to get new data, and you’re going to learn by looking at that data. You may find out that a certain technology was not a good idea…then you go in a different direction.

That’s kind of my approach — my thinking on research and technology — and what’s a success, what’s a failure.

Q: Can you touch upon STMD’s relationship with the private-sector?

A: Our STMD work is focused on providing new capabilities for robotic and human exploration of the solar system, but we’re also here to help enable new commercial markets or enterprises.

Good ideas come from lots of difference places. Innovation comes from the NASA centers, industry and academia. I want to maintain the portfolio of programs that we have now and potentially expand the university engagement and get more industry involvement.

We’re also crafting public-private partnerships between our centers and industry in technology areas such as suborbital reusable and small satellite launch systems, and robotic in-space manufacturing and assembly of spacecraft. We are trying to engage industry in a more meaningful way. We recently released solicitations titled “Utilizing Public-Private Partnerships to Advance Tipping Point Technologies” and “Utilizing Public-Private Partnerships to Advance Emerging Space Technology System Capabilities” in order to expand opportunities that can foster the development of commercial space while benefiting future NASA missions.

Q: When you look out into the tomorrows yet to come, what future technologies do you foresee?

A: As we like to say, technology drives exploration and our journey to Mars. There are a couple of key things. One is solar electric propulsion because it’s super-efficient. It is great for moving and pre-positioning uncrewed systems in space, say in Mars orbit, for example.

For crew transport we need rapid transit including in-space propulsion technology. There are several options for that, one of which is nuclear thermal propulsion. We need to start working on fuel development and the reactor technology, integrating those with a propulsion system. Doing so would enable rapid transit of crew for solar system exploration.

Other important technologies are those that allow us to live off the land, also termed in-situ resource utilization, or ISRU. It’s also called “massless exploration.”

Q: What’s involved in massless exploration?

A: We need to figure out technologies, everything from generating surface power to using local resources as building materials. We require technologies to generate oxygen and fuels, even transforming raw materials by way of additive manufacturing to make components and systems we need far from Earth. Maybe even grow food in greenhouses on the surface of Mars.

These are technologies to start getting serious about. Furthermore, those technologies can influence what architectures are possible for the human exploration of the solar system.

If we’re going to live on the surface of a planet, like Mars, we’re not going to be able to take everything we need with us…by any stretch of the imagination!