Learning from NASA’s Pioneering Past and Looking to its Future

U.S. President John. F. Kennedy spoke at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas on September 12, 1962, detailing the technological challenges ahead for putting a human on the Moon. (Credit: NASA)

This is part two in a technology series celebrating NASA’s 60th anniversary, featuring excerpts from past and present agency leaders. Read part one a look back on technologies that enabled early space exploration.

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA was only a few years old when U.S. President John F. Kennedy spoke at Rice University’s stadium in Houston on Sept. 12, 1962, underscoring the technological hurdles of placing a human on the Moon and assuring safe passage of that person back to Earth.

America’s space effort, while still in its infancy, was already paying dividends in new jobs, new companies and sharpening the skills of the nation’s technological workforce, Kennedy noted. Still, the challenge ahead was daunting.

In his Rice University address, President Kennedy spotlighted the giant Saturn V rocket made of new metal alloys, “capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced.” The mega-rocket and spacecraft would be fit together “with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body,” the President said, and then the spacecraft would return safely to Earth.

That homecoming would mean a capsule re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, creating heat about half as hot as the temperature of the Sun, Kennedy said. Lastly, the President concluded that to do all this, to do it right, and to do it first before the end of the decade…“then we must be bold.”

NASA’s technological muscle was exercised and rose to that challenge. Next year is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic first Moon landing on July 20, 1969.

Fast forward to the 21st century of today. In light of NASA’s 60th birthday, present and former NASA leaders provided their take on what’s ahead for the space agency.

NASA’s Deep Space 1 tested 12 advanced technologies and instruments in space. One revolutionary technology was the Solar Electric Propulsion (also known as ion propulsion) system. Advanced ion propulsion technology will be major component of future deep space missions. (Credit: NASA/Glenn Research Center)

“Yes” zone

Once again, NASA is ready to expand the boundaries of knowledge and exploration through space technologies that enable next-generation human and space robotics that push the limits of what’s achievable.

Dava Newman is the Apollo program professor of astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). From 2015-2017, she served as the deputy administrator of NASA.

“I now have an intimate understanding of just how complex NASA’s truly awesome portfolio really is—across aeronautics, science, human spaceflight and technology. To me it’s about being excellent,” Newman says.

“Above all, you can’t shy away from complexity. Bring on the complexity!”

During her tenure at NASA, Newman promoted a strategic, innovation framework, a way to raise the profile of the creative ideas within the space agency and also at universities. These low Technology Readiness Level (TRL) investments can accelerate technological progress and breakthroughs. “And that translates into, what I call, going into the ‘yes zone.’ There’s a need for the big, crazy, yet physics-based ideas, not science fiction.”

Newman’s crystal ball has NASA pushing advanced propulsion and biological radiation protection. “There’s also urgent need for advanced life support technology, smart habitats, novel space suit design, robotics and ways to best utilize space resources. There’s challenging work to be done fueled by strategic technological investments.”

Promising areas

NASA is working with Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company for the design, building and testing of a supersonic aircraft that reduces a sonic boom to a gentle thump. Beginning in mid-2022, NASA will fly the X-plane that could enable new commercial cargo and passenger markets in faster-than-sound air travel. (Credit: NASA)

Fundamentally the investment in technology provides options for use in future missions. It is important for NASA to remain a research and development organization, providing enormous value to the country.

That’s the view of William “Bill” Ballhaus, Jr., former president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation who has served on the NASA Advisory Council as chairman of the Technology, Innovation & Engineering Committee. In the 1980s, he was a former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center and served as acting associate administrator for the then office of Aeronautics and Space Technology at NASA Headquarters.

“I am encouraged to see the rebuilding of NASA work in aeronautics…a program that I think is pretty solid,” Ballhaus senses, with a number of flight demonstrations going on at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. They are working in key areas where they can really make a contribution.”

Ballhaus is hopeful that NASA can press ahead with humans to the Moon and Mars and also a technology program to formulate and attain those objectives. “I think in-space manufacturing and assembly; the management, transfer, and use of cryogenic fluids in space; and autonomous satellite servicing…these are among very promising areas in growing technology investments.”

Power and propulsion

NASA’s exploration agenda calls for a human return to the Moon as a catalyst for pressing forward to Mars. (Credit: NASA)

Gary Bennett previously served as NASA manager of advanced space propulsion systems in the Transportation Division of The Office of Advanced Concepts and Technology.

Bennett’s prediction is to look for higher efficiency solar cells, lighter weight solar arrays, and higher energy density batteries. They are within reach, he says. Similarly, in eyeing nuclear power and propulsion, there’s exciting work underway, including long-lived and high-powered reactors. “That work could spur precursor interstellar missions. We could have a permanent base on the Moon. We could be on Mars and start a self-supporting base on that world,” he said.

Increasingly feasible

When John Mankins looks into the future, it is one that’s rapidly changing with the emergence of affordable and automated fabrication of space quality systems—but with the label “made-in-space.” All of this activity is increasingly feasible by an evolving low-cost launch capability, he suggests.

NASA is undertaking studies of a cis-lunar Gateway with U.S. industry and international partners. (Credit: NASA)

Mankins is president of Artemis Innovation Management Solutions, LLC. During his NASA years, among several positions, he served as manager of exploration systems research and technology for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate and was manager of advanced concepts studies at NASA.

“It is absolutely crucial,” Mankins adds, “that NASA technologists not find themselves accepting ‘it just can’t be done’ for an answer. Just because something is crazy today does not mean 10 years from now or even five years from now it might not become obvious.”

As example, Mankins points to an area that NASA technologists worked on for decades and kept pushing forward: electric propulsion. “I really tip my hat to folks at NASA’s Glenn Research Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. That work has led the way to ever-more powerful solar electric propulsion concepts, like that to be used on the lunar Gateway. But it wouldn’t be so without those early decades of work,” he concludes.

The next 60 years

NASA is preparing for an ambitious new era of sustainable human spaceflight and discovery. Although the agency is planning to return to places previously explored, it will be with new technologies and paradigms for designing mission architecture. Much remains to be learned about the Moon and how we might use its soils and other resources to support human habitation elsewhere. The path to Mars is challenging NASA and its partners to figure out how to get there, land there, live there and get home.

“Going forward to the Moon gives us the exciting opportunity to test and prove new space technologies crucial to successful missions deeper in space,” said Jim Reuter, the acting associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “We’re tackling complex problems with industry and academic partners to take us farther than ever before.”

American engineers, scientists and technologists will rely on the successes and failures of their predecessors in order to achieve during the next 60 years of innovation, exploration and discovery at NASA. And just as President Kennedy said in 1962, as a nation, we will forge ahead on the “greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”