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space elevator illustration
A “vision mission” could help refine the technology needed for truly revoltionary advances like a space elevator. (credit: ISR)

Beyond, together

Technology push and mission pull for NASA’s future

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Research turns ideas into possibilities. Engineering turns possibilities into realities. President Obama’s April 15th speech challenged NASA to expand the pool of engineering possibilities with fresh technological ideas to propel humanity onward in space. In a previous essay (see “Destination: onward”, The Space Review, May 10, 2010), I argued that infusing the staid discipline of spaceflight engineering with novel technologies requires fusing two NASA subcultures that have grown estranged in recent decades. This essay will suggest specific ways NASA could migrate good ideas smoothly into mission realities while respecting those aspects of the subcultures that make them good at what they do.

Promising technology, like a gifted prodigy, must be matured with finesse. Too much discipline will blunt its fine edge; too little will make it irrelevant. If technology development plays the role of the gifted prodigy, program management must play the role of the wise mentor. A wise mentor does not seek to form its protégé into the image of itself but instead to hand down its best wisdom for the protégé to make its own. As technology matures, it must be brought under progressively more engineering discipline while at the same time being allowed to influence the engineering and operations that it affects.

Promising technology, like a gifted prodigy, must be matured with finesse. Too much discipline will blunt its fine edge; too little will make it irrelevant.

Technology developers and program managers track their progress at the largest scale using different yardsticks. Technology maturity is tracked through a series of ten technology readiness levels, TRLs, ranging from 1, at which the basic principles for the technology have been established, to 10, at which the technology has demonstrated its capability in operation. Program maturity is tracked through a series of six phases, ranging from Pre-Phase A, in which the feasibility of a mission is assessed, to Phase E, mission operations. Beginning with TRL-3, technology development benefits from having a mission application to help it define its realistic challenges, but program management, beginning even in Pre-Phase A, is focused on demonstrating that the proposed mission is already technically feasible, that any technical risks can be managed within the program budget and schedule. Before a mission will take a technology seriously, it must be about TRL-6. This leaves a three- or four-TRL gap between when a technology would like to be associated with a mission and when a mission would like to be associated with a technology.

Mission pull

Bridging this mid-TRL gap would benefit from an alternative category of mission. Conventionally, a “mission” is or will become operational. Technology developments really need a conceptual mission, one that guides the technology but that does not have the schedule or funding guardrails of an operational mission. Subjecting a concept mission to the scrutiny of a Pre-Phase A, Phase A, and first part of Phase B would help technology developers understand the constraints and expectations for their technology. The studies would also flush out engineering challenges that may not be obvious outside a system context. The focus of a concept mission would be on the mission, the need to be met. Done right, a concept mission could provide the motivation to pull technologies through the mid-TRLs in a way that keeps it relevant to mission needs. This is called mission pull.

Technology developers would help the mission study establish the boundaries of feasibility and improve the system model’s credibility with empirical data when it becomes available. The mission team, for its part, would help technology developers understand the impacts of performance shortfalls and the opportunities for performance improvements. This would guide researchers’ decisions as they resolve the ordinary problems of their work and sensitize them to needs and possibilities they might not otherwise consider. If a flight test is necessary to mature the technology, it would be traceable to the concept mission and perhaps managed by the concept mission team.

Technology developments really need a conceptual mission, one that guides the technology but that does not have the schedule or funding guardrails of an operational mission.

NASA could select a set of concept missions to support the development of its critical technology needs, with the understanding that these missions may never become operational as they are initially envisioned. A concept mission would manage technology challenges by carrying parallel approaches that compete for the chance to become the mission baseline. The concept missions would themselves compete with each other for a chance to become an operational mission. Occasionally, the agency would cull out concepts mission that cannot show adequate feasibility or utility, though their successful technologies could migrate to other concept or operational missions.

When a concept mission either graduates or ends, the agency would replace it with a new one, keeping a constant pool of these missions to evolve NASA’s systems toward ever-greater capabilities.

Technology push

Concept missions aim at meeting foreseeable agency needs. Sometimes a technology offers the opportunity to do things that might not be foreseen or that changes how the mission problem is understood. The space elevator is an example of this kind of technology. For a space elevator to have a realistic shot at maturing into a system, it would benefit from a better understanding of mission and system issues like what kinds of payloads it would have to lift and how payloads would be deployed once they got to the top. Such a mission would be considerably more visionary than a concept mission. Another category of mission, a vision mission, could provide a context for revolutionary technologies. If an operational mission has ambitions to fly, and a concept mission has ambitions to become an operational mission, then a vision mission would focus its ambitions on becoming a concept mission. The focus of a vision mission is the technology, the capability to be developed. Done right, a vision mission can provide the motivation to push a technology through the maturation process. This is called technology push.

To maximize the chances of finding the optimal context for a revolutionary technology, a vision mission would compete different mission scenarios that are opened by the new technology. Multiple Pre-Phase A studies would look at different ways to use the opportunity. Independent efforts would refine separate mission and system contexts and assess the risks and payoffs for its own context. These different contexts would illuminate different technology challenges and opportunities. One mission may be easier to accomplish but not as far reaching than another. Different contexts may increase the challenges for different aspects of the technology or impose different requirements on the rest of the system. Once the studies have illuminated the technology and system risks, they should devise a realistic plan to reduce them. One or more of the most promising Pre-Phase A studies should proceed into Phase A while technologists work to reduce their risks.

Vision missions, by their nature, are likely to fail for valid reasons, but any that did succeed could revolutionize some aspect of NASA’s mission. A vigorous process of creating vision missions, giving them a fair chance to develop, then either promoting them to concept mission or culling them out will stimulate the kind of thinking that could move NASA ahead by leaps.

Vision missions, by their nature, are likely to fail for valid reasons, but any that did succeed could revolutionize some aspect of NASA’s mission.

The kind of revolutionary ideas that become the basis of vision missions would grow from basic research or exploratory developments that envision possibilities with no more mission justification than a vivid imagination provides. This kind of research activity should be supported patiently, but not indefinitely. Its success would be judged by its ability to attract a vision, concept, or operational mission sponsor. A revolving portfolio of leading edge research and emerging technology would ensure that fresh ideas had their chance at developing into something that would someday support NASA’s operations.

Pipeline to beyond

President Obama’s open-ended challenge to NASA deserves an open ended response. The most important product that could come from this period in NASA’s history would be a programmatic pipeline that encourages and incorporates new technology.

The near end of the pipeline would be NASA’s operational missions. These missions might include scars for new technology to allow them to improve their capabilities even while they’re in operation, as Hubble has done. This would also help new technologies gain flight heritage for future missions. Immediately behind them, a few full-scale development programs would be preparing to begin operation within seven years. These would be selected from a handful of concept missions that are maturing technology focused 7–15 years in the future. One source of concept missions would be a pool of vision missions that explore technologies with the potential to revolutionize some capability 15–20 year in the future. At the origin of the pipeline, basic research and exploratory development would stimulate a steady supply of fresh ideas.

This pipeline would bring NASA’s research and engineering subcultures together in a process to push and pull ideas through their maturation to become new space realities. It allows both the steady evolution and the occasional revolution of capabilities to move humanity onwards in space, reaching ever further.