NASA’s New Vision: Flagship Technology Demonstrations.

For almost the past 2 decades NASA, and by association every other space faring nation, has been treading water when it comes to pioneering new space technologies. Granted we have not been without achievement, far from it, however the blazing progress that once propelled NASA and its constituents forward is a distant memory. The benefits from the first space race are still being felt today (it’s likely you’re viewing this blog post on one of them) so you can see why there are so many lofty space enthusiasts like myself who look back at a time when science and inspiration went hand in hand to achieve something that was considered impossible only a decade previously. The future is looking a lot brighter as of late because of the private space industry finally coming up to speed with NASA’s achievements, but this morning it looked positively blinding.

Just on 3 months ago President Obama announced a new vision for the future of NASA. My initial reactions to it were mostly negative but after considering the place NASA holds in our world, that of a pioneer in space, I came to see that it wasn’t a fall from what they currently are and more it was a return to what they should be. It appears that the next step has been taken towards the ultimate goal of accomplishing this with the announcement of the Flagship Technology Demonstrations:

The latest in a series of requests for information (RFIs) from NASA under its proposed Fiscal 2011 budget lists six “flagship” space testbeds costing $400 million to $1 billion each that would push technologies needed for exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

The first would be launched by 2014, with three more to go by 2016 and one every 12 to 18 months after that. Technologies include in-space fuel depots; advanced solar-electric propulsion; lightweight modules, including inflatables; aerocapture and/or landing at asteroids and larger bodies; automated rendezvous and docking; and closed-loop life support systems.

• Concepts for spacecraft buses that could use NASA’s NEXT ion propulsion system and an advanced solar array for a 30-kilowatt solar-electric propulsion stage, and which would be scalable to higher power levels.• Flight architecture suggestions for on-orbit cryogenic fuel storage and transfer within a single vehicle and between separate vehicles, with a list of detailed questions to be answered.

• Inflatable-module concepts that would follow earlier in-house work at NASA, with an inflatable shell opening around a central core that would be pressurized at launch.

• Mission concepts using inflatable or deployable aeroshells for aerocapture at Mars and return to Earth of 10-ton vehicles, as well as precision landing on “both low-G and high-G worlds.”

• Concepts for demonstrating closed-loop life support in a module on the International Space Station (ISS), and perhaps on an inflatable module flown under a separate flagship demonstration.

• Concepts for using the ISS as a target for automated rendezvous and docking missions, accomplishing the docking with the low-impact docking system under development at Johnson Space Center.

All of these points echo the original vision as previously laid out by Obama. This is fantastic news and the aggressive timeline for debuting these technologies means that NASA will be once again at the forefront of space exploration. To give you an idea of just how revolutionary these ideas are I’ll give you a run down of how each of them will change the way we explore space.

The first point hints at what would be a high powered ion drive something which would be of high value for long duration flights. If you think you’ve heard this before you’d be right as VASIMIR (which is not of NASA origin) is a very similar concept that is scheduled to be flown to the ISS either next year or the year after. Such propulsion systems allow for very efficient use of propellant which, to use the ISS as an example, could reduce post-orbit fuel required by up to 90%. Reducing the mass you take with you to orbit is always one of the goals when taking things into space, and developing this kind of technology is one of the best ways to accomplish that.

On orbit fuel stations are something that are going to be a must for any long duration space flight, including those missions with us squishy humans. Right now many craft are limited in their payload due to the fact that they have to carry up substantial amounts of fuel with them. With on-orbit fuel stations they can be made to be quite a lot lighter, thereby increasing their effective payload significantly. Couple this wit the high efficiency ion drives and you’ve got yourself a recipe for much cheaper and infinitely more productive missions, helping us push the boundaries of human exploration once again.

One of the decisions from the United States congress was the banning of any further development of the TransHab inflatable module design back in 2000. The idea was that you could launch the module deflated and then inflate it on orbit, letting you keep the payload size down whilst giving you an enormous amount of space once deployed. Compare the largest module on the ISS currently, the Kibo laboratory at 4.2m long and 4.4m in diameter, to the TransHabs ginormous 7.0m long and 8.2 in diameter and you can see what I mean, that thing is massive. So whilst it’s taken a decade for them to come full circle and realise that the tech has some real potential (we’ve got Mr Bigelow to thank for that) we may soon see such modules attached to the ISS or its successor. I think current and future astronauts would welcome the additional space.

The aeroshell idea is nothing new but the weight of the craft they’re planning to use with it is. The most famous example of the aeroshell design would be the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. These little guys only weigh in at a total of 180kg and the idea of anything larger using this design has, for the most part, been laughed off. The most recent expedition to Mars, the Phoenix Lander,  was around 350kg and instead used rockets to perform the landing. Scaling up the design to larger payloads would enable much larger missions to planets that contained significant atmosphere, as well as paving the way for future astronauts to land on such places.

The final two points are merely an extension of on-going activities. Many of the life support systems that are currently aboard the ISS are squarely aimed at making it more self sufficient with things like the water recovery system which was flown up last year. Many of the Russian vehicles that visit the ISS use automated docking facilities already and Europe has demonstrated that it is capable of such feats to when the Jules Verne ATV docked last year. This would more than likely end up with a few modifications to the US parts of the ISS, but nothing too drastic.

All in all, these are some damned good goals to be shooting for and they really can’t come any faster. Whilst we won’t have any flag planting moments for a while to come I can see that shortly after we achieve all these goals I can see them coming thick and fast afterwards. It might not look like the plan we had a decade ago but its one that we’ll need to stick to if we want the future of space to look as bright as it did over 40 years ago.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.