NASA's Bobby Braun Sees a Technology-Based Future for the Agency
NASA's recently appointed Chief Technology Officer, Bobby Braun, drove home a primary message to employees of NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center during an Aug. 12 visit to the field center: Research and technology affects every aspect of life in the 21st century, and the agency must return to its roots as a leader of technological development.
Following a tour of technology development work at Dryden and discussions with center leadership about various technology-related programs and projects, Braun told those attending an all-hands briefing that he fully supports the Obama Administration's research and technology agenda for NASA.
As the agency's "technology champion," Braun said "the concept of a technology-based future for NASA" resonates with him.
Along with flight systems and operations, Braun said research and technology development is one of NASA's three core competencies, all of which are interrelated.
"Research and technology development is a critical NASA competency and has been neglected over the past decade," he said. Noting that he left NASA several years ago to join the faculty of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Braun said he was "asked to come back and try to help rebuild that competency."
As part of his responsibilities, Braun said he is charged with reviewing the long-term costs and benefits of proposed projects and coordinating those now under way to avoid duplication of effort. Beginning with the 2011 fiscal year, he also will manage the agency's new Space Technology Program, which will focus on foundational research and technology advances across a wide range of future missions.
Braun said the Space Technology Program will "seek the best ideas from anywhere, not just from NASA," with open solicitations and open competitions for funding. "Anyone can submit a proposal," he added, noting that he intends to streamline the process so that initial submissions can be just a few pages in length.
Stating the agency may have become too risk-averse in recent years, Braun suggested that NASA needs to "accept informed risk in technology development," especially in small-scale efforts.
Braun said all 10 programs falling under the Office of Chief Technologist are oriented toward taking ideas from basic concept to the working prototype or testing phases, and then transferring those concepts to applicable programs and missions.
Of those 10 programs, one – Flight Opportunities – will be managed at NASA Dryden, drawing upon the center's experience and expertise in planning and conducting flight tests of new aeronautical and spaceflight concepts in a relevant environment.
"Dryden knows how to take things from concept to flight, and could be the best in the agency," he said, noting that it took only two years to bring the concept of a moon lander training vehicle for the Apollo program to actual flight testing of the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle in the 1960s.
Initially, the Flight Opportunities Program will incorporate two existing projects currently under way – the Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research, or CRuSR, and the Facilitated Access to Space Environment for Technology, or FAST, projects.
The former is focused on use of commercially developed launch vehicles for sending payloads from NASA, industry and research institutions into space, while the latter provides opportunities for microgravity research projects, using an aircraft based at NASA's Johnson Space Center to fly parabolic profiles that provide brief periods of reduced gravity.
Prior to his all-hands presentation, Braun toured NASA Dryden's Flight Loads Laboratory and hangars housing several of Dryden's specialized research aircraft. He was briefed by Dryden engineers on various technological efforts developed or under way at NASA Dryden during the tour, including fiber optic sensors for lightweight structures, laminar flow research under the Environmentally Responsible Aviation program and flight validation of propulsion and aerodynamic experiments.
Following the tour, Braun was briefed by several Dryden project staff on adaptive and structural control technologies, flight validation of analytical codes and integrated networks for aircraft research efforts under way at Dryden.