Patrick Chan, second from left, explains components of the Dryden-developed fiber optic strain sensing technology to Bobby Braun, second from right. Also in the photo are Tom Horn, left, and Robbie Schingler, right. (NASA Photo / Carla Thomas) NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun told Dryden employees Aug. 12 that he is dedicated to his role as "the agency's technical champion" and restoring and coordinating NASA's technology efforts.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden recently created the Chief Technologist position in response to President Barack Obama's focus on technology and innovation. Bolden asked Braun to oversee coordination of NASA technology efforts to focus on technologies that can be used across many areas, while raising the readiness level of emerging innovations.
Agencies involved with technology and research all had budget increases in a time when most other government organizations saw flat or decreasing funding, Braun said.
"He [President Obama] is sending us a strong message that this administration is committed to a research, technology and innovation agenda. They believe in it very strongly, as do I. I believe in a research and technology agenda because that is key to our economic prosperity. It [technology] creates high-tech jobs, business and industries," Braun said.
Aside from economic benefits, he noted, other areas that will see dividends from technology development are national security, environment and energy. Also, technology is a strong motivator and is an inspiration for young people interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, he added.
Braun first was introduced to NASA as a young man in 1976. He lived in Maryland and a neighbor who worked at Goddard Space Center, Greenbelt, Md., brought him to work.
"It was the day Viking landed on Mars," he recalled. "I still remember that day."
"To be honest, it wasn't so much the science of Viking, which admittedly was amazing, or so much the engineering, which was awesome because it was the first time we sent a lander to another planet safely. For me, the thrilling part was watching all of those engineers and scientists who had worked so hard for all those years to make it happen. I knew right then that was what I wanted to be a part of."
So he did.
His first NASA job, at Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., focused on sending humans to Mars as part of space exploration missions. When the program succumbed to budget pressures, he was selected for a position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where the mission was to send robotic landers to Mars. He was involved in the Mars Rover program from concept to design, and from construction to launch and operations.
"What an awesome experience," he recalled.
Braun noted that some missions, including that of the Mars polar landing, failed. Despite the pain of working on something so long and having it fail, he said he learned from the experience.
Along those lines, Braun acknowledged that NASA has become risk-averse. While NASA must take every precaution with human space flight and large projects, research and technology can not take giant steps forward without taking acceptible risk with smaller, focused development projects. Acceptable, but not foolish risk is required, he said, to push the barriers of technology and research toward extending or breaking through real or perceived barriers.
"The agency has become too risk-averse, and that cuts across the agency particularly when talking about technology and projects where we are reaching to achieve some grand challenge. If we can't take risks, what are we doing?
"There is an uncertainty in everything we do in technology, and we have to be able to understand that and accept that," he said.
Small, focused efforts in technical areas need to make acceptable risks and reduce the time from concept to flight and increase the readiness level of the technology, he added.
Braun referenced a famous NASA project for which Dryden conducted the flight research, the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle. The LLRV was used to validate concepts for a vehicle that could land on the moon. It also was a program that moved from concept to flight test in two years, in the early 1960s.
"That's technology development. That's acceptable risk. A few vehicles crashed, but we did not cancel Apollo.
"You know how to go from concept to flight," he said to the Dryden workforce. "You know how to do that quickly. In fact, you might know perhaps better that anyone else in the agency how to do that."
Braun noted a decline in technology competencies during the past decade, saying that the challenge of restoring research and technology is what brought him back to NASA. The effort is aimed not only at restoring research and technology, but also coordinating it among all NASA resources to prevent duplication.
Another goal is to focus on raising the technology readiness of emerging technologies and those with promising commercialization aspects.
To accomplish that, he intends to work with other NASA associate administrators to develop one voice for stimulating technology and research agency-wide. Braun sees as a key part of his job pointing out benefits and costs and, where applicable, better technology solutions that can benefit a wider range of people, which he refers to as "cross-cutting" technology.
Beginning with the 2011 fiscal year, Braun also will manage the agency's new Space Technology program, which will be focused on foundational research and technology advances across a wide range of future missions.
Braun said the program will "seek the best ideas from anywhere, not just from NASA," and feature open solicitations and open competitions for funding.
To make it easier for anyone to submit a proposal, he said he intends to streamline the process so that initial submissions can be just a few pages in length.
All 10 programs falling under the Office of the 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, he said.
Of those 10 programs, one - Flight Opportunities - will be managed at 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.
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, private industry and research institutions into space, the latter on providing opportunities for microgravity research projects, using an aircraft based at Johnson Space Center in Houston to fly parabolic profiles that provide brief periods of reduced gravity.
Prior to his all-hands presentation, Braun toured Dryden's Flight Loads Laboratory and hangars housing several of the center's specialized research aircraft. Dryden engineers briefed Braun on a number of technological efforts developed or under way, 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 Dryden project staff on adaptive and structural control technologies, flight validation of analytical codes and integrated networks for aircraft.
Dryden News Chief Alan Brown contributed to this report.