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Braun: NASA's Future Lies in Tech Development
11.09.12
 
There's optimism in the lecture halls at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Bobby Braun hears it coming from the students in his 'Introduction to Aerospace Engineering' class.

Fresh out of high school, his students don't know a thing about aerospace engineering — but they all want to be aerospace engineers nonetheless.

Bobby Braun.

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Former NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun talked about the future of NASA in the inaugural lecture of the National Institute of Aerospace's 10th anniversary lecture series. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

"I love that class," Braun said. "I love it because it's all upside for them. It's all about the potential. It's all about them wanting to change the world. And through aerospace engineering, they believe that they can."

Braun, former chief technologist at NASA, now a professor of space technology at Georgia Tech, shared some of that optimism Nov. 2 during the inaugural lecture for the National Institute of Aerospace's 10th anniversary lecture series.

Early in his talk, Braun offered up a personal list of nine "game-changing possibilities" that he shares with his freshman students at Georgia Tech.

That list includes ideas like:
  • Preparing an asteroid defense
  • Identifying Earth-like worlds around other stars
  • Developing and utilizing efficient space-based energy source
  • Accurately forecasting the emergence of major storms and natural disasters
  • Achieving a permanent human presence beyond the cradle of the Earth

Braun believes these goals could be accomplished within his lifetime. He also believes they'd have significant benefits for global society.

"These aren't just space missions," he said. "These are space missions that would have a dramatic impact on the world."

But there are some major challenges on the road to completing those missions.

To illustrate that, Braun discussed the difficulties we face in putting men on Mars. With our existing technologies, we'd need to be able to put the equivalent of 12 International Space Stations in low Earth orbit. And it would take 37 of the most powerful launch vehicles ever developed to do that.

"As strong as the human exploration leaders at NASA are today," he said, "imagine them going to congress and trying to sell this plan."

Instead, Braun argues, it would make much more sense to invest in technological advances that would allow us to decrease the amount of mass we'd need to send into space — from 12 International Space Stations to one or two.

But technological advances still benefit from a robust budget. Unfortunately, NASA has faced some significant budget challenges in recent years. In 2004, the Bush Administration's "Vision for Space Exploration" called for a human return to the moon in 2020, with the eventual goal of humans going to Mars and beyond.

The money for those plans never materialized, though.

Then, when President Obama took office, his administration proposed a $6 billion funding increase for NASA over five years.

Braun was excited about that increase, seeing it as indicative of an administration that was focused on science and technology.

"This was about NASA being a grown up at the table at the federal government level," he said. "This was about NASA being part of a broader national strategy."

The administration's plan didn't go over well with Congress, though, and by the time Obama signed the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, his plans had been stripped of some of their ambition and much of their funding.

Still, Braun has a lot of hope for NASA as it moves forward.

He's happy about the progress being made on the Orion program. And he feels like NASA still has a lot to offer when it comes to basic research and technology development, fostering innovation, expanding our knowledge of the universe and spurring careers in science and engineering.

However, he also feels like NASA is at a point where it has to choose between two paths — one that's conservative and conventional, and one that's forward thinking and innovative.

"To be honest with you, I don't know which of these paths is going to prevail," he said.

But he certainly hopes NASA follows the path of innovation, because, he says, it would lead down the road to more technology-enabled approaches to exploration and science, more effective use of the International Space Station as a technology testbed and more down-to-earth applications of NASA investments.

"NASA has a benefit to everyday life that people take for granted," he said. "We need to explain to people a little bit more about how reliant they actually are on space technology."

Ultimately, Braun's optimism in NASA's future lies not in a place, but a cause: technological leadership. National security, economic security and good jobs come from technological leadership, he says.

"It doesn't come from choosing some destination and saying, 'We're gonna go there,' " he said. "It comes from building the capabilities to go anywhere."

By: Joe Atkinson

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman