By design, as the wheels of the Curiosity rover roll along the surface of Mars, they imprint three letters into the surface: "JPL" -- for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which led the Mars Science Laboratory mission.
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NASA's Chief Technologist Mason Peck delivered the keynote address, "Technology and the Future," at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Fall Symposium in Hampton, Va. Credit: NASA
"This leads me to believe that it's more than just science, more than just exploration, there's something else going on," said NASA's Chief Technologist Mason Peck at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Fall Symposium in Hampton, Va. "It's that impulse that maybe makes us want to launch our grandfather's ashes into space or to put our name on the Cassini orbiter flight code -- it's that sense of wanting to be there."
A major gateway to space is technology.
Being able to demonstrate technology of his own through NIAC, eventually led Peck into his role as NASA's Chief Technologist, which consequently landed him back in front of other NIAC Fellows to deliver a keynote address about "Technology and the Future."
According to Peck, we need to enable tomorrow, today.
"It's why we invest in technology; It's important to us at NASA, and important to us as a nation," Peck said. "It's not only about investing in technology for the sake of science, but because it advances our economy.
"It may not be obvious, but when we invest in space technology, we are investing in an innovative future."
NIAC is a part of NASA's Space Technology Program (STP), which is divided into nine programs that represent all levels of technology readiness from early stage innovations to mission-ready projects.
According to Peck, the Obama Administration has asked for an increase in NASA's Space Technology budget for 2013 -- up from $575 million in 2012, to as much as $699 million in 2013.
"What we're interested in doing is creating innovation, solving problems, and expanding the range of tech readiness from the very lowest level to the very highest needed to demonstrate the technology to NASA," Peck said.
Current roadmaps indicate that "access to space" is NASA's highest technological priority. According to Peck, gaining that access could be more of an economics problem than a technology problem. Peck talked about finding customers who can create a cheaper launch vehicle.
But that is only part of the story; there is still a need to create demand.
Peck envisions a "spacefaring nation" where our relationship with spacecraft, space hardware or data from space is as strong as our current relationship with the Internet, smartphones and personal computers. He believes that it could boil down to "killer apps," which may involve space tourism or space medicine. Identification of this type of app is "close," according to Peck.
He foresees a nation of space crafters, people who build and operate spacecraft as a part of how they live. He expects an explosion in private space, not just commercial space -- for uses like asteroid mining or private uses of the moon -- applications that don't all need profit to make it work.
"I'm talking about a grassroots effort that responds to the need to lower costs and provide access to space," Peck said. "If we all pull together, all bring our resources to bear -- not only government resources, but private industry resources -- we can actually address this problem."
The goal is to provide access to innovative people, and to attract those who are extremely confident in their own ideas that they'd like to see go forward.
On a larger scale, NASA rewards innovation through programs such as NASA's Centennial Challenge. For 2013, NASA and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Mass., are seeking teams to compete in a sample return robot technology demonstration competition with a potential $1.5 million prize. In 2011, NASA awarded $1.35 million, the largest prize in aviation history, to team Pipistrel-USA.com of State College, Pa., which built an electricity-powered plane that achieved 400 miles per gallon, per passenger.
There are several NASA paths that invite ideas. Some infuse ideas through specific mission areas, such as the Human Exploration and the Advanced Exploration Systems Program. Peck believes that the STP fills in potential idea gaps and he expects it to have longevity.
"There's always a place for large scale ideas, but we're also interested in ideas at the small scale that will innovate, build and create the future," Peck said.
With more connectivity now than in past decades, Peck sees a larger "citizen space," being created -- one where "makers" take development of space technology into their own hands. This is already being witnessed through NASA's CubeSat Launch Initiative, which provides opportunities for small satellite payloads to fly on rockets already scheduled for launch.
CubeSats are in a class of small research spacecraft called picosatellites. They have a size of approximately 4 inches, a volume of about 1 quart and weigh no more than 2.2 pounds. These spacecraft are launched for free through NASA's Project ELaNa (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites).
"All over, universities have some sort of CubeSat space," Peck said. "It's a senior project … you can launch your homework."
According to Peck, more than half of the CubeSat applications from last year resulted in launch.
"We have the means and the will and the programs, and we need you," Peck said. "We need your ideas. We need your CubeSat. We need your space technology to make this all happen."
It's more than a push for technology; it's a pull that includes technology that will form our future. It's about improving technology that is already found in NASA's glossary, and it's about technology that could be included.
"It's an exciting world," Peck said. "You can put your idea in space."
Denise Lineberry The Researcher News NASA Langley Research Center