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Technology Trends and NASA: To the Moon and Back
April 12, 2013

On July 20, 1969, at least 600 million people watched as Neil Armstrong stepped off Eagle's footpad and onto the moon as he uttered his famous line, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Getting there was no easy feat, and it gave the world a reason to celebrate. New possibilities were revealed and new dreams and ideas were born.


According to Keith Belvin, chief technologist at NASA’s Langley Research Center, the now declassified community of intelligence from the early 1960s enabled that historical event. One example was NASA's Corona mission, which used satellites with film canisters to gather photos from space. Concurrently, NASA's Man Orbiting Lab (MOL) became a platform to prove the utility of man in space.

After digital imaging became available, there was a tip in technology that led to NASA’s Hubble and the International Space Station.

According to Belvin, technology has always had the ability to transform everything – possibly now more than ever.

"Are we on the brink of another technology tipping point?" he asked a group while presenting "Technology Trends and the Potential Opportunities for the NASA Mission" at the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA).

Belvin argued that we have already crossed that brink into a cyber-physical revolution that will change the way we interact with the physical world.

"By combining robotics and manufacturing, the wheel is almost coming full circle, turning away from mass manufacturing and towards a more individualized production," Belvin said of 3D printing, easy-to-use robots and collaborative manufacturing services.

He considers this 'smart' technology, which also includes cognitive computing, big data analytics and autonomous systems. He talked about the Google Driverless Car that is already licensed in three states, NASA's Robonaut, which can serve as a functional crew member, and autonomous systems that aid soldiers and perform surgery.


"These are not technologies of the future, these are the technologies of today," Belvin said.

It would appear to Belvin that 'smart' technologies are adapted more readily into the medical world than to aerospace, with trust being the main issue.

'Small' technology trends include military and civil Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as small as an insect, satellites as light as 100 grams and sensors made from microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) in dust and powder.

According to Belvin, small satellites are expensive to launch and as secondary payloads, they often end up at the primary payload's destination. However, the Army’s low-cost small satellite launchers, SWORDS (Soldier-Warfighter Operationally Responsive Deployer for Space), can provide a "ship-and-shoot" capability that could operate from nearly anywhere transportable by a C-130 cargo hauler.

DARPA's Smart Dust is a ubiquitous sensing system that can detect light, temperature, vibration, magnetism and chemicals. Hitachi created Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) "powder" chips that are 0.4mm x 0.4mm chips, that make room for a 128-bit ROM and can store a unique 38-digit ID number.


"You can actually inhale the 'powder,' and then someone can track you walking through every doorway of the building," Belvin said.

The third trend mentioned by Belvin was 'sources' technology – sources of ideas and solutions, funding, knowledge, and air and space. Prizes for crowd sourcing yield a high return, while crowd funding is a collective effort of individuals who network and pool their money to support others' efforts.

"These trends allow people to contribute in a greater way," Belvin said. "People want to contribute to a greater cause."

Today, Belvin argued, science and exploration are for everyone. This opens up the doors for more NASA partners.

He mentioned that commercial makers of transport air vehicles for civil and space are becoming fewer in number, while more than 50 companies are in the UAV market as vehicle suppliers.

"What does this mean?" Belvin asked. "It means there's lots of opportunities outside of NASA to partner and team in a way that is sort of like NASA used to do when we were NACA (National Advisory Council for Aeronautics) -- to help the aviation companies that were in their infancy become successful."

Belvin explained that the vision for the LaRC (Langley Research Center) Comprehensive Digital Transformation is to strategically poise NASA Langley to make relevant and persistent contributions to NASA and the nation.

By working with the Langley Technology Council (LTC), Belvin expects to find new opportunities by looking at 'smart,' 'small' and 'sources' trends in Research and Technology (R&T). Belvin also mentioned keeping an eye on technology progression in Nanotechnology, quantum and energy.

These trends will impact decisions about infrastructure, workforce and computer design tools (CDT) at the center.

The Langley Strategic Technology Investment Plan (STIP) innovation areas include aeronautics, space exploration and technology, science, crosscutting capabilities and technology, and unanticipated breakthroughs.

Using the center’s "collective genius," the LTC is focusing on cross-cutting and longer-term innovations. That includes point-to-point civil aviation that allows for highly automated, on-demand air mobility using unmanned and personal aerial vehicles. It also includes building new atmospheric models through swarms of small satellites and In-Situ SmartDust. Those models can be used to create multi-scale sensor-webs for continuous monitoring of the Earth's atmosphere.

Though, in the world of technology, long-term innovations aren't always what they seem.

"When we talk about 'longer term,' we aren’t talking 20 years, we're talking five, seven, ten years," Belvin said. "Because what we’re finding is that technology, that the future is a lot closer than you think."

Since IBM has predicted five-senses computing within five years, it's possible that citizens could have their own moon walking experience.

"Things are changing rapidly," Belvin said. "We want to be able to grasp this, and be able to do the work that we do more cost effectively, and also create new system level solutions."


By: Denise Lineberry

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

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Harry Belvin.
"What we’re trying to do today is to stimulate you to think about, 'Hey, this already happening, how can I apply to the NASA Mission?' " said Keith Belvin, NASA Langley's chief technologist, at a talk about technology trends and the NASA mission at The National Institute of Aerospace.
Image Credit: 
NASA / Denise Lineberry
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Visualization of the NASA's "Robonaut" working on the International Space Station.
Visualization of the NASA's "Robonaut" working on the International Space Station.
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Stamp-size satellites, developed at Cornell University, will get a test run aboard the International Space System.
Stamp-size satellites, developed at Cornell University, will get a test run aboard the International Space System.
Image Credit: 
Cornell University
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Page Last Updated: July 28th, 2013
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