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Inventing the Future
By: Jim Hodges

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – The Virginia Manufacturers Assn. heard Thursday that "NASA is alive and well" and that it is investing $575 million next year in the effort to push human beings beyond low-Earth orbit.

"Human exploration also is alive and well," said Mike Gazarik, the agency's Chief of Space Technology, added in a Thursday keynote address to the group at its 89th annual meeting, which carries the theme "Advancing Tomorrow's Factory: Innovations from Aerospace."

Virginia Manufacturer's Assn.
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At the 89th annual Virginia Manufacturers Assn. meeting, exhibits from NASA Langley show concepts for in fabrication and ideas for tomorrow's flight. Credit: NASA/Dustin Hitt

Aerospace is a $9.8 billion business in Virginia, where it employs 26,700 people.

Nearby were exhibits from NASA Langley showing its concepts for in fabrication and ideas for tomorrow's flight. Another exhibit offered the invitation: "Let's Invent the Future."

The National Institute of Aerospace is open for business, too.

Its president, Bob Lindberg, told a panel’s audience that in two months the NIA would open a 14-laboratory, 60,000-square-foot building that not only will house research and development facilities, it also will host the Hampton Technology Incubator, which encourages entrepreneurship.

The new building will have a wind tunnel, an unmanned aerial vehicles structures lab and a boron nanotube development lab, among other facilities.

Lindberg cited Virginia’s emerging space launch business at Wallops Island and Orbital Science’s $1.2 billion contract with NASA to supply the International Space Station as examples of the success of the commonwealth’s manufacturers.

"Our future aerospace manufacturing capabilities themselves can be driven by research and development," Lindberg added.

In that, he added, NASA and NIA can play a strong role.

"Of the 10 NASA centers, Langley is the premier aerospace research center," Lindberg said.

NIA aims to fill a void in the development and manufacturing process.

"One of the challenges that we have in manufacturing is that most manufacturers don’t have their own 'R and D' facilities," Lindberg said. "One of the things that we've discussed is an idea that has not yet been exploited, and that’s a facility like ours, or an expanded facility like I've described serving as the alternative to an in-house 'R and D' capability."

One approach would be for manufacturers to approach NIA with problems and let NIA work to solve them, he added.

Gazarik outlined NASA's plans for space exploration and some of industry's role in it. Chiefly, he talked about commercial space opportunities.

"We're investing right now in American companies to transport our crews and cargos to the International Space Station," he said of California's SpaceX and Virginia's Orbital Science.

Gazarik pointed to a segment in a video that showed an Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle test article built at NASA Langley, and of a display that showed Langley’s Electron Beam Free Form Fabrication process to manufacture parts by melting wire in layers to generate a specific form.

It's a capability that could be used in space.

He spoke of a generational change underway in human exploration, citing a recent gathering of space shuttle pioneers at a meeting Gazarik attended at Georgia Tech.

"They were all retired," he said. "That's because the design and engineering of the shuttle happened in the 1970s."

The next exploration frontier – an asteroid and, eventually, Mars – will be pioneered by new engineers.

"I would argue that, from an engineering point of view, there has never been a better time than now," Gazarik said. "There are two companies working cargo, four companies working on rocket and hardware and capsules for a crew. All of those companies, and NASA, offer opportunities for young engineers seeking a ground floor entry into space exploration."

That ground floor included the launch of Mars Science Lab on November 27. Its entry into the Martian atmosphere and eventual landing on the planet is being handled by NASA Langley.

"It's the biggest, baddest rover ever sent to the Red Planet," Gazarik said.

He also pointed to the MEDLI suite of instruments that will accompany MSL in its landing. Gazarik worked with the project while at NASA Langley.

"It's cutting-edge technology," he said. "We are really returning to our roots at NASA."

Those roots include a merger of NASA and industry efforts at building the spacecraft of tomorrow – and more.

"In addition, we need advanced manufacturing in space – concepts and techniques to fabricate while we’re exploring," he said. "And we need manufacturing to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers."

Earlier in the day, Lindberg spoke along those same lines in laying out a vision for Virginia’s aerospace industry that included a facility to mature products from research and development to the manufacturer to the market.

"The technologies that emerge from our laboratories often end up sitting on a shelf," Lindberg said, outlining what engineers call "the technological valley of death."

He and Gazarik spent their Thursday outlining ways to keep technology out of that valley and, instead, to take it to the heights of space.

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