Braun Comes Back to Spread Message of Technology
By: Jim Hodges

Bobby Braun came home to NASA Langley on Tuesday, talking about a future that includes attitudes of the past concerning research and technology.

"What I want to be clear about is that the goal of our human exploration program has not changed," Braun, NASA's chief technologist, told Langley's organizational unit managers in a meeting at the Reid Conference Center. "The goal … always has been and is this day to extend human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit. What has changed is the approach that we are using in going about meeting that goal."

Bobby Braun, chief technologist.

Bobby Braun, NASA's chief technologist, spoke Tuesday of an agency future in which technology plays a key role and offers building blocks to exploration of space. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith.

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That approach involves an increased emphasis on technology that will form the building blocks to the launch of a NASA heavy-lift vehicle in the early 2020s, to landing a human on an asteroid in about 2025, to orbiting Mars in about 2035 and landing a human there shortly thereafter.

President Obama outlined those goals in a meeting with Kennedy Space Center officials and other Florida leaders on April 15 to discuss his Fiscal Year 2011 budget plan.

To do so, Braun said, will require a focus on technological development because, quite simply, there are many things that we don't know yet about what it will take to accomplishing those missions.

"This focus will reposition NASA, in my view, on cutting-edge research, cutting-edge development," Braun said, adding that it's the approach that built the agency. But also that it's something NASA has lost over the past decade.

Through the new approach, "we want to make investments in alternative technology," Braun said. "We want to allow for disruptive approaches to impact our efforts."

That includes the disruptive possibility of technological advances along the way to development of the Mars mission architecture. Braun pointed to his 16 years of work at NASA Langley, which he left for a position on the Georgia Tech faculty.

"When I was here at Langley, we didn't have cell phones," he said. "The cell phone has changed the way we do business."

He looked around the Reid's auditorium.

"I could make you a roadmap that tells you exactly how we're going to land humans on Mars today, but would you believe me?" Braun said. "I doubt that you would, because you know that there are so many unknowns on the technological pathway that you wouldn't want to bank your entire human exploration program on it."

Instead he described competing building blocks, each comprised of technology that would advance programs along the path toward eventual space exploration. And each with low technology readiness levels.

From there, a winnowing-out process – called a "down-select"-- would be involved to advance worthy ideas to higher readiness levels and eventual proof through testing, either on the ground or on space launches.

"There will be a number of demonstrations," Braun said, outlining a program of testing that could include launches within the next five years. "We're not just keeping these technologies in the planning mode."

Bobby Braun, chief technologist.

Bobby Braun was impressed by an electronic marquee welcoming him to Langley, noting that "I came back last December and nobody noticed." Credit: NASA/Sean Smith.

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Langley's role in the process will be an important one, accomplished when a "Game-Changing Technology" office is opened in conjunction with adoption of Obama's budget. That office will be charged with evaluating low-technical readiness level technology and advancing worthy ideas – bridging what Braun called "the valley of death" of ideas.

"It's not enough to have paper studies and publish the results," Braun said. "You actually have to take that little bit of physics and show that it works."

The process continues with additional technology, technological advances and an eventual combination of technologies into a space vehicle that will explore well beyond where humans have already been.

Each will be built around what Braun calls NASA's "core competencies": "One is research and development. The second is flight systems hardware development. And the third is mission operations."

The technology program will be run differently, Braun added. "There will be project managers, and the project managers are going to have all of the power and all of the authority. They're going to be given a budget, they're going to be given a schedule and they're going to be expected to achieve what they say they can achieve. And they will be held accountable.

"They are a key to this effort."

In much the way they were keys to the past. In many different ways, Braun pointed to a history of technological achievement as a large part of what built NASA. And to a future in which NASA, academe and industry will be partners in space.

That will require building bridges between all three partners, he added, as well as showing providers of commercial space vehicles what NASA can do for them.

Langley is well-placed to prosper in NASA's new environment.

"Langley's been involved in all of the Mars missions during my career," Braun told an assembly of Hampton Roads media after speaking to the Langley managers.

He added that about 1,500 research and development jobs are likely to be added to NASA under Obama's FY 2011 budget, "and as research and development organization, Langley is in a good position to earn some of those jobs for Hampton."

Braun couched both talks with some reservations because the technology plans largely depend on passage of the budget.

"I'm on board with the FY '11 plan," he said. "I wouldn't have come back to NASA otherwise."

But he might have come back to Langley, at least for a visit. Braun marveled at being welcomed Tuesday with an electronic marquee bearing his name and "chief technologist."

"I came back last December as a college professor and nobody noticed," he said, drawing a laugh.

On Tuesday, he talked and people listened to their future and the future of Langley and NASA.


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