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NASA’s Space Tech Chief Offers Students a Glimpse of the Future
July 22, 2014

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The man leading the charge to solve some of NASA’s biggest and most vexing technical problems offered an invitation to bright young people.

Let’s go places together — like Mars, for instance.

Michael Gazarik, the associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, spoke to a group of about 160 college and high school students on July 18, giving them insights, words of encouragement and a fast-paced, energetic look at the daring goals his team is pursuing.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden created the Space Technology Mission Directorate with an eye toward tomorrow. 

“If you look at where NASA is today, we’re about to explore deep space, right?” Gazarik told the crowd inside the Reid Center at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. “We’ve finished building the International Space Station. We retired the shuttle. We’re building a heavy-lift rocket called the SLS [Space Launch System]. We’re building a human space freight capsule called Orion. We know those two things need a host of technologies not only to explore deep space, not only to survive in it, but to thrive in deep space. Not only to explore, but to pioneer in deep space.

“That’s where we’re headed.”

NASA has sent science-gathering probes and robots past every planet in the solar system. Now, it’s time for humans to pick up where the machines left off, Gazarik said. “To learn more about Mars, to learn more about Europa, to learn more about the other planets, there’s more to go do,” he said.

Progress toward sending astronauts on a mission to Mars continues. For example, teams in Huntsville, Alabama, are testing the world’s largest composite cryogenic propellant tank. “This is about the next generation heavy-lift rocket replacing the standard aluminum tanks we have today. Why? Because it’s cheaper. Because it takes less time to manufacture, and because it weighs less. That has advantages across the board.”

Building better solar arrays is another key goal. Researchers are looking for ways to make space solar panels that are larger, more efficient and that can more readily fold up into a rocket’s payload area. “The use of solar energy turns out to be one of the most efficient ways to move through space,” he said. “That’s where the investment needs to occur.”

Navigating through space will require better time keeping, Gazarik said. Just like mariners in the age of sail, astronauts will rely on clocks to help them chart their progress through the void.  Engineers are working to miniaturize atomic clocks that will allow astronauts to navigate precisely through the solar system.

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Landing humans on the surface of Mars presents a complex and daunting set of problems for NASA. The Curiosity rover’s arrival on the Red Planet in August 2012 represented the seventh successful Mars landing, Gazarik said. But there have been plenty of failures. “It’s about a 50 percent probability being able to land successfully on Mars,” he said. “The United States has a pretty good track record, especially when they use a group here at Langley … That group has been one of the common elements of successful landings on Mars. When they’re not involved, it generally doesn’t go well.”

Why is landing on Mars so difficult? The planet’s thin atmosphere provides enough aerodynamic and aerothermal forces to rip a spacecraft apart if the approach isn’t right. Slowing down from blazing speeds is also major challenge.

To allow for a variety of landing sites and larger, heavier spacecraft, researchers are developing an array of technologies intended to slow a spacecraft as it hurtles toward the Martian surface.

Last month’s first test of the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator off the coast of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range in Kauai, Hawaii, was a step in the right direction. An inflatable, doughnut-shaped apparatus, the decelerator created extra drag on a test vehicle as it shot down from the skies over the Pacific Ocean. A Supersonic Disk Sail Parachute, which was tested at the same time, did not work so well, however. That offered lessons, too.

“It turns out that inflation dynamics of parachutes are really hard,” Gazarik said. “We test to learn.”

Gazarik’s wing of NASA also focuses on robotic systems, lightweight space structures, space observatory systems and life support.

Afterwards, Gazarik said he hoped the talk ignited interest and excitement among young people in the room.

“A key part of this program is investing in the future,” he said. “We’ve got to get these folks excited and passionate about NASA, passionate about space. This is what we need to do. We need to reach out.”

Sam McDonald
NASA Langley Research Center

Michael Gazarik, associate administrator for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, speaks at NASA's Langley Research Center July 18, 2014.
Michael Gazarik, associate administrator for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, gave a group of students at NASA's Langley Research Center a sweeping overview of projects including hardware for entry, descent and landing on Mars, laser communications and robotics.
Image Credit: 
NASA/David C. Bowman
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Michael Gazarik gave students an overview of NASA's technology development efforts and encouraged them to consider joining the NASA team.
Michael Gazarik gave students an overview of NASA's technology development work and encouraged them to consider joining the NASA team.
Image Credit: 
NASA/David C. Bowman
Image Token: 
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Page Last Updated: July 22nd, 2014
Page Editor: Samuel McDonald