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Review of NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program: An Interim Report Summary NASA requested that a committee under the auspices of the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board carry out an assessment of NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program (ETDP). Organizationally, this program functions under the direction of NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate and is charged with developing new technologies that will enable NASA to conduct future human and robotic exploration missions, while reducing mission risk and cost. The Committee to Review NASA’S Exploration Technology Development Program has been tasked to examine how well the program is aligned with the stated objectives of President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), to identify gaps in the program, and to assess the quality of the research. The full statement of task is given in Appendix A. The results of the committee’s study as of December 2007 are described in the present interim report. The committee’s final report, whose scope is described below, is planned for release in the summer of 2008. On October 10-11, 2007, the committee held a general data-gathering meeting at which representatives from NASA headquarters briefed the members on the ETDP. The meeting was followed by site visits from subsets of the full committee to three NASA centers for detailed presentations on each of the 22 individual program projects. A lead specialist and at least two other committee members were selected to concentrate on each project; their reports have been discussed by all other members of the committee by e-mail and in three teleconferences. Chapter 1 of this interim report briefly assesses each of the 22 individual projects that form the ETDP. The objectives and status of each project are summarized, and each project is rated on the basis of: The quality of the research, taking into account the research team, facilities, and the plan to achieve the objectives. The effectiveness with which the research is carried out and transitioned to the Exploration Program, including progress to date, apparent gaps in the program, and the likelihood that the required technology readiness level (TRL) will be reached. (The committee decided that simply noting gaps, as requested in the study task, was too narrow an objective and that “effectiveness,” as defined here, was more appropriate and inclusive.) The degree to which the research is aligned with the Vision for Space Exploration, specifically, the degree to which the project addresses exploration beyond the Moon. In each of these three areas, the projects were rated using a flag whose color represents the committee’s consensus view: Gold star. Quality unmatched in the world; on track to deliver or exceed expectations. Green flag. Appropriate capabilities and quality, accomplishment, and plan. No significant issues identified. Yellow flag. May contain risks to project/program. Close attention or remedial action may be warranted. Red flag. This area threatens the success of the project/program. Remedial action is required. (Not used to indicate the degree of alignment with the Vision for Space Exploration.)
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Review of NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program: An Interim Report TABLE S-1 Summary of the Committee’s Ratings of Each ETDP Project with Regard to Quality, Effectiveness in Developing and Transitioning Technology, and Alignment with the Vision for Space Exploration NOTE: A few projects were given two ratings because of major distinctions between elements within a given project. A summary of the ratings is provided in Table S-1. A few projects were given two flag colors due to major distinctions between elements in the project. Observations on each project are presented in Chapter 1. Chapter 2 discusses cross-cutting issues, i.e., issues that transcend a given project and that became evident during the course of the committee’s work. At the conclusion of the site visits, the committee came away with an appreciation of the enormity of the task faced by the NASA workforce engaged in the Exploration Technology Development Program, especially in light of the constraints imposed by a limited budget relative to the exploration goals, the timeline laid out for meeting the requirements of the Vision for Space Exploration, and the desire to fully employ the NASA workforce at all its centers. In spite of these constraints, the committee was impressed with the intensity of the effort, the dedication and enthusiasm of the personnel to play a part in contributing to the VSE, the degree to which inter-NASA-center cooperation has developed, and the fact that all 10 NASA centers are engaged in the program. Reflecting on its site visits, and its subsequent investigation and analysis, the committee cites the following specific issues that cut across individual project lines; they will receive further analysis by the
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Review of NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program: An Interim Report committee in the next months, and related findings and recommendations will be provided in the committee’s final report. Some of the ETDP projects are carried out primarily within NASA centers. As a result, NASA is not taking advantage of expertise available in the university and industrial sectors that could support more rapid and higher-quality early research and development. The committee therefore concluded that the speed and efficiency with which NASA could move forward on these projects are being compromised. The committee notes a general tendency toward an incremental approach to ETDP developments, with the bulk of ETDP funding going to incremental advances on existing technologies. The committee questions whether this approach can allow NASA to successfully undertake and accomplish the innovative research goals of the VSE, especially given that a lack of innovative research and development will discourage the entry of young researchers into the field and thus decrease the nation’s ability to build the future workforce needed to conduct the VSE. Many of the technology development projects reviewed by the committee tended to focus on supporting near-term aspects of the VSE. Some were linked exclusively to Orion and Ares 1, and others to the lunar surface access module and lunar surface operations. The committee did not find evidence that the extensibility of technologies to the exploration of Mars is a routine consideration. A possible consequence is the development of technologies that will not be extensible to the full VSE, which was the criterion mandated by NASA for evaluation in this NRC review. It was apparent that NASA is now funding much less research at low TRLs in-house and in the university community than in the past. The committee was not clear as to how, in the absence of low-TRL research, the technologies required over the next 10-30 years will be developed and made available for future programs, or how the future expertise required by both NASA and the contractor community will be generated. The significant reduction and/or termination of low-TRL research, and the concomitant lack of personnel to either conduct the research or apply it, will have major negative impacts on the ability of the United States to participate in future human exploration programs. In a number of areas in the projects, mission-critical tests—i.e., a system or subsystem model or prototype demonstration in an operational environment—are not included, usually as a result of a lack of time (scheduling) and/or funding to carry out necessary flight tests or to develop needed test facilities. Specific examples were identified in the following projects: 02 Ablative Thermal Protection System for the Crew Exploration Vehicle, 03 Lunar Dust Mitigation, 05 Cryogenic Fluid Management, 09 Integrated Systems Health Management, 11 Intelligent Software Design, 12 Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance, 19 In Situ Resource Utilization, 20 Fission Surface Power, and 22 Human-Robotic Systems/Analogs. Not including these tests may limit the TRL to which the technologies can be advanced and may increase mission risk. Although near-term budgetary pressures are clear, the need for adequate testing is a recurrent theme in program failure reports and should be addressed. These topics will be explored and commented on in more detail in the committee’s final report. The committee hopes that the observations made in this interim report will contribute to the ultimate success of NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program.