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4 Infusion of Advanced Concepts into NASA Committee to Review the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts Statement of Task, Objective 4⎯ Make recommendations as to how the federal government in general and NASA in particular should solicit and infuse advanced concepts into its future systems. In this chapter, the committee recommends modifications in organization and approach for a reintroduction of the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) as NIAC2. The intent is to improve the probability of providing a sustained flow of contributions of value to NASA by a NIAC2 entity. The desired contributions involve infusion of both long-term and, on a trial basis, shorter-term advanced concepts into NASA’s mission directorate programs. As a consequence, other non-governmental U.S. space entities would also benefit. The committee assumes continuation of existing major NASA objectives and programs. The committee determined that successful infusion of advanced concepts into government systems is generally situational and depends critically on the histories, structures, requirements, and constraints of specific government entities. The scope of the committee’s effort was, therefore, limited to considerations of NIAC2 functions within NASA. The committee also found that successful infusion of advanced concepts into government systems is highly dependent on an agency’s charter, strategic plan, and management approach. NASA’s current organizational structure is illustrated in Figure 4-1. At the time of its termination in 2007, NIAC was located within the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. From its inception through 2004, NIAC reported to NASA’s chief technologist, who also served as associate administrator for the Office of Aerospace Technology. Location within the chief technologist’s office provided NIAC with both high-level exposure and advocacy within NASA. This led to natural pathways for accessing NASA’s mission directorates for infusion of advanced concepts into technology maturations and mission planning. An example of this approach was coordination of relevant themes for NIAC studies from across the agency’s mission directorates.1 Inputs from past and present NASA managers have indicated that the closure of NIAC was consistent with a long-term trend within NASA to increase focus on near- term missions, with corresponding reductions in support of longer-term advanced mission concepts and technologies. Examples of such dissolutions are the Office of Aeronautics and Space Technology, the Office of Advanced Concepts and Technology, the Office of Space Access and Technology, and the Office of Aerospace Technology, in 1992, 1994, 1996, and 2004, respectively. The schedule and budget requirements of NASA’s new strategic focus on the Vision for Space Exploration served to deepen the cultural mismatch between the goals and timelines of NIAC and the agency’s major efforts. 1 NASA, Visionary Challenges of NASA Strategic Enterprises for the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts for 2004, Office of Space Flight Visionary Challenges, Washington, D.C., January 9, 2004, available at http://www.niac.usra.edu/files/library/misc/Enterprise_Visionary_Challenges.pdf. 37
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FIGURE 4-1 NASA organization. SOURCE: Courtesy of NASA, available at http://www.nasa.gov/about/ org_index.html. 38
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Finding 4.1: NASA is now an agency oriented toward flight-system development and operations. Priorities have thus diminished within NASA for long-range research and development efforts. At present, there is no NASA organization responsible for solicitation and evaluation of advanced concepts (defined as technology readiness level 1 or 2) and subsequent infusion of worthy candidates into NASA planning and development activities. NASA’s four mission directorates conduct, as appropriate to their specific objectives, a variety of technology development programs. One example is Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences within the Science Directorate. Reviews of development programs, with the help of NASA inputs, indicated that most development efforts generally support defined and/or approved missions. Therefore, there is a concentration on requirements-driven, high-technology-readiness-level (TRL) efforts. NIAC, with its long-range and agency-wide perspective, was not a natural fit to the objectives and timelines of the mission directorates NASA does, however, currently support long-term, agency-wide technology activities in for TRL 3 to 6 within the Innovative Partnership Program (IPP) which is located outside of the mission directorates with direct reporting to the Office of the Administrator. The IPP has three elements⎯Technology Infusion, Innovation Incubator, and Partnership Development⎯funded at about $147 million in fiscal year 2008. The IPP has offices at all 10 NASA centers in order to enhance the effectiveness of outreach and infusion. There was essentially no overlap between IPP and NIAC because IPP did not, and does not, support projects at very low TRL levels (1 or 2), which was NIAC’s focus. NIAC successfully infused concepts into multiple U.S. space sectors. However, transfers into NASA were found difficult, which, may have been partially due to the exclusion of NASA technical participation in NIAC projects. Input from NASA personnel to the committee indicated that adoption, maturation, and infusion of advanced concepts into NASA’s principal activities require the strong collaborative participation of NASA center personnel. Such participation was lacking in the previous NASA implementation approach for NIAC. NASA and NIAC2 approaches that could facilitate participation of NASA field centers and access to agency-wide projects should materially improve the chances for infusion of NIAC outputs into NASA programs. To achieve the original NASA intent of independence, NIAC was managed and operated external to NASA by the Universities Space Research Association (USRA). USRA is a non-profit organization that provided institutional benefits such as procurement procedures and access to and formal liaison with NASA management through the NIAC director and the NASA contracting officer’s technical representative (COTR). NIAC evolved a “virtual institute” approach that used the Internet for nearly all communication functions. That concept allowed rapid completion of major functions, including solicitation, procurement, contract management, reporting, and important outreach and public relations functions to be accomplished with a permanent staff of less than six persons. Other examples of the global efficiency of the NIAC approach were the high fraction of total resources placed on contract (>75 percent), the short time from solicitation to award, and the wide media attention given to supported efforts. Objective 3 of this report recommended modest changes to the resource levels for NIAC2 Phase I and Phase II efforts, and the establishment of a small number of Phase III efforts. Implementation of those recommendations would require an increase in the NASA resources specified for NIAC. Finding 4.2: Any expectations of a NIAC2 will depend on the management approach provided by the agency. Management with senior, NASA-wide perspectives and resources outside the near- term focus of the NASA mission directorates should, based on successful Innovative Partnership Program experiences, materially increase the probability for sustained value from a NIAC2 program. Recommendation 4.1: To improve the manner in which advanced concepts are infused into its future systems, the committee recommends that NASA consider reestablishing an aeronautics and 39
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space systems technology development enterprise. Its purpose would be to provide maturation opportunities and agency expertise for visionary, far-reaching concepts and technologies. NASA’s consideration should include implications for the agency’s strategic plan, organizations, resource distributions, field center foci, and mission selection process. Recommendation 4.2: To allow for successful, sustained implementation of NIAC2 infusion objectives, NIAC2 should report directly to the Office of the Administrator, be outside mission directorates, and be chartered to address NASA-wide mission and technology needs. It is worth noting that this organizational structure was in place during the formation and initial operation of NIAC. To increase NIAC2’s relevance, NASA mission directorates should contribute thematic areas for consideration. The Innovative Partnership Program (IPP) offers characteristics compatible with effective and healthy, long- and short-term advanced concepts projects. The agency should consider adding a new element to the existing IPP to house the (internal management of) NIAC2, with its focus on technology readiness level 1 and 2 and higher concept studies. Recommendation 4.3: Identification of center technical champions and provision for technical participation of NASA field center personnel in NIAC2 efforts—participation that can be expected to increase as NIAC2 projects mature—is recommended. Increased participation of NASA field center personnel, beyond review and management functions, may significantly enhance advanced concept maturation and infusion into NASA mission planning. As appropriate, Phase II and Phase III NIAC2 projects should include realistic transition plans to the appropriate NASA enterprises. 40