NASA: What's next?

NASA chief Bolden wants to build better robot, satellite, rocket and climate change technology

More focus on  satellite exploration, climate change studies of Earth and developing new heavy lift rocket technology are but a few of the programs outlined by NASA chief Charles Bolden as this week he looked to spell out specifics about where the space program will be going in the next five years. 

NASA will, pending congressional approval, create new program offices that include activities in exploration technology and development, heavy lift rockets and rocket propulsion technology, exploration precursor robotic missions, human research and commercial spaceflight opportunities, Bolden stated.  

21 critical future NASA missions 

The 2011 budget has increases for NASA's Science and Aeronautics directorates that will improve the agency's Earth observation capabilities and help create a Next Generation air transportation system that is safe, efficient and friendlier to the environment. The work assignments expand on the strengths of NASA's 10 centers while allowing the agency to safely fly out the space shuttle manifest and establish a firm foothold in space by extending the International Space Station, likely to 2020 or beyond, Bolden stated. 

For example, NASA's Ames lab will get a new program office that focuses on building small satellites and developing missions to scout locations for eventual human visits. 

As expected Bolden said the Kennedy Space Center will get a new directorate to handle about $5.8 billion over the next five years for Commercial Crew Development that has the goal of building private-sector transportation services to Earth orbit.  NASA has already moved  to advance its role as commercial space entrepreneur by awarding $50 million to five companies who could help design and build future spacecraft that could take astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

 Kennedy will also investigate what NASA called  next-generation space flight capabilities.  The idea is to reduce costs and shorten development timeframes for future heavy-lift systems for human exploration, Bolden stated.

 Bolden said the agency as asked for an additional three months of space shuttle funding to ensure the remaining shuttle payloads fully outfit the International Space Station. 

NASA's Glenn Research Center will get a new program that will manage and develop all manner of new spacecraft technologies.  According to NASA initial demonstration projects are likely to focus on: high-power electric propulsion; autonomous precision landing; human/robotic systems (including operating robots from planetary orbit); and fission surface power systems.

 Another primary focus of the new NASA will be a brighter spotlight on climate change on Earth.  NASA has a number of key satellites that are supposed to launch this year that will increase climate studies.  For example, Glory, set to launch later this year, is a low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite designed collect data on the properties of aerosols, including black carbon, in the Earth's atmosphere and climate system. It is also designed to collect data on solar irradiance for the long-term effects on Earth's climate. 

Also expected to launch this year is the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) Preparatory Project.  The NPPOESS satellite will collect land, ocean, and atmospheric data to the meteorological and global climate change communities.  

Another area NASA has worked on in the past that will find increased emphasis in the future is the development of the Nation's future airspace control system.  Bolden said NASA's goals are to expand capacity, enable fuel-efficient flight planning, reduce the overall environmental footprint of airplanes today and, in the future, reduce delays on the ground and in the sky, and improve the ability to operate in all weather conditions while maintaining the current high safety standards we demand. 

Other goals going forward are to develop environmentally responsible aviation, and safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace, NASA stated. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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