NASA preps advanced technology for the future, now

NASA bulks-ups commercial, heavy lift rocket and outer space initiatives

While congress continues to wrangle over the future of specific space agency programs - in particular the seemingly doomed Ares rocket - NASA continues to prepare for future operations by bulking up commercial space, heavy lift rocket and outer space plans. 

The space agency in the past few weeks has issued requests for information on a new heavy lift rocket, advanced space exploration technologies that move beyond Low Earth Orbit and today, a call for more details on how commercial programs will advance space transportation needs. 

21 critical future NASA missions 

NASA said it is currently in a "conceptual phase" of developing Commercial Crew Transportation (CCT) requirements that will define how commercial outfits will be able to transport NASA astronauts and cargo safely to and from LEO and the International Space Station

NASA said it wants to collect information from the commercial space industry to help the space agency plan the strategy for the development and demonstration of a CCT capability and to receive comments on NASA human-rating technical requirements that have been drafted as part of this initiative, NASA stated.

That draft, called the  Commercial Human-Rating Plan (CHRP) defines the allocation of responsibilities, requirements, mandatory standards, and process for achieving NASA human spaceflight certification for commercial crew transportation services. 

NASA is now looking for more details from space industry players to determine issues such as:  "What is the approximate dollar magnitude of the minimum NASA investment necessary to ensure the success of your company's CCT development and demonstration effort? What is the approximate government fiscal year phasing of this investment from award to completion of a crewed orbital flight demonstration?" 

In February NASA awarded $50 million to five companies under the CCT program who could help design and build future spacecraft that could take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The five companies and their awards were Blue Origin: $3.7 million; Boeing: $18 million; Paragon Space Development Corporation: $1.4 million; Sierra Nevada Corporation: $20 million; United Launch Alliance: $6.7 million.  

The money is expected to be used toward the development of crew concepts and technology for future commercial support of human spaceflight and are designed to foster entrepreneurial activity leading to high-tech job growth in engineering, analysis, design and research, and to promote economic growth as capabilities for new markets are created, NASA said. 

In another future planning development, NASA last week said it defined six targeted technologies of the future via its Flagship Technology Demonstration effort. Such Flagship technologies could be developed at costs ranging from $400 million to $1 billion.  

The key technologies from the NASA request included: 

  • Advanced Solar Electric Propulsion: This will involve concepts for advanced high-energy, in-space propulsion systems which will serve to demonstrate building blocks to even higher energy systems to support deep-space human exploration and eventually reduce travel time between Earth's orbit and future destinations for human activity. 
  • In-Orbit Propellant Transfer and Storage: The capability to transfer and store propellant-particularly cryogenic propellants-in orbit can significantly increase the Nation's ability to conduct complex and extended exploration missions beyond Earth's orbit. It could also potentially be used to extend the lifetime of future government and commercial spacecraft in Earth orbit. 
  • Lightweight/Inflatable Modules: Inflatable modules can be larger, lighter, and potentially less expensive for future use than the rigid modules currently used by the ISS. NASA said it will pursue a demonstration of lightweight/inflatable modules for eventual in-space habitation, transportation, or even surface habitation needs. 
  • Aerocapture, and/or entry, descent and landing (EDL) technology: This involves the development and demonstration of systems technologies for: precision landing of payloads on "high-g" and "low-g" planetary bodies; returning humans or collected samples to Earth; and enabling orbital insertion in various atmospheric conditions. 
  • Automated/Autonomous Rendezvous and Docking: The ability of two spacecraft to rendezvous, operating independently from human controllers and without other back-up, requires advances in sensors, software, and real-time on-orbit positioning and flight control, among other challenges. This technology is critical to the ultimate success of capabilities such as in-orbit propellant storage and refueling, and complex operations in assembling mission components for challenging destinations. 
  • Closed-loop life support system demonstration at the ISS: This would validate the feasibility of human survival beyond Earth based on recycled materials with minimal logistics supply. 

The third major planning effort announced by NASA happened earlier this month when NASA began its search for a next-generation rocket capable of taking equipment and humans into space. 

NASA said its procurement activities are intended to find affordable options for a heavy-lift vehicle that could be achieved earlier than 2015 - the earliest date that the currently envisioned heavy-lift system could begin work.

In his April speech outlining NASA's future, President Obama said there would be $3.1 billion for the development of a new heavy lift rocket to fly manned and unmanned spaceflights into deep space.  Obama said he wanted this technologically advanced rocket to be designed and ready to build by 2015. 

With that goal in mind, NASA sent out a Request for Information that will begin what has in the past been a long process to build a "new US developed chemical propulsion engine for a multi-use Heavy Launch  Vehicle.  NASA said it was looking for a "demonstration of in-space chemical propulsion capabilities; and significant advancement in space launch propulsion technologies. The ultimate objective is to develop chemical propulsion technologies to support a more affordable and robust space transportation industry including human space exploration." 

The space agency said it will look for features that will reduce launch systems manufacturing, production, and operating costs.

As part of the RFI announcement, NASA said it will initiate development and flight testing of in-space engines. Areas of focus will include low-cost liquid oxygen/methane and liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen engines and will perform research in chemical propulsion technologies in areas such as new or largely untested  propellants, advanced propulsion materials and manufacturing techniques, combustion processes, and engine health monitoring and safety.

NASA said the new heavy lift system should help the US  explore  multiple potential destinations, including the Moon, asteroids, Lagrange points, and Mars and its environs in the most cost effective and safe manner. At the same time, NASA desires to develop liquid chemical propulsion technologies to support a more affordable and robust space transportation industry. 

NASA said its approach will strengthen America's space industry, and could provide a catalyst for future business ventures to capitalize on affordable access to space, NASA said.

The moves are preceded by the fact that NASA has all but shut down its Constellation development program - the space agency cancelled the Ares V RFP  in March -- in the face of budget constraints and the direction the current administration wants it to go. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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