Throngs of excited participants crowd a recent NASA Technology Day exposition. (NASA)

Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic

Posted on February 22, 2013 by Paul Spudis

In their own inimitable style, the latest NASA re-org has been trumpeted with the release of a platitude-filled announcement. A new Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) has been founded to “be a catalyst for the creation of technologies and innovation needed to maintain NASA leadership in space while also benefiting America’s economy.” This new directorate will supervise a “portfolio of investment” in a variety of key identified technologies needed to send humans “to an asteroid and Mars.”

This event is not surprising, as technology development was a key part of this administration’s 2010 re-vectoring of the agency. Direction for the space program in part followed recommendations from the report of the 2009 Augustine Committee, which concluded that development of several new key space technologies were needed to enable human missions beyond LEO.

What, if anything, is wrong with this development? Why not use a fraction of the agency’s budget to develop all those great new gadgets that will allow us to forge ahead in space? In short, the issues in technology research are focus and pace. Are we developing the right technology and will it be available in a timely manner? Even more importantly, which technology needs are most pressing? This is not merely a question of organizational or economic efficiency but one of actually producing real flight systems for genuine missions –assuming, of course, that is your true eventual goal.

The agency has a long tradition of creating roadmaps, documents that lay out certain technical needs and wants and the order in which they will need them. Prior to the creation of this new mission directorate, NASA had an Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT), whose job was to set forth the paths by which certain technologies would be available at certain times. Apparently, the OCT will still exist, but under the new Associate Administrator in the new STMD. In fact, if you compare the “About Us” pages of the two offices, it is difficult to see much difference between them; they even highlight the same video. According to the press release, the “Office of the Chief Technologist also will continue to develop strategic innovative partnerships, manage agency-level competitions and prize activities, as well as document and communicate the societal impacts of the agency’s technology efforts.” So why create this new directorate?

I suspect that the real rationale for this newest layer of management and oversight is yet another attempt by the agency to convince people that we still have a viable space program and that we are going to forge ahead into the Solar System with a dazzling array of new and exciting machinery (“Phasers on stun, Mr. Sulu!”). It certainly is true that some new technology development is needed to move humans significantly beyond LEO, but much of what we need (at least for the initial steps) is already in hand. What is sorely lacking is the will to fly such missions.

Read more: Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic | Spudis Lunar Resources.

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