Thinking Tech

NASA chief technologist Robert Braun: 'We intend to take considerable risks' to innovate

NASA chief technologist Robert Braun: 'We intend to take considerable risks' to innovate

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NASA's being reorganized again, and former NASA engineer and Georgia Institute of Technology professor Bobby Braun says he has his dream job.

NASA chief technologist Bobby Braun was appointed to his job in February when NASA revived the chief technologist office. It had faded away in the 1990s after a previous administration tried, and failed, to centralize technology development in Washington, according to the agency.

Mission-specific technologies have generally been developed at one of NASA's 10 centers, and under Braun, that's where they'll stay. He meets regularly with the local chief technology officers so everybody knows what everybody's working on, and then directs work on longer-term technologies. These projects will be done as partnerships with industry, universities and/or other countries, which will compete for the opportunity to work with NASA.

All of this is a big change for NASA, and Braun laid out these plans, which are part of President Barack Obama's new space policy and are included in the agency's 2011 budget, at a forum at the University of Maryland last month.

But he is also touring NASA's centers to introduce himself. I met with him this week, along with some other reporters, at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif..

Here are some highlights of the news conference:

On why NASA is working more with outsiders to innovate:

We're are focused on a competitive model because we're interested in the best ideas, wherever they may come from -- a meritocracy, with technical rigor. We'll do it in an above the board and transparent process -- we don’t want to pick winners in advance. We'll use the American ideal of competition in the way it was intended.

A second change is that we [do] intend to take considerable risks. We plan to manage that risk through a portfolio approach. Many will turn into disruptive solutions that affect future missions, but some will not, and that has to be OK. When you invest in the stock market, you balance risk, and NASA is trying to do the same thing.

Third, we intend to run this program in a projectized manner, meaning it will define start and end dates, where project managers are selected based on technical rigor and passion and commitment and are given authority to succeed or fail and are held accountable for the project.

Those characteristics are different than the way NASA has done it in the past. We find that in DARPA and ARPA-e, and we also have a chance for partnerships with those organizations.

On whether NASA would work with venture capital firms:

We're exploring working with VCs. They know how to take risk, and there's a lot we can learn and leverage. We have to be careful, though, because we’re the government. We're different on purpose, and everything we do has to be clean and above board, and it will be.

On the opportunity for small satellites at NASA:

I think it's government-wide. I went to Stanford in the 1990s, and there was then a lab under Bob Twiggs, who some people claim is the founder of the [small satellite] movement. I was fascinated -- a lot of my friends worked in that lab. There were satellites the size of a Coke can. In the intervening 10 to 20 years, that technology has taken off, and you’re seeing government picking up on that.

We called it out as a separate program. It's small and the dollar values are low and I worried it would get lost, but I wanted to call it out to identify it publicly and let everyone know we were doing this.

On what kind of technology would enable NASA to go beyond the Earth's orbit:

The focal point of debate in Washington is heavy lift -- how much mass should we be able to place on low earth orbit. I’d say, what other technologies are utilized. For Mars, 80 percent is propellant, so if you could transfer and store propellant, you could imagine a lot of ways to get it to low earth orbit. Maybe there would be one launch or several smaller launches.

You also need a transportation system to go beyond low earth orbit, an in-space propulsion system with low, medium and high thrust systems. The more efficient they are, the less mass we need to lift.

Also when we get to the destination, are we going to bring everything with us, or will we use resources available on those bodies, in situ, perhaps for consumables like life support or propellant, or materials at these destinations.

Looking longer term, there's the NIAC [NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts], and we're proud to be bringing NIAC back—it's one of the 10 programs in Space Technology. It's modest dollar value, but it was a great way in my opinion for NASA to engage external innovators in small and larger businesses and academia to get their visions of the future.

One problem NIAC had previously was that it was so revolutionary, with 40-years-and-out system concepts, that there were no technology programs to carry along the innovators idea. So the innovator would win funding and study the concept for a year and there would be no place for that idea to go.

Now we have a way to transition a NIAC idea from concept to flight, and we've worked hard on that.

Photo: Braun addresses an audience at NASA's Langley Research Center on May 18, 2010. (Sean Smith/NASA)

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure