Exploring the Outer Edge of Space Technology
An agency office aims to find the undeniable breakthroughs necessary for understanding the universe.
NASA’s core culture is to push the boundaries of what has been to create what can be. And within this cutting-edge organization is an entire group dedicated solely to ensuring that the revolutions continue to expand. The Game Changing Development Program exists to find the disruptive technologies available in relevant fields, then move them into the proper channels for development and deployment.
Stephen Gaddis, director of the program, describes its straightforward mission saying, “We are looking for the game changers. We either transform or disrupt the way that the country, that the agency, is doing business in space. We want to have a high impact on new missions and new capabilities. In essence, we’re looking to change the way NASA does business.”
The group has even defined what they mean by the term. Gaddis explains that most people have the right philosophy to understand a game changer, but his program explicitly explains one as an orders-of-magnitude improvement over current resources. “It’s not just incremental, not just evolutionary,” he adds. “It’s revolutionary.” The work involves both creating new technologies as well as changing how processes are followed or products are made.
|Project Engineer Shelley Rea demonstrates the X1 Robotic Exoskeleton.|
The Game Changing Development Program has five management themes with 33 total projects. The themes are: lightweight materials and advanced manufacturing; revolutionary robotics and autonomous systems; future propulsion and energy systems; affordable destination systems and instruments; and advanced entry, descent and landing. Those areas are the ones experts have determined provide the most benefit to NASA. However, if a good idea falls outside those categories, owners are still invited to reach out and present it.
One of the most prominent projects personnel in the program have underway right now involves improving the Space Launch System, one of NASA’s top priorities. In the system are huge, expensive tanks, normally made of metal. The game-changing group is working on composite cryogenic tanks to replace the metal tanks along with a better process for creating them. The result should be a 30 percent weight savings and a 40 percent reduction in manufacturing costs. Gaddis touts making a 2.4-meter tank one of his program’s biggest successes. Now focus is on producing a 5.5-meter tank.
The team also is proud of the Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment-3 (IRVE-3) flight test conducted last year. The experiment was “picture perfect” according to Gaddis, demonstrating a nonrigid tool that can successfully enable re-entry at a much lower cost and taking up less space. The item is an inflatable raft in a rocket. Someone presses a button and the raft pops up. It is designed to fall and change its center of gravity to stay level as it judges heat rates while hurtling toward Earth.
Another building breakthrough involves making a rocket nozzle injector with 3-D additive manufacturing. Tests have been successful and cut construction time in half while reducing costs by a couple of orders of magnitude, Gaddis relates. His program also is developing a woven thermal protection system (TPS). This new material is like weaving, but injected with resin. “The woven TPS is so beyond state of the art that it will enable completely new missions to the outer planets,” Gaddis shares. NASA could use it for planetary exploration as well as on the Orion space capsule.
The 33 projects cover a range of other areas, too. For example, one deals with how autonomous systems can enable deep space exploration. Missions such as lunar orbit are close enough to allow communications between the human in space and mission control. But at farther distances, delays in transmission for events such as a systems check could threaten life. With autonomous systems, the goal is to provide a capability for automatically detecting faults, isolating them and providing a recovery activity automatically. The technology could apply to manned and unmanned systems.
The X1 Robotic Exoskeleton project started out as a way to help astronauts stay healthy by working out their muscles so they avoid atrophy in space. The suit looks like the one worn by the Marvel superhero character Iron Man, offering resistive training against hydraulics. It also has applications on Earth, helping paraplegics and injured veterans recover.
Another effort going on now is the Robonaut on the International Space Station. It has an upper torso and arms, carrying out activities such as minor maintenance. The game-changing personnel are sending up two legs to be integrated with it to enable more functions. Developers are also working on the Deep Space X-ray Navigation and Communication technology that uses pulsar to navigate within 100 meters of target precision. The project is scheduled for a two-year demonstration on the space station.
Personnel additionally are upgrading a deep space network to use lasers for optical communications in that area. The technology is necessary for missions to Mars or outer planets. Gaddis explains that the work offers a 1,000-time increase in data rates. “It will really be a game changer,” he states.
Innovators who want to work with the program have several options for involvement. The easiest is to visit the websites that explain how the organization does business and when solicitations will be released. “Probably the most important thing is we don’t care where the good ideas come from, we just want them,” Gaddis says. If technology owners or those with other concepts reach out to the program, personnel can match them up with the right principal investigator to determine if their efforts are a good fit for NASA.
The program has nine principal investigators who cover a wide spectrum of topics. These investigators are like technical strategists who determine the merit of ideas to agency priorities. When the projects reach the game-changing department, they have reached Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) 3 to 5, which Gaddis calls the valley of death because so many ideas are lost in these stages with no one developing them to more maturity. These levels are where people demonstrate feasibility in near-real environments. The developers normally decide which projects to adopt based on their TRLs along with how the benefits cross-cut NASA or align with the agency’s priorities. Typically, projects are funded for two years with a third-year option. “In our program, we can take a certain amount of risk,” Gaddis states. The amount of risk varies, and personnel will take bigger gambles on certain projects when it makes sense. In addition, if they want to push a technology forward faster, they will use what they call the infusion pathway that gives it more credibility for funding.
The Game Changing Development Program does not exist in a bubble. It is part of a larger directorate that has eight total programs covering TRLs 1 to 7 so NASA can move projects from the laboratory bench top to actual space deployment. Because of the tendency of programs to flounder and disappear in the mid-range, NASA specifically developed the game changing effort to keep good ideas moving forward. Personnel responsible for the various levels work together to create the best opportunities for efforts with promise to alter radically the approach to achieving the goals of the agency.