2010

NASA’s Chief Technologist Leads the Agency’s New Focus on Research and Innovation

Dr. Robert Braun began his NASA career at Langley Research Center in Virginia in 1987 after receiving a B.S in Aerospace Engineering from Penn State University. While at Langley, he worked on a number of advanced space systems concept and flight programs including the Mars Pathfinder, Mars Microbe, and Mars Surveyor 2001 projects. From 1998 to 2000, he managed the development of the Mars Sample Return Earth Entry Vehicle, and from 2000 to 2001, he served as the Deputy Program Manager and Chief Engineer for NASA's Intelligent Synthesis Environment Program.

altNASA Tech Briefs: What is the primary purpose of the Office of Chief Technologist?

Dr. Robert Braun: The primary purpose of the office is to serve as a technology advisor to the Administrator on all technology matters across the Agency, and manage a new program that is part of the 2011 proposed budget called the Space Technology Program.

NTB: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how your experience and training prepared you for the role of Chief Technologist?

Dr. Braun: This is actually my second stint with NASA. I joined NASA right out of college, right out of my undergraduate training at Penn State. I worked at Langley Research Center as an engineer, primarily dealing with the atmospheric flight of advanced space vehicles. Generally speaking, these studies involved sending robotics probes, or people, to Mars one day. I worked at Langley for about 15 years on advanced concepts, and also supported some of NASA’s Mars flight missions — in particular, the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997 and some of the Mars missions that followed after that.

In 2003, I left NASA and went to Georgia Tech, where I joined the faculty in the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering. I had both teaching and research responsibilities at Georgia Tech. I rejoined NASA this year.

NTB: What would you say are some of your top goals and objectives, both short-term and long-term?

Dr. Braun: Well, my number-one priority is to bring the research and technology competency of NASA up to an appropriate footing relative to the Agency’s flight system development and mission operations competencies. I think NASA is extremely capable in all these areas and that each is required for a healthy NASA. For the past decade or so, the research and technology side of NASA has been in decline. I came back to NASA to try to rebuild that competency and make it as strong as it once was. Without a focus on innovation and technology development, our future flight system and mission operations options will be quite limited.

NTB: In your opinion, what are some of the more promising areas of technology that NASA will be working on in the coming years?

Dr. Braun: There are a wide variety of technologies and activities that NASA can capitalize on. These technologies can be advanced either internal to NASA, or in academia or industry. If we want to do some of the future robotic and human exploration missions that we’ve all dreamed about, and if we want to do some of the advanced aeronautical concepts that have been under study for quite a while, we need to invest in technology. This is the only means for taking these ideas from concept to flight.

Some of the areas I think we’ll be investing in include propulsion — both propulsion for launch and in-space propulsion to travel outward more efficiently. Other areas are better communications; lighter, more packagable, and more manageable structures that can be unfolded or assembled in space; and more efficient concepts of landing on a variety of planetary destinations such as Mars or Venus, or a return to the Moon. We’ll be investing in technologies that will enable us to send humans one day to the surface of an asteroid and explore that locality as well.

NTB: What would you consider to be some of the biggest technological challenges facing America’s space program?

Dr. Braun: Without a doubt, the biggest challenge facing America’s space program today is the lack of investment that’s been made in technology over the last decade. We have big goals for our space program; in fact, America expects big things from NASA. We have a challenge in meeting those big goals today due to this lack of investment over the past few decades. So what I’m striving to do is invest in a broad portfolio of technologies so that a decade from now, we can accomplish some of these missions that we can only dream about today.