Michael Gazarik, Director of Space Technology Programs, NASA Headquarters, Washington DC

NTB: If you had to name the biggest technical needs that programs like NIAC could help with, what would they be?

Gazarik: We’ve put together some road maps across 14 technical areas, and we’ve asked the National Research Council to look at them. Later on today, we will receive the final report, and we will get those top technical challenges that the NRC also sees for the agency. [This interview took place on February 2, 2012.]. There are a number, because of previous studies, that you can point to fairly quickly. One of which is the ability to protect astronauts from radiation. We obviously benefit living here on the surface of Earth, but out in space, it becomes quite a challenge.

Other top technical areas really involve in-space propulsion: the ability to move in space without the need of dragging a large amount of payload with you for fuel. There are many ways to look at that, but we’ve got to find better ways to move around in the universe.

Another challenge is communications. As we go explore the universe, we’ll have a lot of data, of course, to send back, we’ll have imagery to send back, and we want high-definition video to send back. Before that, we’re going to need higher bandwidth, to be able to send those images and data back to Earth.

NTB: What kinds of technology/investments do you find people most interested in?

Gazarik: It ranges really across the board from energy storage, battery life, and sources of power to communications and propulsion. There are also a number of novel ideas on how to land on these planetary surfaces: how do you fly through the atmosphere and land precisely, say, on the surface of Mars? The ideas are out there across the board.

The Future of Space Missions/Industry’s Role
NTB: How will future space missions change?

Gazarik: We want to be able to explore beyond lower orbit. One of the changes simply is to get away from the surface of the Earth and go into what’s called deep space. And to do that requires a number of technologies that we’ve been talking about today. One of the changes is going to be our ability to live, operate, and move in space. Another focus for us is affordability. We all know the budgetary realities, and to do this great exploration, we have to deal with technology in ways that are more affordable and effective.

NTB: What kinds of new capabilities do you imagine enabled with the building of space systems?

Gazarik: Capabilities include a big focus on power: How do we get the power that we need to operate the spacecraft, whether that be from solar or electric power, or other alternative sources? How do we move in space efficiently, whether we use what’s called solar electric expressers, if you will, that use ions to move, or whether we use a big solar sail, and use the sun’s energy to move without any propellant? There are also ways of looking at the traditional cryogenic propellants, very cold chemicals.

We also need capabilities in radiation protection. That’s one of the more challenging areas that we need to look at: how to protect the crew. Again, if we’re going to land somewhere on a surface, how do we do that? How do we fly at these very fast, hypersonic speeds as we come screaming through the atmosphere, and how do we do that safely and land large payloads on a surface, in locations that we want to land in? These are all challenges that we face today that we all know we need.

NTB: How do you imagine NASA and industry merging to create new technologies? What are commercial space opportunities? What do you see as industry's role in space exploration?

Gazarik: Industry, as you know, has always had a very large role in space exploration, from Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and, of course, the shuttle. They play a huge role in designing, building, testing, and flying the hardware that we put in orbit and that we explore space with. They’re going to continue to have a significant role in space exploration. What we can do is help part of the Space Technology Program, work on some of these really tough problems, and try to get over the barrier of making investments where, from an industry perspective, perhaps they really can’t make that investment because the challenges are too great. It’s a very hard problem to solve, and we want to look at it from a variety of ways. So space technology: we can help plant those seeds and get over these “valleys of death” in technology development. It’s going to allow industry to bring in their efficiency and affordability and together then we will go and explore space.

NTB: What role will Mars exploration play? What kinds of work will be done there?

Gazarik: We have a number of assets: an orbiter, hardware on Mars, the Mars rover, and the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is on its way — the biggest, baddest rover that we’ve ever sent to the “Red Planet.” We also have, of course, the orbiter flying above the surface of Mars as we speak. So Mars continues and will continue to be a focus for the agency. We want to go there with humans certainly and even for higher mass and larger payloads. We’re going to need these technologies that we’ve been discussing here today. We’re going to need the ability to get there faster. We’re going to need the ability to land safely and land in locations where we want to land. We have to be able to survive the radiation on Mars. All those really factor in and serve as a very tough case for deep space exploration.

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