NTB: What else do you see as other "frontiers" for exploration?
Gazarik: There are many destinations including asteroids and the moon, of course. There are these “range points” that offer very stable places where you can exist. We’re looking at frontiers to go explore the sun and understand space weather better. We’re looking at exploring these varieties of destinations. If you look at some of the science decadal surveys, for example, they call for exploring Europa and other planetary bodies that are out there. There’s a lot to explore out there. We’ve really only touched the surface to date.
On the Job
NTB: You “coordinate, integrate, and track all technology investments across the agency.” What does that mean exactly? What is your day-to-day process to achieve that?
Gazarik: There are many technology programs throughout the agency, and mission directorates that are more focused on the missions of which they belong, including science and human exploration. Aeronautics does an incredible job, for example, of the research and development that’s needed for aviation. Our job at this level is that: the coordination and integration, looking at where we’re making investments, looking at where we’re moving the needle forward for technology development. We’re going to get the guidance today, the final report from the NRC, which will also help us to decide where we are going to make investments. We’re constantly staying abreast and aware of what the developments are in industry, taking advantage of whatever technology developments occur perhaps for other applications and where we can fold them into the program.
We also support our mission directorates, making sure we understand what technology needs should be developed and get projects up and running in those areas. Also, one of our big aspects is technology transfer: How do we get some of the technologies that we’ve developed here in the agency out into the community? There are plenty of small and large businesses out there that could really leverage some of the work we’re doing at NASA. And through programs like the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) and its counterpart Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR), we’re working hard, too, to make sure that everyone understands the technology we’re doing and is able to transfer that to them.
NTB: What is the criteria used to determine a “good” technology investment? What are the challenges in determining that?
Gazarik: Many books and papers are written on that. It’s always a challenge. It’s a little bit of science and a little bit of art, I would say. But there are a couple things that history has shown: one is an understanding of the technical area, in general, where the problem fits, and what has been done to date. We use a technology readiness scale to try to judge how “ready” a technology is before it can be used in an application or a system. So we judge based on how much progress is made, whether it’s in the laboratory, whether it’s undergone testing, whether it’s been in some type of test chamber, or maybe it’s even flown on a high-altitude balloon or an airplane that shows then its ability to perform. So we judge where that readiness is and then try to decide what the next step is as to mature it toward a potential infusion or use in an application in a mission or in industry.
Now the other thing that history has shown is that often for the tough problems, you need to take multiple approaches. Often the solution doesn’t come in a very linear fashion. It becomes very disruptive. If you looked at many of the breakthroughs that have occurred in history, they’ve occurred when people were trying to solve one problem and literally found that solution had a big impact somewhere else. So the key is to have a portfolio. To try different technology investments across this readiness scale, making sure you’re investing in early concepts such as NIAC and making sure that you’re doing technology demonstrations.
NTB: Aside from NIAC, what other programs do you oversee that help you determine space technology priorities?
Gazarik: We have a range of programs. We have a couple in an early stage. For example, we support graduate fellows at our nation’s universities. We selected the first class of our inaugural fellows: 80 students at 37 universities. We just finished a call out this year for the second round. One of our big programs is Centennial Challenges. This is the idea of using prize competitions, where we can get solutions to technical problems, and we don’t pay unless the actual system works, and the technology is demonstrated. We did one last year on green flight aviation and electric aviation; that was done in September. It has been a smashing success, and we think it perhaps really breaks open the door for electric aviation. I mentioned one of the other programs we have, of course, is Small Business. We have the Game Changing Program. We also have two programs that are focused on small spacecraft, also called cubesats and nanosats: this idea that you can develop satellites at a very low cost. We’re just exploring the uses, and we really think we can break open the types of problems and the types of applications we can do in space.