Features

Steve Gaddis, Program Director for NASA Space Technology's Game Changing Development Office, NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA

A lot of times, with NASA, we let [projects] run four or five years, and there are termination liabilities, and it could take a long time to get out of something. That is not what the model is for the Game Changing Program.

NTB: What are your day-to-day responsibilities as leader in this office?

Gaddis: Currently, like any other NASA program, we go through the planning and program budget execution cycles. We meet to see what the technology horizon might look like, and what the future investments are, and we see the investments we’ve already made, and what their continuing needs might be.

We’re developing the portfolio for the program, so on a day-to-day basis, I’m meeting with these GCD PIs, and we’re talking about technology. We’re talking about new ideas. We’re talking about meeting with other organizations and how those meetings went with NRO [National Reconnaissance Office], and AFRL, and DARPA, and DOE [Department of Energy]. We have a lot of collaborative-type discussions and brainstorming sessions. We have a lot of reviews on how the projects are doing. We monitor those very closely on a monthly basis. We report to NASA headquarters on a quarterly basis, and we have a very large end of the year program review.

We currently have 7 PIs, and their technology expertise is quite a broad spectrum, from composites, nanotechnology, power systems, solar arrays, electric propulsion, manufacturing, and additive manufacture particularly. We’re looking at x-ray navigation, optical communication, and next-generation high-speed computing. We currently have about 30-something projects in the works that are fully funded. Two of those were not meeting their metrics, so we’ve pulled the plug on those and reinvested the funds. Right now, it’s looking very well and all running according to planned.

NTB: What do you think space flights of the future will look like? What kinds of new approaches do you think we’ll see?

Gaddis: Some of the new ideas that we’re currently working on, and some of those that are in the “new start” hopper, if you will, are using composite cryogenic tanks that will reduce the weight by 50 percent for some system like the SLS. We’re also looking at power-beaming technology: having a ground infrastructure with a large laser that would shoot a high-energy beam to a capsule that could go to low-Earth orbit. We’re also looking at cheap ways to get to low-Earth orbit, and put large structures together in a cheap fashion. We’re looking to build some of that hardware in orbit, with additive manufacturing: Build what you need, where you need it. We’re looking at cryogenic propellant, depots, and lots of different architectures of human spaceflight, robotic investigations, and explorations. The field is wide open.

NTB: Is there a challenge there with such a wide open field of technologies, in determining needs and prioritizing different projects?

Gaddis: We struggle with some of those, but it’s a good kind of struggle. Always, when you have a lot innovative people, and our country is full of such smart individuals, it’s difficult to determine what we can invest in, and when we should invest in it. Is it the right time for it? Does it fit well with the current agency priorities? For some technologies, it’s just not their time, but they’re still worthy of investment. Someone else will just have to make the investment. It is a struggle for us to rank these different technologies and to help prioritize them. We’d like to just be able to fund them all.

NTB: What are the start-to-finish steps when you’re bringing a Game Changing Technology into the fold? I imagine it starts with ground testing and other processes?

Gaddis: Yes there is, and what we like to look at is a technology that has a technology-readiness level of around 3, which means it’s not just an idea, but there’s some proof in the pudding, if you’ll let me say it that way: There’s been a lot of benchwork, there’s been some analysis, there’s been peer review, it looks like it has sound physics, and it looks like there has been some sort of subscale demonstration that proves that the technology is viable and feasible.

As DARPA has DARPA PMs, we have GCD PIs. The front door for technology investment is our PIs. You can go to our technical website: gameon.nasa.gov. You can see which PI and technology focus might lend to your needs. You begin a dialogue with them, have several discussions, and look at data. If a PI decides that this is something that’s worthy of consideration, and it’s the right time for consideration, and it fits within our portfolio and our priorities, this PI would then bring a “new start” proposal to our board, and the board would review it. The board has expertise from across the agency. It has the program leadership and headquarters leadership as well. There’s several of us that review these potential “new starts.” We look at certain criteria: Is it really game changing? Why should we invest in this now? What are they trying to do that’s different than what’s been done in the past? How much is it going to cost? What difference will it make if we succeed?