As NASA’s Director of Space Technology Programs, Michael Gazarik contributes to the development of technology that can be applied to NASA’s exploration systems, space operations, and science missions. Gazarik integrates and tracks all investments across the agency. Prior to this appointment, he served as the Chief Technologist at NASA headquarters.


NASA Tech Briefs: The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts, or NIAC, program is seeking proposals for revolutionary ideas that have the potential to transform future aerospace missions. What kinds of ideas are we talking about?

Michael Gazarik: NIAC is one of our most exciting programs. We have ten programs that cover a broad range of technology development. This is a program that actually ran for a number of years and then went dormant. Last year, we resurrected it, got it up and running again, and we’re looking at advanced concepts that will someday enable us to do great things in exploration and exploring the universe. They range from new and advanced power systems, to new types of propulsion, to ways to protect our astronauts from radiation.

NTB: What is your role in that program?

Gazarik: As space technology program director, I oversee the day-to-day management of all of the ten programs. Each of the ten programs, including NIAC, then has a program executive who runs the day-to-day management. I look and provide guidance and steering, and the selecting of officials, for the programs.

NIAC, like many of our programs, involve competition. We look for the best ideas throughout NASA and throughout industry, and we need to run a very clean, thorough, open, and honest evaluation system so we pick in a very fair way the best ideas and move them forward.

The other part of my job — once the ideas have matured and we see some advanced concepts — is to go to the next phase: How can they be integrated into a future mission or application, or how can we get them out to industry? And so we use those other programs in space technology to do that.

NTB: This second call for proposals follows last summer's inaugural selection of Phase I concepts, which are now under study. How do you handle all of these ideas? How do you sharpen those? What is the process?

Gazarik: We had an overwhelming response last year. We had over 700 proposals to the NIAC call. For budgetary considerations, we were able to pick 30. There were many more we wish we could’ve selected. This year then is our second call for content. That call is actually open right now, and we’re planning to do this on a yearly basis.

NTB: Who can help? Who are you looking for these ideas from?

Gazarik: We are looking across the community: academia, NASA centers, and industry. It’s open to anyone to solicit and propose their ideas.

NTB: What are some examples of the most creative ideas that you’ve seen?

Gazarik: There are a number of those, and we have them on our website , which has a great description of them. One of them is a very innovative suit that would help to better manipulate and operate in microgravity. It’s a very advanced suit that perhaps future astronauts could wear. That’s just one. Others are also looking at, kind of right out of science fiction, a tractor beam: the ability to grab particles remotely using optical wavelengths of light and actually being able to acquire that sample. The applications range considerably. There are also ones that look at battery energy: trying to get energy from bacteria and looking for alternative sources of energy.

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.

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.

NTB: You came to NASA Headquarters from NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, where you were the deputy director for programs in the Engineering Directorate. In this role, you worked on projects that ranged from conceptual design to spaceflight operations. What lessons from that experience help you to do your job now?

Gazarik: One is a focus on the people. We talk a lot about technology, but at the end of the day, it’s the talent and the workforce, whether it be at NASA or in industry. So getting the right teams in place and allowing them to innovate is key. There are a lot of ideas out there. There are some really, really sharp people, and so one of the things I learned from this job is to set up a framework — funding and requirements and all the aspects that I have to do — to really let the talent go to work.

NTB: You've also served as the project manager for the Mars Science Laboratory entry, descent and landing instrumentation project during the formulation and design phases. Can you give us an update on the MSL mission?

Gazarik: We put an instrumentation package on the heat shield of the Mars Science Laboratory, and this will enable measurements as it slides through the atmosphere on its way to landing on the surface. It is on its way to Mars, scheduled to arrive in early August, and we’re all going to be excited about that. The rover is managed by the Science Mission Directorate, but from the reports that I’ve seen, it’s doing well. The checkouts are doing well, they’ve made some course corrections, which are a natural part of the process, and it’s going on a very long distance millions of miles to the “Red Planet.”

NTB: You have a wide range of experience, also working as chief engineer of NASA's earth science CLARREO mission, principal investigator for the shuttle program's extravehicular infrared camera project, and a developer of an advanced laser-based rendezvous and docking sensor system. Is that range of experience critical for a role like yours as director of space technology programs?

Gazarik: I think it is a major advantage. I think it really has helped to be as broad as you can across a range of technologies and the range of applications, hitting all the mission directorates. Obviously from a space technology program level, we are very broad, and we look at technologies across the board. But I think that experience has really helped me to understand all of the different applications and the different challenges for the technology that’s needed for all of NASA’s missions.

NTB: Can you take us through a typical day? What is a typical day for you?

Gazarik: NASA Headquarters is really a great place to work because of the ability to really have an impact at the agency level. Like most folks in Washington, we have a variety of meetings. There are a whole lot of topics we have to look at. With the breadth of ten programs, my day ranges across those ten, again making sure that we’re on track, our solicitations are under development, evaluations are under way, and, of course, we’re tracking the technical progress. We have thousands of innovators, engineers, and scientists supporting the program across NASA and the industry. And we’re checking the progress and making sure to get rid of any roadblocks that teams are facing.

NTB: What would you say is the biggest goal for 2012, and then what are your goals beyond that?

Gazarik: For 2012, it’s a big year for us. The Space Technology Program was funded in July of 2011. We have turned a corner from last year, where we were formulating the program, to this year, where we’re on to execution. We have technologies in the laboratories and test chambers, and flying in the skies above all the NASA centers in evaluation and testing this year. We have a whole series of milestones for a number of our technologies as we’re making progress in getting these technologies in testing environments, understanding what’s going to work, and what’s not going to work. Either way, we’re going to learn along the way about which technologies are really going to prove to be useful for NASA and for the community.

The NRC has said in their report, and this is really true for the Space Technology Program, that the future of this nation’s leadership in space requires a foundation of sustained technology advances, and so that’s really important for this program in 2012: to execute, implement, and get the technologies developed.

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