M. N. Dastoor, Ph.D

Chief Technologist, Innovative Partnerships Program Office

NASA Headquarters, Washington, D. C.

The NASA Strategic Plan articulates a three-part Mission for the Agency: (1) Space Exploration; (2) Scientific Discovery; (3) Aeronautics Research. These far-reaching goals of the Agency are under the governance of four Mission Directorates, for their implementation: (1) Exploration Systems Mission Directorate [ESMD]; (2) Space Operations Mission Directorate [SOMD]; (3) Science Mission Directorate [SMD]; and (4) Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate [ARMD]. The workhorse that binds all of the Directorates’ Programs and Projects is the acquisition of capabilities via the application of technology. These technologies fall into two general categories. Technologies which are unique to the Mission Directorates (examples: EVA for SOMD/ESMD; Deep Space Network for SMD; and Air Traffic Management for ARMD) and those that are crosscutting in performance (examples: Space Communications; Vehicle Health Management). For Space Missions, such technologies and capabilities have to survive and function in the hostile environments of Space.

Exploration Systems Mission Directorate [ESMD]

ARMD Research Program Focus Areas

The Central focus of ESMD is the establishment of a permanent Human presence on the Moon. The three Core Themes that address the primary activities to be conducted on the Moon are (1) Use the Moon to prepare for future human and robotic missions to Mars and other destinations; (2) Pursue scientific activities to address fundamental questions about the solar system, the universe, and our place in them; (3) Extend sustained human presence to the Moon to enable eventual settlement. Ways to maximize the three Core Themes result in the creation of three Crosscutting Themes: (1) Expand Earth’s economic sphere to encompass the Moon and pursue lunar activities with direct benefits to life on Earth; (2) Strengthen existing and create new global partnerships; (3) Engage, inspire, and educate the public.

As a consequence of several in-house analysis studies, a list of selected Strategic Capabilities and Technologies have emerged:

  • Structures, Materials, and Mechanisms
  • Thermal Protection Systems
  • Radiation Shielding, Dust and Contaminant Mitigation
  • Propulsion and Cryogenics
  • Thermal Control
  • Power
  • Avionics and Software
  • Communications
  • Environmental Control and Life Support
  • Crew Support and Accommodations
  • In-Situ Resource Utilization
  • Robotics and Operations

Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD)

SOMD has several primary Mission responsibilities. Principally they provide all necessary capabilities and functions to NASA Space Shuttle Flights during its Mission to complete the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS). In addition, all of SOMD’s know-how of Space Operations and Space Transportation will serve as an inheritance and baseline to ESMD and incorporated where deemed relevant. Of particular note, is the use of the ISS as a testbed for space validation of emerging, as well as, operational technologies of value to Lunar Exploration. Furthermore, SOMD has the responsibility for designing and developing an Agency-wide integrated Space Communications Architecture for the future. It comprises an integration of four principal elements: (1) Earth-based Antenna Element; (2) Earth-based Relay Satellite Element; (3) Lunar Relay Satellite Element; and (4) Mars Relay Satellite Element. Selected key technology challenges for SOMD are:

Space Communications

  • Optical Communication
  • Spacecraft RF Technology
  • Antenna Array and Transmit
  • Programmable Communications

Space Transportation

  • Automated Optical Tracking and Identification
  • Test Requirements/Instrumentation
  • Automated Collection and Transfer of Data

Science Mission Directorate (SMD)

SMD works closely with the Science Community to identify the highest science priorities and the best strategies and Missions to address those priorities. These suggested priorities are provided through the decadal surveys and other reports of the National Academy of Sciences. Using these decadal surveys and reports, each of the Science Divisions sponsors a triennial strategic roadmapping effort, comprised largely of members of the external science community and led by a senior leader in the community. These committees operate under the auspices of the NASA Advisory Council. The products of these efforts are the building blocks of NASA Science Strategy Documents, including the recently published Science Plan.

NASA Space Science is focused in areas where access to Space enables new scientific endeavors or enhances existing ones. The SMD organizes its work into four broad scientific pursuits: (1) Earth Science – Study planet Earth from Space to advance scientific understanding and meet societal needs; (2) Planetary Science – Advance scientific knowledge of the origin and history of the Solar System, the potential for life elsewhere, and the hazards and resources present as humans explore space; (3) Heliophysics – Understand the Sun and its effects on Earth and the Solar System; (4) Astrophysics – Discover the origin, structure, evolution, and destiny of the universe, and search for Earth-like planets.

Selected key technology challenges and priorities required to implement the Missions are:

  • New Remote Sensing Technologies
  • Large, Lower Cost, Lightweight Mirrors and Space-Deployable Structures
  • Novel Platforms
  • Intelligent Distributed Systems
  • Information Systems

Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate

ARMD is unique, as compared to the other Mission Directorates, in that they have no responsibilities for dedicated Space Missions. The principles that drive the goals of ARMD are: (1) dedication to the mastery and intellectual stewardship of the core competencies of Aeronautics for the Nation in all flight regimes; (2) focus on research in areas that are appropriate to NASA’s unique capabilities; (3) directly addressing the fundamental research needs of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) in partnership with the member agencies of the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO).

ARMD has four programs: (1) Fundamental Aeronautics Program; (2) Aviation Safety Program; (3) Airspace Systems Program; (4) Aeronautics Test Program. The focus of the three research oriented programs are shown below. The Aeronautics Test Program helps ensure the strategic availability and accessibility of a critical suite of aeronautics test facilities that are deemed necessary to meet aeronautics, agency, and national needs.

For more information we refer you to the following websites:

Explorations Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) 

Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD) 

Science Mission Directorate (SMD) 

Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) 


NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the April, 2008 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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