Dr. David Miller began his term as the NASA chief technologist on March 17, 2014. He currently serves as the agency’s principal advisor and advocate on NASA technology policy and programs. Miller, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has also previously worked with a range of NASA programs including the space shuttle, the International Space Station, the JWST Product Integrity Team, and the NASA CubeSat Launch Initiative.

NASA Tech Briefs: What does the Chief Technologist do?

Dr. David Miller: The Chief Technologist advocates for technology investment at NASA. I also work on prioritizing technology and the investments that we ought to make. I engage with the external community and try to best understand what’s happening elsewhere outside of NASA and the world of technology. I’m also the lead at the agency in helping to set up challenges and prizes, and engage the broader community. Probably the most fun part is that I get to advise the Administrator, Charles Bolden, about all things technology.

NTB: How do you prioritize the various technology investments across NASA?

Dr. Miller: It all starts with making some tough decisions. First, we try to understand the landscape: What are the technologies that we could invest in? We do that through our roadmapping activity. We’re revising our roadmaps as we speak.

NTB: What are “roadmaps?”

Dr. Miller: We actually have 15 roadmaps. I won’t name them all. One’s for aeronautics, for example. One’s for landing systems for landing on other planets. There’s a roadmap for power systems. The process basically maps the different technologies to the missions that they enable, so we know the potential impact of each technology.

If you go to NASA.gov and to the Office of the Chief Technologist, you can download our roadmaps and see where you might fit in – if you’re a researcher, or if you want to be a researcher. You can also go to a public Web site, which was just started here in the beginning of March: TechPort (techport.nasa.gov). It’s a searchable Web site. You can go through and ask “What technology are you working on in propulsion?” Or guidance systems. Or on jet engines and technologies like that. You can see what we’re working on, why we think it’s important, who’s working on it, and who you might contact if you want to learn more. This is a new product that we have that allows the external community – the public – to see what we’re working on and how we’re spending their dollars, and find out where they might like to work with us.

NTB: After the roadmaps, how does NASA determine which technology investment is most important?

Dr.Miller: We go through our prioritization process, and then obviously budget season actually tells you what you can afford to do. The way we think about it is roadmaps are what we could do, prioritization is what we should do, and funding is what we will do.

In putting that together, we think about the needs of the various missions. There are obviously a lot of scientific missions at NASA. There’s also human exploration. There’s aeronautics. We think about the technology that we need in order to support those missions, but we also have an important goal in helping to support the broader communities out there: the commercial space sector as well as the commercial aeronautics sector. We try to think about the core technologies that “lift all ships,” and that’s what we prioritize.

NTB: Are there any new technology areas that are being prioritized this year compared to previous years?

Dr. Miller: There’s a number of exciting areas, such as solar electric propulsion, which is a way to very efficiently move cargo through space. That’s important for sending pre-positioning cargo to Mars, or actually controlling the orbits of satellites in geosynchronous orbit. It’s one of those technologies that has a very specific NASA benefit, but also supports a lot of programs that are outside of NASA.

Another area is laser communication. Traditionally, we have done telecommunications using radio waves, but when you move up to the frequency of light, you have a lot more bandwidth and a lot higher data rate. There are a lot of advantages to using laser communications. Recently, on the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission to the moon, we were able to send back, via laser, large volumes of data very quickly. You could also think of that as supporting global communications as well.

In aeronautics, there are a lot of interesting technology investments. We’re thinking about how we can reduce the carbon input to the atmosphere. Commercial airliners fly up in the stratosphere, and the carbon that is put out has a long latency time at that level.

Also of interest is low-boom supersonics. I grew up in the period where I remember going out in the backyard and hearing sonic booms, but that has not been allowed over land for many decades now. Being able to come back and start doing supersonic flight over the continent is an interesting thought, but we really have to suppress the sonic booms that happen with that. There’s technology in that area.

Another one is highly efficient transports. Fuel is getting more expensive, and if we can fly with less use of fuel, that’s a dramatic benefit.

There’s also the idea of free flight – being able to fly directly from your departure airport to your destination airport and make sure that it’s done safely, and that we avoid congestion and do it efficiently as well.

NTB: What kinds of partnerships are you forming with the commercial space and aeronautics industries?

Dr. Miller: There’s our Commercial Cargo launch for the International Space Station. That’s a case where we have two companies, Orbital ATK and SpaceX Corp., deliver cargo to station. Both companies have been serving NASA very well. The nice thing about the program is that, while they’re helping with NASA, there are other markets they can also capture, like satellite launches.

Another area is the partnership with the Commercial Crew launch to Space Station. We’ve contracted with Boeing and with SpaceX to develop the Commercial Crew mission so we can start launching US astronauts from US soil on US rockets. That should happen in 2017.

NTB: Why is important for NASA to license technologies to industries?

Dr. Miller: Licensing technologies to aeronautics and space industries helps to make those industries stronger, and helps to get a dual use of the technology investment that NASA has made. Stronger industry can help NASA in return.

There’s another sector that is licensing technology to non-aerospace sectors. There are a lot of different spin-offs that have happened over the years. In fact, a lot of smartphones use cameras that have been developed through space technology investments. There are a number of different investments we make that can be spun off to the non-aerospace sector. We have an annual publication called Spin-Offs (spinoff.nasa.gov), where you can read all about this. NASA operates on taxpayer dollars, and it’s important to maximize the benefit to the taxpayer.

NTB: What does it mean for NASA to “spin in” and “spin out” technologies?

Dr. Miller: “Spin in” is an important concept. As we do our missions, they are quite challenging, and therefore are expensive. We want to make sure that we don’t duplicate efforts that are happening elsewhere. If there are other industries or other government agencies that are developing technologies that we can use, then it’s a great idea to leverage that.

There’s a concept of “Lead, Adapt, and Follow.” “Lead” is the idea that a technology might only be useful for NASA missions, so we probably have to lead that development. With “Adapt,” there are technologies out there that other sectors are investing in. Can we adapt it for our purposes? And “Follow” means that we’re just going to watch how it evolves elsewhere and buy it when it’s ready. That way we can best allocate the precious resources.

NTB: I think an interesting responsibility that you mentioned was that you are setting up challenges. What kinds of challenges are you doing? What kinds of initiatives are being done to involve the public in the technology process?

Dr. Miller: Boy, there are a number of them. I would encourage your readers and listeners to go to NASA Solve (nasa.gov/solve). I’m not going to be able to list all of them, but we have created a one-stop shopping portal for all of those challenges.

It’s important that NASA’s mission is not just NASA’s mission alone. It’s really the mission of the citizens and the taxpayers – it’s a worldwide mission in many respects. We want to make sure that we engage that broader community and bring them along for the ride, as well as have them help us with our missions. The way we do that is set up different ways of engaging the public. There are prizes and challenges. I’ll give you some examples.

The Asteroid Grand Challenge right now – one that we’re running out of my office – is to get the community to help us think about how to, in essence, defend the planet. Really everyone’s in on that mission. There are different ways that you can get involved. You can take a look at data sets that we make available and try to find asteroids in the data set. It’s a vast amount of data, and we need extra eyes on it so that we can find all the asteroids that we can.

We also encourage people to help us think about what to do if we find an asteroid that’s going to hit us. What can we do about it? It’s a very challenging problem, and we need a lot of people to help us think through that problem. Basically, we have one advantage over the dinosaurs: We can actually try to protect ourselves from the next big impact. We’d like to engage the public in helping us figure that out.

NTB: Are you encouraged by the response? Are you getting a lot of creative feedback?

Dr. Miller: We are getting a lot of creative feedback, and we’re getting that feedback from a bunch of different levels: people that are scientists that work in other fields, that have developed algorithms for identifying feature changes, which is applicable to finding asteroids in data. We’re also finding citizen scientists and middle-school kids that are also identifying asteroids. Everyone can participate, and everyone depends on finding these asteroids and helping to defend the planet.

NTB: You also mentioned your responsibility to advise the Administrator. Can you talk about that partnership and how that works?

Dr. Miller: It’s very exciting. The great thing about NASA is they bring in people from outside of NASA to be the Chief Technologist and Chief Scientist, in order to bring in fresh ideas to the agency. The access to the leadership here is tremendous. For my role, I’m supposed to take an across-the-agency look, and be able to advise the administrator on where to invest, perhaps where to stop investing, and who we ought to partner with.

NTB: You mentioned the importance of bringing in a point-of-view outside of NASA. Can you talk a bit about your background and how that’s helped you in the work you’re doing now?

Dr. Miller: I am a professor at MIT in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, basically aerospace. As such, I’ve had research that is relevant, and I teach classes that are relevant to NASA’s mission. I’ve also spent time as a member of an Air Force advisory board that would review technology assessments to help their mission. In that sense, I’ve worked on research as well as the tracking of advanced development of technology. I’ve also seen how other organizations prioritize their investments, and I’m trying to bring that experience to NASA.

NTB: What is your research area at MIT?

Dr. Miller: I’m a dynamics and control professor. A cruise control in a car or an autopilot in a plane – that’s basically where you want to take a vehicle that behaves in a certain way and use computers and sensors to make it behave in a way that you’d like it to behave. I’m also a system engineer, which is a short way of saying that I like to think how pieces get put together and interact with each other. And the application that I’ve mostly applied that to is space telescopes. Thinking about large telescopes, the James Webb Space Telescope is going to be launched here in 2018. It’s going to be able to see back to the early ignition of stars and our universe.

Also I’ve worked a lot in the area of the search for planets around other stars. When I joined that community, I think there were only a handful of them that we knew about outside of our solar system. Now there are thousands. It’s a very exciting field to watch, and there’s an excitement in how quickly we’re approaching the ability to find another earth-like planet.

NTB: What are your biggest challenges as Chief Technologist? I imagine it's difficult to coordinate a range of technologies.

Dr. Miller: It’s always easy to think about what we ought to be working on. It’s difficult to actually say what we should not be working on. It’s always a tough decision. There’s always an opportunity cost. When you have precious resources that you can spend, you really have to pick and choose. All the technologists are working on things that are exciting and near and dear to their hearts, but at times you have to make those difficult decisions to make sure that we can stay on track with the mission that we’re trying to execute.

NTB: You’ve had the job for almost exactly a year now.

Dr. Miller: I’m one year in, and I’ve got one year to go. I’m at the halfway point.

NTB: When you first got the position, did you have specific goals?

Dr. Miller: I’m having the time of my life. Every day I see ten things I’d love to help out with it. And then there’s another day, and there’s ten more things. It’s really one of those jobs where you have to pick and choose what you’re going to do.

NTB: What are your goals for this year, and what are you working on now?

Dr. Miller: One of the things that I have a significant background in is the International Space Station. With my research at MIT, I’ve developed a lot of technology laboratories that have flown on shuttle and Space Station. With Space Station a few years ago, we transitioned from the build phase to the utilization phase. Having been a large user of Space Station, I think I have some insight on how to make Station more accommodating to users, particularly those that want to test technology. That’s an area that I’m helping with.

I grew up watching the Apollo program, and I have a love for human spaceflight. Trying to help NASA figure through the challenges associated with the human journey to Mars is a very exciting one. Mars is a much more difficult step than getting to the Moon, and the way you might get there is not as straight a path as you might think. So there are some interesting challenges to figure out how to work on that mission.

A third area I’m trying to help NASA with is the balance between applied research and basic research. Basic research – think of that as research for curiosity’s sake. Early in the last century, there was the development of the transistor, and that led to the creation of the integrated circuit, made the modern computer, and now we can’t live without it. It’s a long path, and often times, there’s pressure to spend that investment in the distant future, called basic research, to help the more near-term needs in applied research. The problem is if you do that too much, you sort of eat the seed corn of your future. The key is to try and keep that balance so we’re focused on the near-term needs, but we also have a vision that reaches out to the future.

One of the things that really brought it home for me was going to my first launch. I’ve watched a lot of shuttle launches on TV, and it’s nowhere near the same as actually being there live. Being at a launch saturates all your senses. It’s brighter than any TV can show – it’s, in a sense, blinding. It’s louder than any audio can sound. It’s something that really changes your life, and I encourage your readers to, when you get a chance, go see a launch; it will change your life.

To download this interview as a podcast, click here.


NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the May, 2015 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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