Dr. Robert Braun began his NASA career at Langley Research Center in Virginia in 1987 after receiving a B.S in Aerospace Engineering from Penn State University. While at Langley, he worked on a number of advanced space systems concept and flight programs including the Mars Pathfinder, Mars Microbe, and Mars Surveyor 2001 projects. From 1998 to 2000, he managed the development of the Mars Sample Return Earth Entry Vehicle, and from 2000 to 2001, he served as the Deputy Program Manager and Chief Engineer for NASA's Intelligent Synthesis Environment Program.

NASA Tech Briefs: What is the primary purpose of the Office of Chief Technologist?

Dr. Robert Braun: The primary purpose of the office is to serve as a technology advisor to the Administrator on all technology matters across the Agency, and manage a new program that is part of the 2011 proposed budget called the Space Technology Program.

NTB: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how your experience and training prepared you for the role of Chief Technologist?

Dr. Braun: This is actually my second stint with NASA. I joined NASA right out of college, right out of my undergraduate training at Penn State. I worked at Langley Research Center as an engineer, primarily dealing with the atmospheric flight of advanced space vehicles. Generally speaking, these studies involved sending robotics probes, or people, to Mars one day. I worked at Langley for about 15 years on advanced concepts, and also supported some of NASA’s Mars flight missions — in particular, the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997 and some of the Mars missions that followed after that.

In 2003, I left NASA and went to Georgia Tech, where I joined the faculty in the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering. I had both teaching and research responsibilities at Georgia Tech. I rejoined NASA this year.

NTB: What would you say are some of your top goals and objectives, both short-term and long-term?

Dr. Braun: Well, my number-one priority is to bring the research and technology competency of NASA up to an appropriate footing relative to the Agency’s flight system development and mission operations competencies. I think NASA is extremely capable in all these areas and that each is required for a healthy NASA. For the past decade or so, the research and technology side of NASA has been in decline. I came back to NASA to try to rebuild that competency and make it as strong as it once was. Without a focus on innovation and technology development, our future flight system and mission operations options will be quite limited.

NTB: In your opinion, what are some of the more promising areas of technology that NASA will be working on in the coming years?

Dr. Braun: There are a wide variety of technologies and activities that NASA can capitalize on. These technologies can be advanced either internal to NASA, or in academia or industry. If we want to do some of the future robotic and human exploration missions that we’ve all dreamed about, and if we want to do some of the advanced aeronautical concepts that have been under study for quite a while, we need to invest in technology. This is the only means for taking these ideas from concept to flight.

Some of the areas I think we’ll be investing in include propulsion — both propulsion for launch and in-space propulsion to travel outward more efficiently. Other areas are better communications; lighter, more packagable, and more manageable structures that can be unfolded or assembled in space; and more efficient concepts of landing on a variety of planetary destinations such as Mars or Venus, or a return to the Moon. We’ll be investing in technologies that will enable us to send humans one day to the surface of an asteroid and explore that locality as well.

NTB: What would you consider to be some of the biggest technological challenges facing America’s space program?

Dr. Braun: Without a doubt, the biggest challenge facing America’s space program today is the lack of investment that’s been made in technology over the last decade. We have big goals for our space program; in fact, America expects big things from NASA. We have a challenge in meeting those big goals today due to this lack of investment over the past few decades. So what I’m striving to do is invest in a broad portfolio of technologies so that a decade from now, we can accomplish some of these missions that we can only dream about today.

NTB: Can you give us any examples?

NASA Chief Technologist, Dr. Robert Braun, outlines the future of America's space program during a presentation at NASA’s Langley Research Center.
Dr. Braun: Let’s just consider as one example the idea of one day sending humans to Mars. This is certainly a grand challenge, and one that I think most people would agree we cannot accomplish with today’s technology. One of the stumbling blocks for such a mission with today’s technology is the incredibly large amount of mass needed to initiate the mission.

There are technologies that have been shown, through analysis, lab-based testing, ground testing, and in some cases through flight testing, to greatly reduce the initial mass requirements of that mission. Technologies like advanced in-space propulsion systems are needed to improve the efficiency of our transfer to Mars. Inflatable habitats are another example. These are structures that can be easily packaged in an existing launch vehicle shroud and then expanded in space to give the crew much more house, if you will.

If we want to send humans to Mars, we need to learn much more about how humans adapt to the space environment and how we can protect them from the radiation environment, and how they can deal with years in the microgravity environment of space. There are some big medical challenges there, as well as engineering challenges dealing with the shielding and countermeasures for microgravity.

To land humans on Mars, a great deal of infrastructure must be safely in place on the surface. Think about landing a two-story house — with people in it — right next to, perhaps, a two-story house that was landed earlier, full of cargo and operated so that the resources needed by the crew are available upon their arrival. Frankly, we don’t have the entry, descent, and landing technology to allow us to land such a large system on the surface of Mars today. Add to this the technologies required to bring humans back from Mars. In total, there’s quite a long list of technologies that we need to invest in.

And that’s just for one mission. We have similar lists for an asteroid mission, for a return to the Moon, for a servicing mission out in the geosynchronous orbit, or at one of the Lagrange points. And, of course, in the robotics exploration side of the program, there are certainly technologies that could advance the pace of our scientific explorers — technologies like advanced in-space propulsion, high-bandwidth communications, and lightweight, multifunctional structures that need to be significantly advanced.

NTB: How will the proposed cancellation of the Constellation program affect NASA’s technological direction going for ward?

Dr. Braun: The two aspects of that question, in my view, are not directly linked. The investments we’re making through the technology program are investments that will allow multiple possible futures to come to fruition. They’re investments that will allow us to send humans one day back to the Moon, or send humans to a number of other destinations like a near-Earth asteroid, or into Mars orbit, or eventually to the surface of Mars as I previously mentioned.

The Constellation program is a very different approach. The Constellation program, in my view, is entirely about sending humans back to the Moon — an approach to send humans to one, single destination. Its implementation is leading to one singular future. Through an investment in technology, I think what we’re really doing is opening up the possibilities for America in space while simultaneously improving our nation’s economic competitiveness.

NTB: With the space shuttle being phased out and the Constellation program in doubt, how does NASA intend to maintain its technological superiority over other countries with active space programs?

Dr. Braun: That’s an interesting question. Go back to my comment about NASA’s three core competencies. NASA does have a very significant competency in flight hardware. We build robotic spacecraft all the time. We design and develop human exploration spacecraft and, of course, we operate these spacecraft. These are the second and third core competencies on my list. So when you’re talking about technological superiority, the key to that, in my view, is not the flight hardware missions, or the mission operations themselves; the key to technological superiority is research and technology itself.

So frankly, I believe the renewed emphasis on research and technology within the President’s proposed 2011 budget is the only means of keeping our nation in a technologically superior position. Without these technology investments, even with flight hardware development and mission operations programs, it’s hard to see how we could maintain our technological edge. It’s through research and technology that the U.S. will not only extend its technological superiority, but also spur economic competitiveness in terms of high-tech jobs and new businesses all across our country.

NTB: There are currently two schools of thought regarding how the U.S. should approach future space exploration. One school advocates more manned missions into space; the other is lobbying for greater use of robotics. Where do you stand on this issue?

Dr. Braun: I think both are absolutely required. When you send robotic missions into space, they are our ambassadors. The robotic missions don’t build themselves; there are humans that design, build, and fly those robotic missions. And we can send robotic explorers into certain environments — high radiation environments, high-temperature environments, or extreme cold environments — where frankly, we can’t send humans, at least not very easily. That being said, there are things that humans can do much more effectively than robotic explorers.

Steve Squyres at Cornell University — the principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover missions that have been so successful — has often commented that if he could somehow be on Mars just walking across its surface, he could do in days or weeks the geology that those Mars rovers have done over the course of five years. But the fact is, it’s much harder to send humans to Mars than it is to send a robotic mission. So to make progress, both in science and exploration, and to have technology as an underpinning for both of those areas, I believe very strongly that we need both robotic and human exploration, and we need to advance those agendas not separately but in an integrated manner. As an example, autonomous systems and robotic assistants will be a large part of our future human exploration systems.

NTB: How long do you think it will take NASA to develop the technology needed to successfully execute a manned mission to Mars?

While at Langley Research Center, Dr. Robert Braun (left) and Joel S. Levine (right) brief former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill on the Aerial Regional-scale Environmental Survey (ARES) program in 2003. (Photo by Jeff Caplan)
Dr. Braun: I think it will take some time. We’re not ready to send a manned mission to Mars today. One of the benefits of the President’s 2011 budget request for NASA is that it allows us to begin the technology development required for a wide variety of human exploration missions. It allows us to start technology development to enable our next human exploration systems to travel between the Earth and the Moon, which is a couple of days in mission duration. It also allows us to develop the technology to send humans on a many-year mission to a near-Earth asteroid. It allows us to consider one day sending humans not just into orbit about Mars, but all the way to Mars’ surface, which I view as perhaps the greatest challenge of all. I believe we can develop the technology to enable human exploration of a near-Earth asteroid within the timeframe required for a 2025 mission, and the technology to enable human exploration of the Mars system from orbit within the timeframe required for a 2035 mission.

Even though we’re not going to send humans to the Mars surface until beyond 2035, there are a number of long-lead-item technologies that we need to get started on now because these technologies are, frankly, in their infancy. We need to at least develop them through computer simulations and analysis. We need to run them through our ground-based laboratories. We need to flight-test these technologies to prove them in the environment of space. And we probably need to deploy these technologies robotically to prove they have a high probability of success before we risk human lives on a Mars mission.

As you can see, there’s a long sequence of events that’s required in the development of these technologies before one would deploy them on a human Mars mission. Frankly, I’m extremely excited about the idea to start at a low level with some of that technology development now so that we can deploy some of those technologies on the next-generation human systems that circumnavigate the Moon, and we can deploy some of those technologies on that same system as it takes humans out to a near-Earth asteroid and then, ultimately, deploy all of those technologies to the human Mars mission beyond 2035.

NTB: One of the programs placed under your jurisdiction is the Innovative Partnerships Program, now known as the Partnership Innovation and Commercialization Office, which is responsible for spinning off NASA technology to commercial entities. Can we expect to see any significant changes in the way NASA spins off or markets its intellectual property?

Dr. Braun: The Innovative Partnerships Program (IPP) has been very important to NASA and has been very successful over the past few years. In FY11, it is coming into the new Office of the Chief Technologist and being integrated along with the new programs that are contained within the President’s budget request. What you will see is a continued emphasis on partnerships from this organization, reaching out and collaborating with industry, with academia, with other government agencies, and our international partners. You’ll see this approach throughout the NASA organization, not just through contracts, but through much more innovative approaches like those that have been spearheaded through the IPP program in the past — for example, some of the partnerships that we have with non-profits or engagements through challenge competitions.

In terms of intellectual property, you’ll see many of the same mechanisms that IPP is currently using being employed by the Office of the Chief Technologist. However, the number of technologies flowing through that licensing process will be significantly increased as the budget for these R&D activities within NASA has been significantly increased.

A full transcript and downloadable podcast of this interview are available online at www.techbriefs.com/podcast. For more information, contact Dr. Braun at bobby.braun @nasa.gov.

To download this interview as a podcast, click here 

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the July, 2010 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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