Technology Development

NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist outlines NASA’s path for technology development through the 2020 NASA Technology Taxonomy. This taxonomy identifies, organizes, and communicates technology areas that are relevant to advancing the agency’s mission. The 2020 NASA Technology Taxonomy articulates the technology development disciplines required for future space missions and commercial air travel. The taxonomy comprises 17 distinct technical disciplines, which are further broken down into more specific subsets. NASA’s mission directorates reference the taxonomy in order to develop and solicit proposals and to support decisions pertaining to NASA’s technology policies, technology priorities, and the agency’s strategic investments.[1]

In 2010, NASA drafted the Technology Area Breakdown Structure (TABS) and related technology roadmaps (identifying 14 space technology areas). The final version of these roadmaps and related TABS was released in 2012. In 2015, TABS and the 2012 roadmaps were updated and expanded. The 2020 revision of this information began in 2017 and this effort was led by NASA’s Center Technology Council and the Office of the Chief Technologist, along with input from subject matter experts from across the agency. The 2020 NASA Technology Taxonomy is the result of this effort.[2]

The 17 technology areas outlined within the taxonomy include: propulsion systems; flight computing and avionics, aerospace power and energy storage; robotic systems; communications, navigation, and orbital debris tracking and characterization systems; human health, life support, and habitation systems; exploration destination systems; sensors and instruments; entry, descent, and landing; autonomous systems; software, modeling, simulation, and information processing; materials, structures, mechanical systems, and manufacturing; ground, test, and surface systems; thermal management systems, flight vehicle systems, air traffic management and range tracking systems, and guidance, navigation, and control.[3]

SPACE TECHNOLOGY MISSION DIRECTORATE (STMD)

The Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) manages the development and demonstration of new and innovative technologies and capabilities required by NASA to achieve the missions of the agency. This is performed through collaborative partnerships spanning a diverse range of disciplines and technology readiness levels (TRLs). Space technology research and development takes place at NASA centers, universities, and national laboratories. Partnerships with other government agencies—as well as commercial and international partners—are leveraged.[4] This website outlines programs managed by the Space Technology Mission Directorate.

GAME CHANGING DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM

The Game Changing Development Program is part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. This program advances space technologies with the potential to address national needs and NASA’s needs for future space missions.[5] The program focuses efforts in the mid Technology Readiness Level (TRL) range of (3-5/6), generally taking technologies from initial lab concepts through to a complete engineering development prototype.[6]

Game Changing Development projects include:

  • Go: Rapid, Safe & Efficient Space Transportation
  • Thruster Advancement for Low-Temperature Operation in Space (TALOS)
  • Land: Expanded Access to Diverse Surface Destinations
  • Safe and Precise Landing—Integrated Capabilities Evolution (SPLICE)
  • Explore: Transformative Missions and Discoveries
  • High Performance Spaceflight Computing (HPSC)
  • Live: Sustainable Living and Working Farther from Earth
  • Superlightweight Aerospace Composites (SAC)
  • Space Synthetic Biology (SynBio)
  • Bulk Metallic Glass Gears (BMGG)[7]

LUNAR SURFACE INNOVATION INITIATIVE

NASA is moving forward with the Artemis program—aiming to send the first woman and the next man to the South Pole of the Moon by 2024 and establish sustainable exploration with commercial and international partners by 2028. NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate has established the Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative as a way to develop and refine the technologies required to live on and explore the Moon. The Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative is a technology development portfolio that aims to enable human and robotic exploration on the Moon and Mars. Activities involve work specific to NASA, as well as public-private partnerships. Technology development activities through this program will mature the following capabilities: effectively utilizing the Moon’s resources; establishing sustainable power during lunar day/night cycles; building machinery and electronics that work in extreme environments; mitigating lunar dust; carrying out surface excavation, manufacturing, and construction; and extreme access (includes navigating and exploring the surface and subsurface).[8]

NASA INNOVATIVE ADVANCED CONCEPTS (NIAC) PROGRAM

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program supports visionary ideas with the potential to transform future NASA missions—including innovative or dramatically improved aerospace concepts. The program engages innovators and entrepreneurs as partners in this effort. The NIAC Program seeks innovation from diverse and non-traditional sources and the projects study innovative, technically credible, advanced concepts with the potential to “change the possible in aerospace.”[9] Currently funded topics are listed here. To apply for NIAC, please visit this website.

NASA ITECH

The NASA iTech program searches for innovative and cutting-edge technologies being developed outside of NASA that simultaneously address problems on Earth and problems related to the exploration of the Moon and Mars. NASA iTech is situated within the Space Technology Mission Directorate and it works collaboratively with the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA).[10] There are two NASA iTech cycles per calendar year and each has its own focus areas. Focus areas for 2020 Cycle I include AI and machine learning, biotechnology, system autonomy, and advanced manufacturing. Focus areas for 2020 Cycle II include power generation/energy, integrated photonics, advanced engineering materials, and miniaturized systems. The focus areas for 2021 Cycle I include quantum sensors, synthetic biology, small spacecraft technology, and advancements in mining. For all cycles, NASA is also open to “X-factor innovations”—or innovations so compelling, NASA should know about them.[11] More information about the various focus areas is available here. If one is interested in applying to the NASA iTech program, please refer to this website.

SMALL SPACECRAFT TECHNOLOGY

The Small Spacecraft Technology (SST) program within the Space Technology Mission Directorate focuses on the rapid development and demonstration of capabilities for small spacecraft, as it pertains to exploration, science, and the commercial space sector. The program enables the execution of missions at a lower cost, reduces the time typically required to develop spacecraft, enables new mission architectures through the use of small spacecraft, and expands the reach of small spacecraft to new and challenging environments. The program achieves these goals through identifying and investing in the development of new subsystem technologies to increase or enhance the capabilities of small spacecraft; sponsoring flight demonstrations of new technologies, capabilities, and applications pertaining to small spacecraft; and promoting the use of small spacecraft as platforms for testing and demonstrating technologies that might have application in larger-scale spacecraft and systems. Projects funded through this program can be executed at academic institutions, in the private sector, within NASA centers, as public-private partnerships, or through cooperative agreements.[12] Announcements and solicitations related to the Small Spacecraft Technology program are available here.

SPACE TECHNOLOGY RESEARCH GRANTS

The Space Technology Research Grants (STRG) Program supports a low TRL (technology readiness level) portfolio of research in advanced space technology. This program challenges a range of academic researchers, from graduate students to faculty members, with the goal of examining the theoretical feasibility of ideas and approaches that are critical to making science, space travel, and exploration more effective, affordable, and sustainable.[13] STRG program activities are funded through topics featured in the NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunities (NSTGRO), Early Career Faculty, Early Stage Innovations, and Space Technology Research Institutes solicitations. More information about this program, including links to solicitations, is available here. Please note that 2020 solicitations have not been released.

TECHNOLOGY DEMONSTRATION MISSIONS

The Technology Demonstration Missions Program focuses on cross-cutting technologies with strong customer interest that meet the needs of NASA and industry by either enabling new missions or significantly enhancing existing missions. Technologies explored as part of this program are thoroughly ground-tested and flight-tested in relevant operating environments. The Technology Demonstration Missions Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is overseeing a portfolio of technology demonstration projects led by NASA centers and industry partners located throughout the US. Projects include: Deep Space Atomic Clock; Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC); Evolvable Cryogenics (eCryo); Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM); Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD); Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID); Mars 2020 Perseverance; On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing 1 (OSAM-1); On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing 2 (OSAM-2); Robotic Refueling Mission 3 (RRM3); and Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP).[14]

 

Updated September 2020, by Kristen Johnson