NASA is technology bankrupt. For nearly three decades NASA has failed to institute a technology development program. Without advancement in technology there will be no advancements in aeronautics and space exploration. NASA’s policy of development technology during the program development contributes to excessive cost and program failures. Technology development must become NASA first priority. Technology programs must be established in the following disciplines:
- Propulsion Systems
- Structural Material
- Electrical Power Systems
- Manufacturing Tooling Systems
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In the late 1980’s NASA established technology teams in the above disciplines comprised of NASA employees and members of the aerospace community to identify and prioritize technologies need for future programs. No funding was ever provided for the technology programs. These technology working groups must be reestablished and funded or NASA programs will continue to fail.
The existing space transportation system launch and orbital vehicle performance capability is provided by chemical liquid oxygen/hydrogen (or RP-1 kerosene fuel) engines and solid rocket or hybrid boosters. These propulsion systems have reached their maximum performance potential. However significant cost reductions for this class of engines can be achieved with the development of reusable engines for launch vehicles and the development of propulsion systems for space based vehicles. Improved sensors that provide information to decrease maintenance and flight operations cost are key technology requirements for these class engines and, therefore must be assigned the highest priority. In addition space based propulsion systems would require the development of a long duration propellant storage system.
NOTE: The space shuttle main engine (SSME) is the only existing reusable engine. That technology must not be lost.
The long range advance propulsion technology concepts have a wide range of possibilities. Several propulsion systems for long range consideration are:
Solar Propulsion— Incorporating a reflective solar concentrator to heat liquid hydrogen to a vapor which is expanded through a nozzle to generate thrust.
Sunlight Sail—An extremely thin and large sheet of material is expanded in space to capture the force of the sunlight like sailboats capture the wind for their propulsion force.
Nuclear Propulsion—Same principal as solar propulsion except nuclear energy is used to heat the liquid hydrogen.
Anti-matter—Collides a proton with a positive charge into an antiproton with a negative charge that produces a tremendous force for propulsion.
Plasma Rocket—hydrogen gas is heated to extreme temperatures and accelerated by magnetic fields to provide thrust.
The long range propulsion technologies will be extremely challenging to develop and will require extensive laboratory research testing.
Structural materials—technologies are needed to decrease the structural weight of space vehicles. Carbon nanotubes materials appear to have tremendous potential for space structures. They are light weight and stronger than existing spacecraft materials. The tubes also have the potential to
solve the storage and leakage problems for cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen. The tubes can only be produced under laboratory conditions. A top priority must be assigned to the development and large scale production of this material.
Research is required for materials to replace the shuttle thermal protective system. Ceramic materials for engine components also have shown promise.
Electrical Power Systems—are limited to the capability of batteries, solar arrays, and nuclear power generators. Extensive research is required in all these areas. Electro-mechanical actuators research is required to remove hypergolic generator from flight systems.
Avionics—will present an extremely difficult management problem for the development of a space based autonomous vehicle. Foremost in these problems will be costs that may exceed 50 percent of the vehicle total cost. The integrated health monitoring and autonomous control system of
reusable space vehicles also presents formidable technology challenges in the areas of software and sensors.
Autonomous navigation systems must be developed and verified. One of the more exciting avionics technologies being investigated is in the field of nano-electronic devices. Laboratory demonstrations of accelerometers, gyros, pressure sensors, thermal actuators, and optical devices
are resulting in encouraging indications that this technology can significantly reduce space vehicle weight, improve safety by providing additional layers of redundancy, and reduce operations costs.
Manufacturing Tooling Systems- Advanced materials for future space programs must have machines that can process them. The transfer of manufacturing to foreign countries with low labor cost has diminished this nation capability to made manufacturing tools. There is an acute need for machines that process existing and advance materials which allow U.S. companies to produce products that can compete in the market.