Press Release

Statement of Samuel L. Venneri before the Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology, House Committee on Government Reform

By SpaceRef Editor
April 24, 2000
Filed under

Statement of

Samuel L. Venneri

Associate Administrator for Aero-Space Technology

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

before the

Subcommittee on Government Management, Information
and Technology

Committee on Government Reform

House of Representatives

at the

NASA Ames Research Center

Moffett Field, California

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, I am
pleased to have this opportunity to be here with you today to discuss the
future of technology. Technology has enabled NASA to make great accomplishments
over the past four decades and will enable us to make great accomplishments
in the future.

As we look to the future we can first look to the
past to see what the future likely has to offer.

Every century since the beginning of the Renaissance
has been punctuated with great advances in science and technology that
have brought about dramatic changes in our lives. In the 1600’s, Galileo
used emerging optics technology to change our view of the cosmos. Newton’s
laws of motion and gravity in the 1700’s revolutionized our view of the
world and how it works. In the 1800’s, Maxwell formulated the laws governing
electricity and magnetism. And, in the 1900’s, relativity and atomic theory
disclosed the unknown at the smallest and grandest scales.

This century will be no different. Three key emerging,
interrelated technologies will provide NASA-and the country-with a new
pathway to revolutionize our missions and the scientific and engineering
systems that enable them: biotechnology, nanotechnology and information
technology. Over the past decade there have been tremendous scientific
breakthroughs in the understanding of these technologies. And, it is only
fitting that we discuss these technologies here since so much of it originated
and prospers in California.

We are going to initiate a long-term integrated strategy
to exploit these technology areas to enable new products and missions for
the future.

The first element of NASA’s technology strategy is
biotechnology-the truly revolutionary technology of the 21st
century. Since the formation of the first cells on Earth, all living systems
have developed an extraordinary capacity to adapt to rapidly changing conditions,
building a high degree of resilience enabling them to overcome damage and
evolve in response to new environments. Furthermore, they do all this at
the molecular scale, processing vast amounts of information with incredible
energy efficiency. In terms of size, memory, processing speed and energy
consumption, biological systems are up to a billion times better than the
systems we build today. These are the characteristics NASA will build into
its future missions and systems.

The next element is nanotechnology, which begins
at the atomic level and provides the capability to create structural materials,
electronics and sensors with unique properties and capabilities. In the
future we will measure the way we design and build our systems by the atom,
not by the pound. Today we have research activities under way to enable
new material systems based on single-walled carbon nanotubes-single molecules
a nanometer in diameter and about a micron in length. They are up to 100
times stronger than steel and just 1/6 the weight. Variations of these
tubes can form nanometer-scale wires with 100,000 times better current
carrying capacity than copper.

In another form, carbon nanotubes can be semiconducting
and could be configured as digital electronics. If we can grow these tubes
with the right properties and assemble them into the right kinds of networks,
we can reduce the size of microelectronics by a factor of at least 10,000.

The emerging information technology revolution forms
the third element of our technology strategy. This encompasses how we develop
knowledge-not manipulate data-and how our future systems will look and
operate more like living systems than machines. We will build future aerospace
systems with distributed sensory systems-like a central nervous system-to
allow us to monitor and control every function. Our computer systems will
more resemble the human brain with the capacity to learn. They will respond
to natural language and interact with us as cooperative partners. They
will not replace humans, but enhance our capability, allow us to conduct
safer missions and increase overall productivity

However, we at NASA do not view these three technologies
as independent from each other. They are highly integrated and synergistic.
Biological processes are inherently designed, built and operated at the
nanoscale-atom by atom, the ultimate in miniaturization. Single cells perform
the work of entire chemical factories. The information contained in a DNA
molecule is a billion times more dense and energy efficient than anything
we can build out of silicon. The model of the ultimate thinking computer
is the brain.

Despite this, we have serious barriers to overcome
before we can achieve the full potential of this technology triad for the
21st Century.

Today we are less than a decade away from hitting
the “brick wall” of conventional micro-miniaturization. Using the best
technology available today, we can mass produce microsystems with feature
sizes of about one tenth of a micron. Advanced lithography may achieve
a resolution below a tenth of a micron, but this is still 100 to 1000 times
greater than the atomic scale.

A computer capable of completing a trillion operations
per second using today’s microelectronics would consume on the order of
a megawatt of electricity. However, the human brain consumes less than
10 watts of power while operating orders of magnitude faster.

Our challenge is to learn how to make these revolutionary
new devices cost effective and reliable. The answer does not lie in chipping
away material atom by atom, but by building it up, atom by atom. In searching
for ways to do this, we have found that the answer is all around us. Biological
processes have operated at the atomic scale since the beginning of life
on Earth. Modern lithography exploits the technology of photography to
mass produce circuitry at the micron scale. And biology functions on an
even grander scale through self-reproduction, self-assembly, and the ability
to adapt and specialize to respond to a dynamic environment.

In fact, biology can provide the ultimate capability
and inspiration to achieve the full potential of the digital revolution.
Atoms work together to form complex molecules. Groups of molecules perform
more complex operations. The complex molecules assemble into higher level
building blocks-cell membranes, internal structures and DNA-the subcomponents
of a cell. Chemical and electronic communications between cells enable
the components to come together and work as an integrated system.

This same hierarchy applies to how we design and
build our current information systems-software and computers. The microchips
that are so ubiquitous in our daily lives are built from millions of simple
electronic gates assembled into computational cells that are laid out in
complex circuits. The software we use to control them is built byte by
byte from individual keys strokes-each like a single atom-to form lines
of code-a software molecule-that form computational modules that, in turn,
form complex code. In the end, we have millions of lines of code-tens of
millions of key strokes-that only have useful meaning when the hardware/software
system is taken as a whole.

The critical distinction between biological systems
and current computers is that they may seem to come to life when we use
them, but they can only adapt, evolve and think to the extent we anticipate
the environment and operating conditions they will encounter and build
in appropriate response mechanisms.

As we develop the technologies of the future, we
will extend this paradigm to all of our space and aeronautics systems.
We will build them-conceptually, analytically and physically-from the atomic
scale to the macro-scale. We will build into them the sensory capability
to be aware of a dynamic environment, the intelligence to determine how
to respond to it and the adaptability to change in form and function.

At NASA we plan to focus significant effort on the
zone of convergence formed by the overlapping domains of nanotechnology,
biotechnology and information technology. And, in particular, we intend
to focus on the center of the zone where the synergy between the three
becomes much more powerful than the individual technologies-the zone below
a technology event horizon where sophisticated properties of complex systems
dissolve into simply discrete atoms.

This is the region where we must learn to design
and build these complex, intelligent systems and to predict their properties
and behavior.

By combining expertise in biochemistry, molecular
and cellular biology with NASA’s expertise in physical micro-systems and
biotechnology we can develop the fundamentals for an entirely new technology
discipline. Biologically-based processes will form the basis for the design,
fabrication and operation of nano-scale devices and integrated micro-scale
systems.

In particular, we need to exploit six specific features
of biological systems: selectivity and sensitivity at the atomic scale;
the ability of single units to massively reproduce with near zero error
rates; the organizational capability to self-assemble into highly complex
systems; the ability to adapt form and function to changing conditions;
the ability to detect damage and self-repair; and an ability to communicate
among themselves.

Our scope will be to develop the fundamental technology
to design and build useful biology-inspired systems that have these attributes.
However, NASA has a specific mission to accomplish, and our activities
should be clearly directed towards accomplishing that mission.

Some of what we make will be completely biological,
such as thin, protective films to protect sensitive material from harmful
UV-this could include our own skin. Some of what we make will be inspired
by biology, such as neural networks that mimic the function of the brain.
For the most part we will use the best of both biological and biologically-inspired
worlds to make hybrid systems. For example, consider multi-functional materials
that have different layers for different purposes. The outer layer would
be tough and durable, capable of withstanding the harsh environment of
space, but it would also have an embedded network of sensors to measure
temperature, pressure and cumulative radiation exposure. When surface temperatures
become too hot, sensors would trigger a response in the outer surface of
the material to change reflectivity and cool the surface. If it becomes
too cold the reverse would occur. The sensors would also transmit this
information to other parts of the system.

The next layer down could be an electrostrictive
or piezoelectric membrane that worked like muscle tissue. A network of
nerves would stimulate the appropriate strands and provide power to operate
them. If a rise in the radiation dose rate were sensed, an alarm would
be issued.

The base layer could be a highly plastic layer that
would sense any penetrations or tears and flow into any gaps. Ideally,
it would trigger a reaction in the damaged layers that would initiate a
self-healing process. Also, damaged sensors, electrical carriers or actuators
would be bypassed and the network would automatically reconfigure to compensate
for any loss of capability. What we would have is a smart, functional,
durable material that could be used to cover the outside of spacecraft
or used to make adaptable space suits for astronauts.

As an example of what can happen when the right people
get together for the right reasons at the right time, consider recent advancements
in the development of carbon nanotubes. About a year and half ago NASA
started to work with researchers at Rice University to produce carbon nanotubes
for structural and electronic applications. When we started working with
them the best available production process was measured in milligrams per
day and the cost in thousands of dollars per gram. Since that time they
have developed an entirely new production process. This year we expect
them to demonstrate continuous production at the rate of up to 100 grams
per day of carbon nanotubes in a small laboratory-scale reactor. After
successful understanding of all processing effects and material property
characterization we will be ready to move toward industrial commercialization.

The key point of this example is that the best progress
results from the best people working together from government, academia,
and industry. This is especially true of emerging, revolutionary technologies
whose full cost, capability and range of application is still unknown.
During this critical pre-competitive stage the government can play a crucial
role through multiagency research and development efforts, such as the
Information Technology Research and Development Program and the National
Nanotechnology Initiative, and by fostering cooperative and joint activities
with industry and academia. Our universities are the country’s most fertile
source of new and innovative ideas, but it is the commercial sector that
makes the benefits of new technology available to all of us.

At NASA we are committed to developing a stronger
relationship with the academic community and involving them more in our
long-range technology efforts. We are also committed to developing innovative
ways to work with industry to benefit from technology advances in the commercial
sector and assuring that the technology NASA develops transfers to the
commercial sector more effectively. Our overall approach is to develop
longer term relationships based on a shared vision for new technology and
the impact on new products and applications.

Over the next decade we need to move aggressively
to develop this technology vision for the 21st Century and stimulate
a new industrial base. This mirrors the emergence of the microelectronics
industry of the 1970’s and the internet and e-commerce industry of the
1990’s-both of which began as government R&D investments.

A critical element for this vision is the need to
invest in the educational system to develop the future workforce needed
in the development and application of this new revolutionary technology
capability. The economic engine and improvements to the quality of life
for the 21st Century will be fully exploited by the society
that aggressively pursues new technology products and insures the workforce
infrastructure is in place to implement this future industrial base. The
implications of these discoveries for society will be continually examined
as they develop. Humans will be the ultimate decision makers.

Mr. Chairman, I have given you a brief summary of
NASA’s view of three critical emerging technologies and the impact they
can have. However, as a final indicator of what these technologies have
to offer consider the phrase written across the frieze of the National
Archives, “Past is Prologue.” History has proven the insightfulness of
that statement. Based on the last 300 years of revolutionary technology
and the potential of this technology revolution, this century is off to
a very good start.

SpaceRef staff editor.