Status Report

Speech by NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale at the Space Enterprise Council

By SpaceRef Editor
November 27, 2006
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Speech by NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale at the Space Enterprise Council

U.S. Chamber of Commerce

14 November 2006

Thank you all very much and thank you for that warm introduction. Two years ago, the Vision for Space Exploration was announced. Last year, Congress overwhelmingly endorsed it with the NASA Authorization Act of 2005. That vision, and the policy that supports it, are both highly ambitious, and eminently practical. The ambition is clear. It marks a path of exploration to the Moon, Mars and beyond and sets before our nation a series of complex scientific and logistical challenges unrivaled in human history. As to practicality, it recognizes the essential role of the private sector in supplying many of the key breakthroughs, technologies, and cost efficiencies without which this Vision, as compelling as it is, will never be more than a dream.

We understand that making the dream a reality means tapping into the vast wealth of knowledge and resources – much of it in unexpected areas – of the private sector. Entering the new era means opening ourselves to serendipity and fully engaging the imagination and drive of entrepreneurs and that very much includes the drive for profits. We’re talking about something beyond spin-offs. We’re talking about being in on the creation of whole new industries and industry sectors, technologies that are just now in their infancy, or, just a twinkle in some inventor’s eye.

There are examples from the past, of course. Many of the early breakthroughs in micro-electronics that spurred the computer revolution were driven by the need to loft computing power into space along with our Apollo astronauts. Interestingly, the on-board computer that the Apollo astronauts used to land on the Moon, and that the Apollo 13 crew had to reprogram in the middle of their aborted mission, only had about 12K of storage memory. Your average desktop today has millions of times the capacity.

That’s the kind of progress and growth that can only come from the private sector, with a technology that is intimately interwoven in the broad fabric of the economy. And that’s why commercial space is such an integral part of the Vision. We see the same kinds of new and developing possibilities in the medical and biological sciences, in robotics and artificial intelligence, communications, power supply and many other fields – not to mention rocket science. It’s developments in those fields that will make this new age of discovery possible. We can’t predict where the breakthroughs will come from, we can only set goals, define aspirations, and partner with the private sector in our common cause.

So let me talk about how we at NASA are encouraging the commercial space industry and what that will mean at a practical level. In doing so, I’m going to talk about several of our initiatives, outline some of our goals and needs, and describe the kinds of technologies and capabilities we’ll be looking to the private sector to provide. In each case, these are meant as examples, not as limitations. In an enterprise this broad and this ambitious, not every eventuality can be planned for. As I’ve said, even our smartest planners and most forward-looking visionaries can’t predict many of what will turn out to be the most critical technologies – in great part because they haven’t been invented yet.

As you know, the Vision for Space Exploration lays out a path for this new era of exploration and scientific discovery that will permanently extend humanity across the solar system and, in course, advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.

Incorporation of the commercial sector is already well underway with our recent phase 1 COTS award. COTS, stands for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, and is designed to encourage and enable commercial capability to deliver cargo — and eventually crew – to the Space Station. It’s important to understand what a major, even radical departure this is with the past. Unlike any previous NASA project, the spacecraft will be owned and financed primarily by the companies themselves and will be designed to serve both the government and private, commercial customers. NASA will contract as its needs become clear.

This is an extremely challenging program, requiring precision orbit insertion, rendezvous and ultimately docking with the International Space Station. But we have turned to the private sector for two reasons. First, we believe that the commercial sector can develop and operate such a system more efficiently and affordably than the government can. Second, we understand that creating a viable economic base for Earth-to-Orbit transportation is the key that will truly open the door to the development of space.

Phase 2 of the COTS program will offer competitive contracts for services to any space transportation providers, not just COTS winners. We anticipate some half-dozen COTS flights per year between 2010 and 2015 and envision possible evolution of the program to orbital fuel depots and lunar surface deliveries. Of course, the next step for the Vision involves the kind of take-off and landing systems we need to return to the Moon.

Enabled by the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, we can now sponsor prize competitions worth millions or even tens of millions of dollars, and together with the X PRIZE Foundation we held our first competition last month, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, as part of our $2 million Lunar Lander Analog Challenge. Armadillo Aerospace’s “Pixel” vehicle got half way to meeting the challenge, with a 90-plus second flight that took them to an altitude of 50 meters and covered a distance of 100 meters.

They were unable to make the return trip, but they did shatter a number of records. Such prizes and competitions, of course, are a distinguished part of aviation history, from Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic to Burt Rutan’s X PRIZE win for SpaceShipOne in 2004. One quarter of all Americans personally saw Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis within a year of his flight, and millions thrilled to the TV footage of SpaceShipOne’s flight into suborbital space.

We believe these prizes can have an enormous catalytic effect in spurring our most adventuresome entrepreneurs and inventors to tackle the critical challenges that lie ahead, while helping to build public support for our programs. A third, and even more revolutionary catalyst, is NASA’s venture capital firm, which is already scouting for promising companies and their technologies. With our ultimate voyage to Mars in mind, we’ve called it Red Planet Capital. Red Planet Capital will be investing some $75 million in funds over the next five years, either on its own or in joint ventures with other capital firms and investment syndicates. You can measure the seriousness with which NASA is embracing this idea by the fact that the Administrator of NASA, Mike Griffin, pioneered a similar and highly successful venture for the CIA, known as In-Q-Tel.

In-Q-Tel has invested in more than 90 companies that have delivered more than 130 technologies to the CIA, and it was responsible for significant new artificial intelligence and computing technologies that allowed the processing, visualization and understanding of vast amounts of seemingly unconnected data. NASA’s Red Planet Capital will be exploring, and investing in, the entire spectrum of technologies that will support the Vision. To imagine what they are, one just has to think of the challenges posed by sending people and machines millions of miles away to work and explore in hostile environments. Let me outline just a few. One of the first challenges is communications. Sending information across the 344 or so million kilometers to Mars suffers not just time-lag problems, but a serious bandwidth squeeze. NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter, for instance, transmits data at the molasses-like pace of 128 thousand bits per second. That’s about twice as fast as your typical dial-up connection. How many of us are still using dial up? Try downloading a photograph, or any bit-intensive file the next time you dial in.

The problem this presents for control and communications with robotic probes is serious enough, but clearly current communications technology simply cannot support the needs of a human mission. Laser communications could well increase that trickle to a respectable 1 to 20 million bits per second, and NASA will be testing such a device – the Mars Laser Communication Demonstration – which will be launched in 2009 and begin transmitting from Mars in 2010. But the technical hardware and software challenges, including data compression, power supply and others, have only just begun to be met. Such challenges are different in severity, but not essentially in kind, from the growing and probably insatiable demand for bandwidth in the terrestrial information economy. And that suggests a very positive symbiosis, in which the lessons learned in space can be effectively integrated into markets here on Earth, while the rapidly developing technologies here can be translated into breakthroughs in space.

I mentioned robotics and the problems with time-lag. Let me hazard a pretty safe prediction. No matter how advanced our technology, there’s just no way we are going to get around the speed of light, which over a distance of millions of miles means significant lags between when signals travel between Earth and Mars. As missions become increasingly complicated, we simply are not going to be able to call all the shots from home.

We’re going to have to develop robots with increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence that can navigate landscapes, make decisions, and even respond to novel situations, entirely on their own. The terrestrial market for robotics is of course huge. The need for lightweight, autonomous robotics for support of the elderly and handicapped, industrial applications and rescue and work in hazardous conditions is clear – but the applications for near-intelligent robots are really almost infinite. And the associated, supporting technologies are just as exciting, including miniature and retinal sensors, multi-spectral vision enhancement, and improved exoskeletons for strength.

Of course, when we start sending humans into hostile environs, especially for the 30-month trip to Mars and back, major advances in the biomedical sciences will be necessary. One crucial issue is bone loss. Crew members in space can lose approximately 1.5% of bone mass per month in certain areas, such as the hip. Understanding the signaling pathways could lead to effective intervention with exercise and drugs, and the medical benefits to the population as a whole would be tremendous.

For low-Earth orbit, and even lunar missions, the best recourse for sick or injured crew members is evacuation back to Earth. For the Mars mission, however, that won’t be possible, and of course, we are going to have to surmount a whole new list of medical challenges, including the ability to diagnose and treat illness and injury on board the spacecraft or habitat.

The interplay and cross-fertilization between these tasks, and the requirements of providing cost-effective medical treatment to an aging population are again almost infinite. Health care is perhaps the largest single segment of our economy, and it will provide one of the most robust areas for innovation and technological development in NASA’s program.

Challenges will include the ability to detect and eliminate pathogens and toxins in the environment; extending the shelf-life of medicine, and developing “smart” medical devices that can be used by laymen and require little or no maintenance and supplies. Robot-assisted surgery should be a huge new area of investigation. Perhaps the most central challenge of the Vision is energy. As is true here on Earth, its energy that makes everything else possible. Blasting fuel out of the well of Earth’s gravity is immensely expensive. But if water is found on the Moon, hydrogen to make hydrogen fuel cells could be extracted. It might even be possible to extract hydrogen from the lunar soil. Many believe that clean-burning hydrogen is the fuel of our future, and there’s little question that the technologies that enable the practical utilization of hydrogen as a wide-spread energy source would redefine our energy economy. I should hasten to add that our Mission to the Moon, Mars and beyond is not the only NASA program that will have a direct economic impact.

Two weeks ago, on October 25, a Boeing Delta II rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral carrying STEREO, a stereoscopic sensor that will enable us to construct 3-D global pictures of the Sun and better understand the nature and origin of coronal mass ejections – the primary cause of major geomagnetic storms. Better prediction of these eruptions will provide more warning time for satellite and power grid operations to weather the storm and help engineers build better and more resilient systems. Even with all these examples, I’m just scratching the surface.

The Vision we are trying to achieve is so challenging that there are few avenues of scientific inquiry that won’t be relevant, and probably no corner of our advanced economy that won’t be affected or somehow play a role. It’s an exciting time to be in on the ground floor of this new Space Economy. We have seen the power of commerce when the Internet was introduced to the world. Today it’s become the information catalyst of almost every part of our economy, not to mention government and academia. The technologies that will loft us on our mission into the solar system also intersect with every aspect of our lives, and they all inhabit that realm at the cutting-edge of science and human knowledge. As such, they too hold the promise of almost infinite possibilities and practical application.

And we’re just at the outset of our journey of discovery. Decades from now, when humans routinely live and work on the lunar surface and humankind is preparing its journey to Mars, all of us can look back on this time today and remember that we were here at the very beginning of the journey. Thank you all very much.

SpaceRef staff editor.