As the Director of Sciences and Exploration at the Goddard Space Flight Center, Dr. Laurie Leshin leads the largest science organization within NASA and is responsible for ensuring the scientific integrity of NASA’s Earth-observing missions, space-based telescopes, and instruments exploring the Moon, Mercury, Mars, Saturn, comets, and other astronomical objects. Leshin, who began her career as a cosmochemist primarily interested in deciphering the record of water on solar-system objects, recently talked with Goddard Chief Technologist Peter Hughes about technology development and her views on where technology is headed.
In your capacity as the director of NASA’s largest science organization, how do you view technology development at Goddard?
What I’m impressed with about technology development here at Goddard is how well the scientists and engineers work together to solve technical problems. The engineers are oriented to solving big science questions and interested in moving science in the right direction. That is an absolute pleasure to see. It’s a powerful combination.
What previous technology investments do you see as particularly valuable?
Certainly, our investments in laser technology continue to be very important for advanced communications and Earth and planetary sciences, including lunar exploration. In the area of astrophysics, I would say mirror development and microcalorimeters are among the most valuable. And, of course, metrology for LISA will really stretch our imagination. There are real technical challenges there. Our investments in mass spectrometers are important to planetary science, as are sensor webs to heliophysics. Overall, however, miniaturization has to be a focus for us; it affects everything we do. To gain access to space, we must fly smaller and smaller payloads. Now, I’m sure I’m missing some important technologies, but these are some obvious ones that come to mind now.
Is it important for Goddard to fund long-term, low technology readiness level (TRL) ideas, and if so, why and on what?
We always need to look for that next great revolutionary idea. However, because of tighter budgets, we’ll have to continue our focus on shorter-term technologies. Do I think this is the optimum? No, I don’t. Over the past 7 years, we’ve seen our low-TRL funding avenues whittled away. The question is how much of our seed corn are we eating? Though the current situation is not ideal, I think there’s still a lot we can do with the technology investments we’re making. But I think another issue is at play here, too. There’s not a clear delineation as to what Headquarters should fund in terms of higher-risk, long-term technology development. Some low-TRL technologies Headquarters should fund. That’s my position.
What other trends could affect technology development at Goddard?
Access to space is an issue. As I said earlier, we need to energize our creativity on miniaturization.
What advice can you give Goddard technologists?
Goddard technologists have to keep the end in mind. In addition to concentrating on cross-cutting technologies that will help multiple lines of business, they need to maintain their focus on meeting science needs. At the same time, our scientists need to focus on questions that have real scientific pull. They have to perform a reality check on what’s viable.
What does the landscape look like from your perspective?
With continued budget pressures at the federal level and within the Agency, I don’t see the outlook for funding technology changing significantly in the near future — we just need to continue to be focused and creative with the resources we’ve got.
The Office of the Chief Technologist is involved in a variety of projects, missions, and technologies.