Goddard Space Flight Center Director Ed Weiler recently shared his views on the state-of-technology at the Center in an interview with Goddard Chief Technologist Peter Hughes and the editor of Goddard Tech Trends. In an era of shrinking budgets and resources, Weiler offered a no-nonsense assessment of the role of technology at Goddard.
What is the future of technology development at Goddard?
We need to continue pursuing only those technologies that are critical to potential missions or instruments. The ‘good old days’ of playing in the sandbox are over. I also think that it takes big flagship programs, like [the Hubble Space Telescope] and the [James Webb Space Telescope], to make the big, fundamental discoveries. These are the missions that people will remember in 100 years. The reality of this is that the price tag on these big missions begins at $1 billion. The challenge now is how do we keep them from costing significantly more than that? I believe the money will flow to those technologies that make things cheaper and that enable missions.
But flagship missions aren’t the whole story, of course. A healthy science program requires a mix of small, medium, and large missions. The trouble these days is finding compelling science that still can be done, especially by the smaller missions. This is where technology will play a role in various ways… innovative ideas in detectors, light-collecting systems, lightweight components, and such can help us get more science for the dollar and put us in position to win scientific competitions.
What is your advice to Goddard technologists?
People who think that Agency-level, mission-independent research funding is coming back had better get real. Those days are over. But that doesn’t mean money isn’t available. For instance, the R&A [Research and Analysis] funding at Headquarters is an under-tapped chunk of money for specific, mission-related technologies. Hundreds of millions of dollars are available in R&A and a significant part of that is available for technology grants!
So, people need to become more aggressive about writing proposals. They need to differentiate their technology from others. They need to become more imaginative and entrepreneurial. If they have connections with others doing complementary work, they need to use them to build collaborations. I’d also like to get Codes 500 and 600 — the engineers and scientists — working more closely together on proposals. We have a unique capability here at Goddard and we need to use it to our competitive advantage. Another thing to remember is that we don’t have to develop everything ourselves. We should always be looking to apply and use technologies developed by other agencies. HST, for example, certainly was enabled by technologies flowing out of the work of other agencies. That’s no secret.
What are your priorities for internal technology development funds?
Internal research and technology development funding will be more focused in the future. I will give priority to those efforts that target realistic funding sources. Having spent years at Headquarters, I have a good idea of which future missions have a chance. I’m looking for investments that will clearly improve our competitiveness in the short- to mid-term. I also will approve a portion of our investments targeting the longer term; that is, those that create realistic opportunities 10 to 20 years from now.
What specific areas do you think Goddard should more assertively pursue in the Science Mission and Exploration Directorates?
For starters, lasers. We need to consolidate and leverage our world-class capabilities in laser technologies for unique scientific measurements. We need to aggressively pursue all opportunities in this area. Optical communications and other space communications technologies are another important area. I see them as a real growth area. Eventually, NASA will have to replace its TDRS system. As for detectors, absolutely — across the board — they are important to us. Peter, as Chief Technologist, you know these technologies and you know, as well as I, that they’re too numerous to list. But I might mention avionics and robotic end effectors. We excel in tools and Johnson [Space Center] needs them. Also important are many other technologies that will reduce the mass, cost, and risks of next-generation missions.
Historically, instruments are our strength. However, I’d like us to win some planetary missions with greater involvement than simply providing the instrument. I’d also like to see us fly low-cost missions out of Wallops. Most people don't realize this, but Wallops is NASA’s only launch range. The Air Force owns Cape Canaveral and provides the launch-range support for the Shuttle. Think about it, Goddard has its own dedicated launch range at Wallops. It should be used more aggressively to carry out NASA’s low-cost missions. For that matter, Goddard should creatively use all of its unique capabilities to carry out NASA’s mission.
Goddard Space Flight Center Director Ed Weiler offered his views on the role of technology development in a candid interview with the Centerís chief technologist.
The Office of the Chief Technologist is involved in a variety of projects, missions, and technologies.