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American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

    Federal R&D Critical to Aerospace Progress, Says SciTech Panel

    Monday, 13 January 2014

    By Duane Hyland, posted at 1:41 p.m. EST


    Federal R&D investments are critical to the advancement of U.S. aerospace technology: This was the dominant theme of today’s plenary panel at AIAA’s SciTech 2014 conference outside Washington, D.C. The panel, moderated by Robert Braun, space technology professor at Georgia Tech, also included Mike Griffin, president, AIAA; Michael Gazarik, associate administrator, Space Technology Mission Directorate, NASA; and Arati Prabhakar, director, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

    All agreed on the importance of federal R&D; however, the panelists had their own specific ideas on how to guarantee that this support continues. Griffin stressed that “ensuring continued support means you have to carefully husband resources…First, you need to make sure people need the tech you are building. You have to make sure that the technology is safe and able to be used, and you have to understand how that technology works in relation to all the other parts. Otherwise, if it fails, the whole mission fails.”

    Griffin also counseled technologists and others to “make sure you are not overpromising,” and to focus on “only delivering what you can deliver… If you promise your technology will end world hunger, you will not be believed, and if you are believed, you cannot deliver.” 

    Prabhakar told the standing-room-only audience that they must constantly rethink both their own needs and the country’s needs and align their work accordingly. She used the example of national security space, an area where DARPA is working to transform business as usual into the state of the art. “The sheer number of items in space is beyond imagination and growing, yet we are still saddled by costs – it costs $10 million to launch a small satellite,” said Prabhakar. “So why not find ways to lower the costs and control the items up there – and cut down on debris – by finding new, cost-effective ways to launch, and finding a way to control space traffic like air traffic? So that’s what we are working on – and the benefits of those two things will more than justify the research support we obtain.”

    But key to all of this, she said, “is cooperation among agencies and industry, and a shared vision.”

    Gazarik told the audience about efforts within the newly created NASA Technology Directorate to decide what is needed for future deep space exploration. “What do we need to explore deep space? Power, propulsion, radiation shields, etc. But most importantly, we need investments to make future missions enabled and affordable….At the end of the day, to explore, we need tech with a purpose,” he said. “But it takes vision to do federal R&D investment. It’s about building a community." Exploring deep space presents “really hard problems...and we need bright minds” to solve those problems, said Gazarik. “We know for long-term success we need to build that bridge to the future, and we need you focused on our problems,” he told the audience.

    In the end, the panel agreed that R&D support will continue, but that it will take continuous work to remind congressional decision-makers of the need for their support as the U.S. branches out into further exploration and development programs. It will take a committed partnership between government and industry to show those decision-makers that the support is warranted and will be used wisely. “We know in tech development that this takes passion and champions to push forward… If we stay the course with support and your passion,” said Gazarik, “we will have a wonderful future.”