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American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

    How Government Can Spark Innovation

    Tuesday, 14 January 2014

    By Dave Majumdar, posted at 2:45 p.m. EST


    The U.S. government had made a lot of progress in promoting space technology, but industry officials say more must be done to further innovation in the sector – particularly in the national security arena.

    In order to prevent money earmarked for technology development from being diverted to shore up NASA development programs, the Obama administration resurrected the Office of the Chief Technologist at the agency, said Richard DalBello, assistant director for aeronautics and space at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. DalBello was speaking during a panel at AIAA’s SciTech 2014 conference near Washington, D.C.

    In addition to creating the new office, the White House has worked with Congress to increase NASA’s technology budget to about $615 million in fiscal year 2013. “In an era of declining budgets for a lot of things, that’s a remarkable accomplishment,” DalBello said.

    To further NASA’s technology goals, said DalBello, the agency has created a space technology roadmap that includes nine major programs and over 800 projects. Over the next 24 months, several of these programs will demonstrate technologies in partnership with industry. The technologies include green propellants, supersonic-capable parachutes, a new type of large solar sail and a new laser communications system, among many others, DalBello said. “Incredibly valuable work,” he added.

    NASA is also shepherding through new commercial cargo and crewed spacecraft, among many other projects, DalBello said.

    Though there has been progress, industry officials including Anne Miglarese, CEO of Planet IQ, and William Pomerantz, vice-president of special projects at Virgin Galactic, suggested that the government could do more to promote commercial space endeavors by easing some of the red tape. For example, the U.S. government could avoid duplicating capabilities that commercial companies can already provide.

    But while NASA is making a lot of progress on civilian space programs, national security space technology programs are not faring well, said Greg Burgess, vice-president of technology at Sierra Nevada Corporation.

    While the Defense Department has a number of agencies working on technology development – including the Air Force Research Laboratory, Operationally Responsive Space, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - over the years the budgets for such efforts have been slashed, said Burgess. Instead, funding has been diverted to meet the immediate needs of operational space programs, such as updating software for existing systems. Many space demonstration programs have either been truncated or cancelled, and the consequences could be devastating, said Burgess.

    “My concern, frankly, is that we may be losing our edge,” he said. “The only way to demonstrate some these technologies is to get them in orbit.”

    Burgess noted that China in particular is advancing at a very rapid clip.

    As a potential solution to the problem, Burgess suggested that the U.S. government “fence off” a part of the budget to be dedicated solely to demonstrating advanced space technologies in orbit.