U.S. Air Force, NASA Pledge Bold Research Efforts Written 25 July 2016
Panelists: Moderator Dan Dumbacher, professor of engineering practice, Purdue University; Doug Blake, director, Aerospace Systems Directorate, Air Force Research Laboratory; Dennis Andrucyk, deputy associate administrator, Space Technology Mission Directorate, NASA
By Ben Iannotta, Aerospace America Editor-in-Chief
Representatives from NASA and the U.S. Air Force discussed initiatives and issues, such as how much technical risk can be accepted when spending taxpayer dollars, July 25 during a freewheeling session titled “System Needs in Propulsion and Energy” at the 2016 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum in Salt Lake City.
For the military, decisions about precisely where to apply research dollars are made largely through a formal requirements-definition process, said Doug Blake, director of the Aerospace Systems Directorate at the Air Force Research Laboratory. But Blake referred back to the morning’s keynote speech by renowned technologist Bran Ferren, who noted that a BlackBerry user would not have identified a requirement for an iPhone, meaning a smartphone with a touch screen and apps.
Blake, the military representative on the panel, said he understands the desire for a “big ideas” approach to research and development. Just as in Ferren’s BlackBerry example, he said, Air Force commanders can’t always anticipate their requirements. “So there’s tech push-like activities that go on as well” within the Air Force, he said.
Turning to the Air Force’s jet engine research, Blake said the service is working toward establishing a new program called ATTAM, short for Advanced Turbine Technologies for Affordable Mission Capability, the C being silent.
“That’s being pitched at this time,” he said.
ATTAM will be the “next step” beyond the current program, VAATE, short for Versatile Affordable Advanced Turbine Engines, which he said will conclude as planned in 2019.
When asked about game-changing technologies, Blake said, “Hypersonics jazzes me,” especially after the success of the X-51 hypersonic flights. He said the X-51 was significant, in part, because it burned carbon-based fuel.
Dennis Andrucyk, the NASA deputy associate administrator in charge of the Space Technology Mission Directorate, said green rocket and spacecraft propellants are a major initiative, but interestingly, he said, NASA does not have a formal definition for the term.
The goal is clear, though, Andrucyk said. NASA wants nontoxic propellants that can be transported “even on commercial aircraft,” which would be a “huge, huge benefit.”
Turning to technologies for exploring Mars, Andrucyk said a liquid oxygen-methane engine would be a “great option” for a Mars ascent vehicle, because explorers could utilize resources on Mars and because methane has higher power density than hydrogen.
Andrucyk said cubesats, once viewed as “a nice novelty,” are now attracting research and development effort to add propulsion to them. He said leaders of NASA’s Pathfinder technology program plan to build a “6U cubesat,” meaning six cubesat units joined together, that would demonstrate propulsion technologies.
The topic of how much technical risk NASA and the Air Force should accept in research also came up during the session. Blake said the Defense Department is more risk averse than it was 20 or 30 years ago.
“We’ve got to be able to accept risk, but we’ve got to do the work to integrate that risk into the program the right way,” he said.
Andrucyk said NASA must at times say no but that it should also find ways to support ideas that engage the public, such as a privately-led effort to send a small chipsat to the Alpha Centauri star system.