The space industry thrives on robust research and development (R&D). It is the very essence of how different sectors and industries operate in synergy. Bianca Cefalo, a rocket scientist with a prolific background in the commercial aerospace industry, and I discussed the need for a more integral view of R&D. Bianca has worked in complex public-private space missions and noted there is still an expendable mindset towards budgets.
“R&D is something vital for the space industry. The need to allocate serious budgets for R&D is very underrated. It’s the first thing that gets cut when things go wrong. And R&D is the one thing you shouldn’t touch at all because, in the space industry, everything is so fast-moving and interconnected. From advanced materials to 3D printing, from biotech to miniaturized engineering, robotics, and electronics, you cannot stop one of those innovation streams. If you do, you stop an entire system. Budgets for R&D aren’t huge in the new space community in Europe. We do have support from the European Space Agency and local space agencies. However, the space-focused venture capitalist and private investment alternatives that prioritize funds for this industry are a very recent development.”
Another dimension to our conversation is in-space testing. The maturity of space technologies is typically measured and benchmarked with the technology readiness level (TRL) system. The TLR rating 1 describes the level at which basic scientific principles are researched and reported. TRL 9 is the highest rating, indicating that the technology is flight-proven as a result of successful missions. TRL levels 6-8 involve testing the prototypes in space. Unfortunately, numerous stakeholders across the globe fail to see their projects mature, given the hefty price tag for early testing and the drawn period needed to finance it.
Bianca thus summarized it.
“The ‘first-flight paradox’ is a fact. How can you test your technology in space if you don’t have the budget to go through the massive amount of procedures and campaigns to meet the flight qualifications? Space billionaires can go through these R&D milestones and in-space flight qualifications and testing with their funds. But if you don’t have the capital yourself and you have a tiny R&D budget because you’re in academia, an early-stage startup, or a small company, for example, and you want to expand into space, it takes such a long time. And sometimes, you don’t even get there because you don’t have all the money and resources in place to get it done. This is very sad because there’s a massive gap, and in this way, we're actually not democratizing space at all.”
A high-prioritization of R&D over sustained periods translates to the type of widespread innovation needed for the most complex challenges in space. Nowhere is this scenario more evident than in alternative forms of advanced propulsion technologies, in particular in advanced nuclear propulsion, where the need for R&D is dramatic.
I was pleased by the recent consensus study report and the urgent call to action from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The three academies are private, nonprofit institutions that collaborate to research and inform public policy decisions. Their latest study, Space Nuclear Propulsion for Human Mars Exploration, was sponsored by NASA and published early in 2021. The report strongly advises NASA to commit significant R&D investment to nuclear propulsion systems if it wants to conduct shorter human exploration missions to Mars by 2039:
“Nuclear electric propulsion (NEP) and nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) systems show great potential to facilitate the human exploration of Mars. Using either system to execute the baseline mission by 2039, however, will require an aggressive research and development program. Such a program would need to begin with NASA making a significant set of architecture and investment decisions in the coming year. In particular, NASA should develop consistent figures of merit and technical expertise to allow for an objective comparison of the ability of NEP and NTP systems to meet requirements for a 2039 launch of the baseline mission.”
The maturity of nuclear propulsion systems for reliable crewed missions to Mars for NASA and other space agencies across the globe will depend on the prioritization of R&D at the agency level. It will also depend on the strength of the ecosystem of smaller and medium-sized companies, start-ups, and academic institutions that have smaller R&D budgets. A major challenge for the industry, as Bianca pointed out, will be to keep robust R&D pipelines regardless of changes in leadership or plans. Another critical issue will be democratizing access to in-space testing, so that benefits and knowledge compound to the broader sectors.
Ultimately, R&D accrues benefits that cascade horizontally and vertically within and across sectors and industries. The experimental phases are the effective conduits for broad-scale breakthroughs. The need for investing in space R&D and testing will only increase as our missions evolve.
Diego Pelaia is an Argentine artist with who I often work on many projects. In addition to a rich range in oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, illustrations, and digital concept art, Diego is a meditation instructor. His interests in western and oriental philosophy, art history, psychology, Greek mythology, and astronomy inspire his art.
I enjoy the metaphorical depth and nuance in his work, especially regarding space technologies and infrastructure.
Diego said recently:
“The artist proposes and the scientist proves. Art and science are a great team. Shakespeare and his poetry reached the moon before Armstrong did.”
Stream of consciousness [photos]
This photograph was captured at a public library in South Florida. I visit often used bookstores and public libraries to search for interesting reads. I enhanced the colors and the ambiance on this one. Looking up at the vaulted glass ceiling reminded me of the need to invest in space R&D and testing.