MOD positioning for potential Flagship Technology Demonstrations role

by Chris Bergin

The highly skilled and experienced NASA Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) are attempting to find their place in the post-Shuttle era, a future that continues to be uncertain due to the ongoing political battle. Focusing on their involvement in technology demonstrations and planning, the MOD produced an overview of how their “Plan, Train, Fly” approach could be utilized ensuring they have a “seat at the table”.


Director Paul Hill has made a series of keynote “All Hands” addresses over the last 12 months (presentations and videos available on L2), including the painful task of informing many of his workforce that their departments will be suffering from large job losses.

One such speech came last July, centered around the issue of not knowing what the future holds for NASA or MOD, which ironically continues to be the situation a year later.

However, Mr Hill appears to have been rather savvy in his pre-emption of what the future may hold, guiding the MOD towards the potential of commercial launch vehicles rising to the forefront, along with his hope for a “follow-on program” for Shuttle (such as HLV) – both of which are currently gaining the majority of support via the Senate bill’s refinements to the FY2011 budget proposal.

Mr Hill’s latest All Hands pushes the MOD towards a role in the Flagship Technology Demonstrations (FTD), via their “Plan, Train, Fly” experience – a key MOD motto.

“MOD Involvement in Tech Demo and Dev: NASA’s new direction includes significant investment in new technology development and demonstrations. MOD intends to be a significant player in these areas using our Plan/Train/Fly expertise,” noted presentations associated with the July All Hands meeting (available on L2).

“There are currently six main technology areas: Flagship Demonstrations; Enabling Technology Development and Demonstrations; Exploration Precursor Robotic Missions; Heavy Lift Propulsion; ISS-based Technology Development; Project M.”

How much of the FTD element will survive the political realignment of the FY2011 proposal is yet to be confirmed, although MOD appear to believe it is prudent to showcase their ability to pick up the baton on numerous areas that have been proposed both by FY2011, and via the political negotiations.

“New Technology Projects: Flagship Demonstrations, In-space Propellant Storage and Transfer; Inflatables and Advanced ECLSS; Automated/Autonomous Rendezvous and Docking; Entry, Descent, and Landing; Solar Electric Propulsion,” listed the presentation on FTDs, appearing to match closely with the FY2011 outlines.

“Enabling Technology Development and Demonstrations, Five Demo Projects (in situ resources, autonomous precision landing, telerobotics, fission surface power, etc.); Ten Foundational Projects (autonomous systems, advanced materials, life support, EVA, etc.)”

An In-Space Propellant Transfer and Storage Demonstration, under the Flagship Technology Demonstration program, has already gained a large amount of interest and support. However, via a separate presentation (L2 – article next week), how much of a role MOD will have is questionable, with the aforementioned presentation written by a large mix of commercial companies in tandem with various NASA centers – all of whom are likely to want a slice of the pie.

Also listed in the MOD All Hands materials were International Space Station (ISS) related demonstrations, which are likely to be key targets for the MOD – given the Johnson Space Center (JSC) and MOD’s heavy involvement with the orbital outpost.

“ISS-based Technology Development, ~25 project proposals across Agency; ISS Free Flyer for Inspection, Science, etc. (JSC lead); Inflatable Module (JSC lead); Life Support Technologies (JSC lead); In-space Cryo Fluid Management (JSC lead); Biomedical Diagnostics (JSC lead); Telerobotic Ops from ISS (JSC as partner); Electron Beam Manufacturing (JSC as partner); Electric Propulsion (JSC as partner).

“Project M (Robonaut); JSC Engineering led project proposal for a robotic Lunar mission.”

Project M is a good horse for MOD to back, with STS-133 – a mission which obviously has heavy MOD involvement – launching a Robonaut to the International Space Station later this year, as a precursor to a fascinating mission that will result in a fully formed Robonaut setting foot on the lunar surface “in 1000 days”.

The MOD All Hands materials also provide an insight into draft roadmap for inflatables, with development from 2011 to 2017, resulting in an ultimate goal of providing the ability to support human exploration via inflatable transport modules and surface habitation.

“Ground Development: Integrated system fleet leader Ground testing. Integration of key technologies developed by partners to ensure performance in required environments. Sub-scale demonstration of key enabling technologies while providing ISS expanded capability,” opened the roadmap overview.

The draft overview also listed the first flagship role would involve the orbital outpost, with a date of around 2015 cited.

“Flagship inflatable Habitat Test Vehicle. Demonstrate integrated technologies required for self-sustaining habitation,” which may provide rationale for what is currently being planned as Node 4, which – while unconfirmed – could provide a home for inflatable modules.

Node 4 – otherwise known as the Docking Hub System (DHS) – is currently being baselined as launching on a medium EELV (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle) – likely to be a 5×1 variant of an Atlas V, but potentially a Delta IV – in tandem with a yet-to-be-decided “Tug”, possibly utilizing the ARDV (Autonomous Rendezvous & Docking Vehicle) concept, which could be launched on an Atlas V.

The roadmap continues through to an ultimate goal of providing a role with the future Mars missions, benefiting from parallel work under the Enabling Technology Development & Demonstration (ETDD) Program.

“Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) Extreme Thermal / Radiation Environment. Cruise Environment, Remote Deploy, Long-term self-sustaining,” added the roadmap. “Provide long duration habitation for missions beyond LEO for interplanetary transit and surface habitation.”

Such plans remain notional until NASA’s future has been confirmed by lawmakers and the Agency’s administration, with the main item on MOD’s wish-list relating to ensuring they “have a seat at the table”, and being involved as much as they were with the Constellation Program (CxP)

“MOD Engagement: Agency wrestling with difficult challenges – multiple teams doing project formulation, budgets, Congress, OMB, OSTP, White House. JSC formed an Advanced Development Office to coordinate involvement in all technology projects/ MOD formed a team to engage in all the appropriate technology areas,” added the presentations.

“Our intent is to capture the P/T/F work for those missions that we can do best. We also want to be involved in the mission and vehicle design and development aspects much like we were for Cx (Constellation). 48 MODers are serving as POCs to all of the areas. Additional people are supporting from within MOD. Getting engaged with JSC and other Center teams. Getting a seat at the table and speaking for ourselves.”

Aiding MOD’s vision of the future will be aided by JSC’s central role with the Exploration Precursor Robotic Missions, and the building on ties with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California for the proposed Near Earth Orbit (NEO) missions. The goal is to gear up towards an October start date – though this is at the mercy of decisions at the Agency and political levels.

“What Has MOD Accomplished So Far? The POCs have done an outstanding job of engaging and participating. Most interactions with project teams are very positive and productive. We participated in Request for Information (RFI) responses. We are collecting and publishing real-world examples of MOD’s value in project design and operations,” added the presentations.

“We assumed JSC leadership for Exploration Precursor Robotic Missions. We have a very strong partnership with JPL for NEO missions. We brought the ISS-based cryo fluid demo ops work to MCC/ Firm decisions won’t come until August/September as the RFPs are completed. Project work is planned to start on October 1, but there’s a lot that has to come together across the Agency to make that happen.

“Success will come in small steps.”

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