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Engineers become dreamers at NASA Future Forum

With a panel of aerospace engineers set to discuss commercial space investments and their benefit to the nation at the NASA Future Forum Dec. 9 at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, one was prepared for some heavy number crunching and rocket science. Instead, the group of representatives of various firms involved in commercial spaceflight focused entirely on the intangibles of inspiration, innovation, and vision.

A great example comes from Sierra Nevada Space Systems, which named its space vehicle Dream Chaser. Mark Sirangelo, head of the company, talked eloquently about the appeal of the industry.

Space Investments panel

A panel discussed Commercial Space Investments and Benefits for the Nation at the NASA Future Forum Dec. 9 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. L-R: Moderator Doug King, president and CEO of the museum, Phil McAlister of NASA, Gwynne Shotwell of SpaceX, Peter McGrath of Boeing, Mark Sirangelo of Sierra Space Systems, Robery Meyerson of Blue Origin, and Steve Isakowitz of Virgin Galactic. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“It’s being able to see something built and grow from nothing, from an inspiration,” he said. Sirangelo noted that the companies involved are full of dreamers, and used Seattle’s aerospace giant as an example.

“There was a Boeing. It was a family and it was a person like we are,” he said. “We’re individuals who believe in something and believe that we can make a difference and be able to change something in the future.

“That’s the personal inspiration for me, being able to do something that hasn’t been done in this way before, to be able to fly something that I hope to be able to fly in the next few years, and understand that this is something that we’ve designed and built and developed. There’s no better satisfaction than being able to take that dream and make it a reality.”

Most of the panel participants were of similar age to the author. I was born two weeks before the launch of Sputnik, so my life is the space age and as a kid I was fascinated by the race to the Moon. It is the reason I am interested in space and astronomy today. Everyone on the panel told a similar story. Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, said it’s important to remain interesting to the next generation.

“Space has to be cool. It has to be cool to be technical and enter into these kinds of fields,” Shotwell said. “Space is the best place to inspire children to do great things and study hard and focus on changing the world.” Her message to kids: “It’s OK to be a nerd!”

Peter McGrath of Boeing is a chip off the old block—his father also was an aerospace engineer—but he, too, took inspiration from Apollo.

Boeing Santa

The St. Nick on duty at the Museum of Flight seems to have a preference for the local aerospace company. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“I would also say it was seeing somebody walk on the Moon,” McGrath said of his career motivations. “We need to create that next environment, somebody walking on the Moon, to really energize the next generation of aerospace engineers.”

“We’re a nation of explorers,” said Robert Meyerson, president of Blue Origin. “Space represents that next frontier. I believe that strong investments in science and technology will make us stronger.”

The engineers did get around to tackling some problems. Steve Isakowitz, chief technology officer for Virgin Galactic, said the cost of space flight is a big hurdle. He noted that technology is making a lot of things easier and cheaper; Moore’s law holds that computer power doubles every 18 months while the cost drops. Unfortunately, that has not yet translated to space.

“In fact if you look at the economics of space travel, the cost has either remained the same or even increased, depending on how you do the math,” Isakowitz said. “I think the challenge to the panel here is to change that, to create our own law. Perhaps every five years the price of space travel will be cut in half, so that more and more people will have the opportunity to enjoy space travel and allow us to push the frontier of space exploration.”

NASA of course remains the major player in the field, but Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development, said it’s perfectly logical for the companies represented on the panel to help take us to space.

“For lower orbit, where the International Space Station travels, that’s a place that we’ve been many times over the last 40 years,” McAlister said. “So we feel like it’s time now to transition some of the responsibility for launching crew and cargo to low-Earth orbit to the private sector.”

McAlister also noted that having the private sector involved will provide a buffer of sorts to the vagaries of federal spending.

“If this commercial crew and cargo industry takes off we’re no longer dependent on just NASA’s budget going up and down,” he said. “The private market will spur these innovations, spur these opportunities, so when kids get closer to high school they’re going to see these opportunities. It won’t just be about NASA. The pie will be bigger.

“That’s why I believe this is the right path not only for NASA but for the nation.”

You can watch the entire panel discussion on the NASA TV video below.

 

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NASA Future Forum panel discusses importance of technology and innovation

Those looking for real-life applications of all of the cool technology NASA creates need look no further than cleaning appliances or one of the biggest fad toys of a decade ago.

“The computational power that was used to make an Apollo spacecraft successful is now embodied in a Furby,” said Dr. Ed Lazowska. “It’s not clear that this is the greatest social use for that technology, but it’s still a remarkable comment on what we’ve been able to do.”

Tech and innovation panel

This panel discussed "The Importance of Technology and Innovation for our Economic Future" at the NASA Future Forum Dec. 9 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. L-R: are Joseph Parrish and Robert Pearce of NASA, Dr. Kristi Morgansen of the University of Washington, Dr. Roger Myers of Aerojet, and Dr. Ed Lazowska, UW. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, was speaking as part of a panel about “The Importance of Technology and Innovation for our Economic Future” at the NASA Future Forum held Dec. 9 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. He sees robotics as a major area of innovation in the coming decade.

“NASA has been a pioneer in robots in unstructured environments, where they have to be autonomous and they have to respond to unanticipated situations,” Lazowska said. “You see these in your home today in the person of the Roomba vacuum cleaner.”

“This notion of robots in unstructured environments working with us is going to be transformative in the next ten years,” he said.

Robert Pearce, NASA’s head researcher, says today’s jetliners are a prime example of how agency’s work has made it out into common use. Instrumentation, wing and engine design, the shape of the planes, even the way the pilots work together all were born from the space agency.

“The DNA of everything that flies started at NASA,” Pearce said, though he noted one exception. “When you turn and go down into the airplane and you see all of those tight, cramped, uncomfortable seats—that’s not NASA.”

Joseph Parrish, who moderated the panel and is NASA’s deputy chief technologist, takes exception to the often-expressed view that the space agency is doing little more than blasting scarce tax dollars into space.

“We’re not actually packaging up a bunch of dollar bills into the nose cone of a rocket and firing it out to Mars, to be spent by Martians, on a prank,” Parrish said. “We’re spending that money on planet Earth, and in the process of developing the systems that we do send to Mars and to Jupiter and to Saturn and beyond we’re enabling things here on planet Earth. We’re creating high-technology jobs that in turn inspire new ideas and create and new ecosystems of supporting companies. Think of all the companies that support Boeing. Think of all the companies that are going to support this burgeoning commercial launch industry that NASA is helping to kick off.”

One of those companies is Redmond-based Aerojet. It’s executive director for electric propulsion and integrated systems, Dr. Roger Myers, says his company is working on better ways to get spacecraft from here to there.

“Today’s propulsion systems are pretty inefficient,” Myers said. “That means that you have to carry a huge amount of fuel, you have to launch a tremendous amount of propellant, to get beyond low-Earth orbit. It takes big, expensive, unique rockets to do that.”

“We have to change that paradigm,” Myers added. “If we’re going to explore deep space we need a balanced set of investments, in both the launch architecture, the way that we launch people and cargo, and also we need a parallel set of investments in deep-space transportation architectures.”

Lazowska said that a big problem with technological innovations is that the uses are seldom obvious.

“It’s often not clear at the outset what the real benefit of an innovation is going to be,” he said. “When people were working on the Internet, ARPANET, nobody was thinking about email or the web or ecommerce or digital media. It was for remotely using expensive mainframe computers. You see this pattern again and again.”

Lazowska said the concept of technology transfer is important but often misunderstood.

“The goal of university technology transfer is to put publicly funded innovation to work for the public good,” he explained. “People have to get over the notion that somehow you’re going to float the institutional boat on licensing revenues, and realize that the goal is to make our nation the world leader, and make our regions regions of innovation.”

You can watch the entire panel discussion on the NASA TV video below.

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