NASA’s Chief Technologist, Bobby Braun, mentioned on The Space Show today that his office was teaming up with DARPA on a couple of projects. I emailed show host David Livingston to ask him to get Braun to elaborate.
Braun said that there are three projects that his office and DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office are working on, all of them purely in the realm of paper studies at this point:
-Power Bean Propulsion—for use in space and for the launch of small payloads. This involves aiming a laser at a spacecraft to superheat a propellant.
-Horizontal launch access to space—for small commercial-size cargo. The idea is to accelerate a vehicle along a set of rails to high speed with electric propulsion, then have the vehicle lift off to light a scramjet and/or a rocket engine to reach space.
-Human serving of satellites in space.
Braun said he doesn’t like to focus on the specifics of these programs as he wants there to be many such partnerships between the various government R&D agencies. He, for one, has been looking to DARPA and ARPA-E for inspiration because, he said, “We’re trying to build the same kind of high risk, high payoff culture.”
It’s all part of NASA new direction, handed down by President Obama: more emphasis on building the tech needed to reach beyond Earth orbit and hiring out routine low-Earth-orbit operations to private companies.
There’s a lot of pushback against the new plan in Congress, among the big-ticket contractors who have traditionally built NASA’s hardware, and among many old-guard NASA managers themselves. But it’s the only way NASA will remain viable in the coming decades.