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Q&A: NASA's Ray Lugo on Ohio's role in shifting space program

NASA Glenn Research Center Director Ray Lugo in the center’s Stirling Research Laboratory.
NASA Glenn Research Center Director Ray Lugo in the center’s Stirling Research Laboratory.

President Obama's proposed NASA budget, and the redirection of the agency's goals, would seem to have some fairly large ramifications. How does it affect the Glenn Center and NASA as a whole?

The president asked for an independent review of the Constellation program and NASA's ability to execute its goals. Out of that review, it was determined that the Constellation program — which was to replace the Space Shuttle and take us beyond a low-earth orbit — was just not executable within the current NASA budget. To continue would require a significant budget increase, so while the review itself didn't make any recommendations, the president decided on a new direction for NASA, moving the emphasis away from building the Ares I rocket, the Ares V rocket and the Orion spacecraft and focus on enabling technologies that would support the development of those capabilities in the future. So, we're entering a technology phase, which will be followed by a hardware development phase sometime in the future. The Glenn Research Center, as the title implies, has core competencies in developing technology. Our focus predominantly has been in three areas: Propulsion, power (how we generate electric power to sustain human life during spaceflight) and communications. Those three areas are going to be extensively exploited in the president's plan. We're tentatively assigned, pending approval of the budget, a leadership role in the Exploration Technology Development and Demonstration program, which is about a $1.8-billion effort over five years. Those dollars aren't necessarily going to be spent here in Ohio, but it does give the Glenn Center that leadership position and we expect other assignments to follow it. In fact, we would have significant roles in a number of technology and hardware development programs within the new budget.

Are there current programs that will survive the changes?

There are some of what we call "flagship" technology demonstration flights, and the very first of these is expected to the be the NEXT (NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster) ion thruster, which we're heavily involved with. NEXT is just an evolutionary development, but it's the foundation for higher energy propulsion stages that are needed for deep space exploration. Also, prior to the president's proposal, we had already been assigned the leadership of the radio isotope power systems office, which is again drawing on our expertise and background in power. We will be developing the next generation of power sources that are used in space missions that go beyond the Mars orbit. Once you go past Mars in our solar system, the solar radiation available isn't sufficient to generate enough power unless you have huge portable tanks or very large solar cell power systems. So, we use radio isotope power systems. At Glenn, we've been working on the Advanced Stirling Isotope Generator, which is six times more than the current state of the art radio isotope systems in use. These are just a few of the programs that will continue.

Along with the leadership role in the Exploration Technology Development and Demonstration program, what new responsibilities does the president's proposed budget hold for the Glenn Center?

Glenn will also manage the Space Technology Grant Program, which is expected to fund about 50 faculty members and 300 students across the nation doing research related to space flight. We've been asked to be the deputy on that program, partnering with the Marshall Center in Alabama on the heavy lift program. There was also an increase to the aeronautics budget. We expect to continue our work on the next generation of aircraft which will reduce emissions, increase the efficiency of engines and reduce noise. Across the broad range of things we do here at NASA Glenn, we fully expect to see more research dollars flow into the center to take advantage of the capabilities that we offer. That brings a lot of visibility, not only with NASA but also within the national labs, including the labs of the Department of Defense and Department of Energy. It raises our stature within the commercial sector and the academic world, too. The grant program's not only good for the Glenn Center, but also for the state of Ohio. We have some very strong universities in the state and we fully expect that the faculty and students at those schools will compete well for fairly huge grants. Even within NASA, the grants are much bigger than anything we've ever done in the past.

Reading the NASA press release on the president's proposal, it seems there will be more of an effort to interface with the commercial sector as well. True?

Absolutely. We want to interact with the commercial sector on a higher level than we have in the past. I'll give you an example: Some of our staff here have developed a robot that can provide law enforcement agencies a very flexible platform — it has a very flexible interface that allows for a whole array of sensors and cameras. Now, this kind of platform sells for $1 million or more. We believe the new robot can be built and commercially offered for less than $250,000. We're trying to find a way to take the research we're doing to expand the human presence in space and find terrestrial applications. That does two things — it will help us build the economy here, particularly in the state of Ohio, and it lets NASA learn more about the technology on the ground before we risk its use in space. Another example: In Ohio, the automobile industry is much smaller than it once was. We think that we can work with the car companies, using the technology we develop. In fact, today we have a group talking to Ford about collaborating on the development of more advanced batteries.

Critics of the changes say they mean the end of American manned space flight. Do they have a valid point?

I'll share this with you: I grew up in central Florida during the Apollo program, and I actually started my NASA career a month before the Apollo program ended. One of my first jobs as a cooperative student, right out of high school, was going around the Vertical Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, counting the people who were working on the Apollo program. There were roughly 20,000 people working crazy hours. A week after the final Apollo launch, they were all gone. We've done the Shuttle program now for 29 years, as there was always an expectation that there would be a gap between it and the next program where we wouldn't have manned missions. There was that gap between the Apollo missions and the Shuttle program. What we do is hard. The systems that we need to do them are complex. People are looking at this gap and thinking that we've given up on human spaceflight, but in order to do it safely, we have to develop the next generation of systems to take us there. It's going to take time.

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