NASA is too reliant on old technology, report says

Flight demonstrations may be pricey, but when industry partners are willing to pay for them they can help speed new NASA technology from the lab into real-life use, experts said in a report issued on Wednesday.

The report scolds NASA's reliance on 40-year-old technology and says the agency needs to focus on 16 areas that include better rockets, better ways to propel spacecraft in space, safer ways to land, and new ways to feed and protect astronauts on long missions.

"To send humans to the moon, Mars, and other destinations beyond low Earth orbit, new technologies are needed to mitigate the effects of space radiation ... advance the state of the art in environmental control and life support systems so that they are highly reliable ... and provide advanced fail-safe mobile pressure suits, lightweight rovers ... and other mechanical systems that can operate in dusty, reduced-gravity environments," stated the report from the National Research Council.

"It has been years since NASA has had a vigorous, broad-based program in advanced space-technology development," said Raymond Colladay, president of Golden, Colo.-based RC Space Enterprises and chair of the committee that wrote the report. "Success in executing future NASA space missions will depend on advanced developments that should already be under way."

President Obama shut down months of vigorous debate on where NASA should go after ending the shuttle program last summer by cancelling predecessor George W. Bush's Constellation program aimed at putting people back on the moon. President Obama instead sent the space agency further out, directing it to develop robotic and science missions and to eventually aim to land astronauts on Mars and, perhaps, an asteroid.

The report from a team of space experts, including private NASA contractors, engineering experts, and others, said problems range from protecting astronauts from radiation to finding cheaper ways to get a spaceship up into orbit - and paying for it with a projected technology budget of $500 million to $1 billion a year.

"Lifetime radiation exposure is already a limiting assignment factor for career astronauts on the International Space Station," they wrote. Current models suggest that astronauts cannot spend more than three months beyond low Earth orbit because of health worries, the report said. Yet not much work has been done on space suits, for instance, since the Apollo missions 40 years ago.

And venerable old rocket systems work well but they are expensive, the report noted.

"In spite of billions of dollars in investment over the last several decades, the cost of launch has not decreased. In fact, with the end of the Space Shuttle program and uncertainty in the future direction of human spaceflight, launch costs for NASA science missions are actually increasing. This is because without the space shuttle or human space-flight program, the propulsion industrial base is at significant overcapacity."

NASA Chief Technologist Mason Peck said he welcomed the report.

"The report confirms the value of our technology development strategy to date. NASA currently invests in all of the highest-priority technologies and will study the report and adjust its investment portfolio as needed," he said in a statement.