By Kevin Kelley
NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver put the question to Glenn Research Center propulsion engineer David Manzella directly. Do Glenn engineers believe the technological advances in solar electric propulsion NASA needs for deep space missions are achievable?
Manzella’s answer: “Absolutely.”
Garver, NASA’s second in command after Administrator Charles Bolden, toured several Glenn labs and spoke with reporters May 16.
Advances in propulsion are needed for a proposed mission in which NASA would capture an asteroid robotically, move it closer to Earth, then send astronauts to study it and return with samples.
The goal, Manzella said, is to build larger solar-cell arrays that can be stored more compactly for launch. The larger arrays would provide more power to future spacecrafts, such as the one that would lasso an asteroid. Many of these spacecraft would use engines that create thrust by accelerating ions, or charged atoms.
NASA had planned more modest advances in solar electric propulsion before the asteroid mission solidified as a space agency goal, Manzella conceded. But the technological advances developed, he said, will apply not only to NASA missions but to the rest of the aerospace industry as well.
Companies that insure commercial satellite launches are most concerned about the functionality of the solar arrays and solar electric propulsion systems, Manzella told Garver. So any advances will be welcomed by the $200 billion satellite industry, he said.
Another technology Glenn engineers are working on with implications for the private sector is better storage of cryogenic propellants such as liquid hydrogen. To be kept in their usable, liquid form, such propellants must be kept cold; otherwise they turn to vapor and must be released through a safety valve, resulting in wasted propellant. Glenn engineers showed Garver new insulation materials and refrigeration techniques that could be used to protect propellants on future space missions.
Advanced manufacturing processes being developed by Glenn and Pratt & Whitney could reduce the cost of building rockets by up to one-third, said Carol Tolbert, the center’s manufacturing innovation manager.
In the process, the injector – the part of the rocket that mixes the oxidizer and fuel to create propulsion – is built all at once instead of in sections.
“It’s an affordability initiative more than anything,” explained Jeff Haynes, a project manager for Pratt & Whitney.
If successful, the manufacturing innovation would be a huge advancement in rocketry, said Michael Gazarik, the associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, who visited Glenn with Garver.
“Glenn is leading the way in a key aspect for the nation of getting manufacturing back in the U.S.,” Gazarik told reporters.
The precision gained in building rockets can be utilized in other manufacturing processes, Garver added.
Garver said the Glenn labs she visited are working on technologies that are central to NASA’s plan.
“I’m very excited about the future of NASA and the role Glenn plays in that,” Garver said.