By Kevin Kelley
NASA’s path toward capturing and exploring an asteroid, the space agency’s next big goal, runs through the Glenn Research Center, according to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
Bolden, a former astronaut who served as either pilot or commander on four space shuttle flights, toured Glenn Friday along with Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Marcy Kaptur.
Asked by Glenn employees about the center’s future, Bolden said he told them it is bright.
“It may not be exactly what we thought we would be doing, but we’re learning new things every day,” Bolden said.
NASA’s proposed asteroid retrieval mission involves capturing an asteroid robotically, moving it closer to Earth, then sending astronauts to study it and return with samples. Improvements in propulsion methods that are being pursued at Glenn are required to accomplish this feat.
Glenn engineer Dave Manzella briefed Brown and Kaptur on the center’s research on solar electric propulsion, a means of fueling spacecraft that is 10 times more efficient than chemical propulsion such as liquid hydrogen.
Missions using solar electric propulsion utilize solar panel arrays to create electricity, which is used to create ions, Manzella said. While many probes in space today utilize solar electric propulsion, the goal is to make systems with greater power levels that can move heavier things at a faster rate, he explained. Another goal, Bolden and Manzella said, is to make solar cells that are significantly more efficient.
A major benefit of solar electric propulsion is that it allows missions to be launched with significantly less fuel, thereby making the missions less expensive, Manzella said.
Bolden said the asteroid redirect mission is designed to accomplish three
goals – better identify asteroids that threaten the earth, learn how to divert an asteroid and send humans to explore space.
“It’s an important stepping stone for going to Mars,” Bolden said.
“The nation’s aerospace community is strongly interested in SEP [solar electric propulsion], they’re interested in icing, they’re interested in all the kinds of things that are done here at Glenn,” Bolden told reporters. “So Glenn remains a focal point for our efforts to support American industry, academia and the other countries of the world.”
Bolden made clear that NASA’s task today is to develop new technologies that will benefit the commercial aerospace industry. A key objective of the asteroid mission is to develop new technologies, he said.
“We’re investing in technologies and we’re addressing risks that the nation’s aerospace industries cannot,” Bolden said.
NASA has “given birth” to the commercial space industry, Bolden said. Two American companies, which were the beneficiaries of NASA’s assistance in technology and testing, now carry supplies to the International Space Station, he noted.
“We worked ourselves out of a job,” Bolden explained. “We used to be the only way to get to low earth orbit. We don’t do that any more. We’re not in the low earth orbit business, nor should we be. Now it’s American industry that does that.”
Bolden appeared very pleased with Congress’ approval Thursday of a $1.1 trillion budget, which will fund the federal government through Sept. 30. The budget gives NASA just slightly less than the $17.7 billion President Barack Obama requested for the agency. Glenn Director Jim Free said the center’s exact portion of that is not yet clear, but he expects it to be somewhere between the $609 million it received in 2013 and the $684 million the president requested for 2014.
In a report that accompanied the budget, Congress reserved a commitment to the asteroid redirect mission, saying more detailed cost information is needed. Bolden told reporters the space agency needs to better define the mission for Congress.
Brown said his mission is to make NASA Glenn bigger in terms of its budget and reach. The state’s top status in the aerospace industry is in large part due to NASA Glenn, he said.
The recently passed budget showed a renewed appreciation for public employees, as well as the need for government investment in science and medicine, the Democratic senator said.
Kaptur, whose congressional district includes Glenn, said America’s economic future depends on innovation like that being pursued by NASA scientists. She publicly asked Bolden to use partnerships to expand NASA’s presence in Northeast Ohio and at Glenn, which is the agency’s smallest center. Kaptur also said she hoped the Obama administration would select Northeast Ohio as one of three national research consortiums that will receive federal grants to develop new industries based on new technologies. The president announced last week that North Carolina would be the first of the public-private partnerships.
“One of my greatest hopes is that this center could be the glue to submit a proposal to the Obama administration for high science that would carry an umbrella across our entire region and help America move forward in technologies that do not exist right now,” the Democratic representative said.