NASA reaches out to commercial technology sector to improve space exploration

NASA has launched its third round of funding for what it calls “tipping point” technologies. It wants to encourage companies to invest in the agency’s mission and develop technologies that can help with space exploration.

The catch? The company must be able to develop programs that are mature enough to have commercial application.

Tipping point technologies are defined by NASA as programs where reasonable investment is needed to advance current missions, but also ease the transition into the commercial space market. These technologies are ranked by readiness, according to Stephen Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate.

“We want to encourage new and innovative technologies and new innovative approaches … developing the technologies that we need for our future capabilities,” Jurczyk said on Federal Drive with Tom Temin. 

But the technologies have to at least be at level four to be considered successful investments. In other words, the technology must at least be demonstrated in a laboratory environment, and has been demonstrated to work.

“We’re trying to get [them] to a six,” he said. “Which is tested in a simulated space environment on the ground and get it to the point where its getting ready to fly.”

Technologies ranked at a six or higher are tested in the parabolic aircraft with at least 30 seconds in an microgravity environment. Another way NASA can test these new applications is through its partnership with Blue Origin and the New Shepard vehicle. On this aircraft, the technology will be exposed to about 3 minutes of continuous microgravity, Jurczyk said.

This simulated flight experience gives the agency time to “shake out” the technology before deploying it to the International Space Station or aboard another aircraft.

Proposed technologies may have had prior NASA investment, research and development investment from other government agencies or received funding through NGO and venture capital investment.

For this third round of funding, Jurcyzk said the directorate is focusing on technologies that will help with three main missions:

  • Expanding utilization of space
  • Enabling efficient, safe transportation into and through space
  • Increasing access to the surfaces of other planets

“We want to provide more flexibility for industry to propose,” he said. “And then in order to deal with the larger number of proposals that we might get because we’re not narrowing it down to specific technology areas, we defined a two-step proposal process.”

First step proposals — short, introductory white papers — are due at the end of January. Jurczyk said the directorate will whittle down the list of proposals and release in March 2018 a list of accepted proposals. Full proposals from this list will be due in May 2018. Evaluations will take place soon after and he said they hope to put contracts in place by the end of the summer.

“Mostly, we are looking to enable commercial space activities and we’re looking for not only how the technology would enable a capability that would advance the company’s interests, but also kind of their business strategy,” Jurczyk said.

For more Information, click here to visit the directorate website.