NASA seeks input on space technology shortfalls

WASHINGTON — NASA is seeking public input on how to prioritize nearly 200 topics in space technology to improve how it invests limited funding on them.

The agency has released a list of 187 “technology shortfalls,” or topics where current technology requires additional development to meet NASA’s future needs. The shortfalls are in 20 areas ranging from space transportation and life support to power and thermal management.

Through a website, the agency is inviting people to review the listed technologies and rate their importance through May 13. NASA will use that input to help prioritize those technologies for future investment to bridge the shortfalls.

This is part of an effort by the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) to provide a more rigorous approach to how it supports technology development. “NASA has gotten into a battle rhythm with our stakeholders where we are setting our priorities more in the space of the activities that we’re engaging in and not, initially, about the problem space: the problems that we are solving,” said Kurt “Spuds” Vogel, NASA associate administrator for space technology, at an April 23 meeting of the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium.

The old approach, he said, runs the risk of turning NASA’s space technology program into a “hobby shop,” he said, subject to whims from policymakers. “That’s the wrong focus.”

By prioritizing technology shortfalls, he argued NASA will be better able to invest its funding on the most important ones. “We’re level of effort. That means we do not have a budget to tackle all of these problems all at once, so we have to prioritize the limited dollars that we are blessed with to attack the problems that are most important to our stakeholders.”

Through this process, people will be able to rate the importance of some or all of the technology shortfalls NASA has identified. They can also list technologies they think should be included or identify those shortfalls that they believe have already been solved.

NASA will use the input from that process, as well as a separate internal agency effort, to develop a ranked list of technologies. That should be ready by this summer, said Alesyn Lowry, director of strategic planning and integration at STMD, at a separate presentation at the meeting April 24.

While NASA will not release individual inputs, it does plan to disclose how different stakeholder groups in industry and academia ranked technologies. But Vogel emphasized the public inputs will be just one factor in the overall prioritization.

“It’s a tool, not the tool,” he said, describing the inputs as part of an “audit trail” used to link technologies to problems. “It’s going to influence what we do, but we’re going to make the final decisions.”

The number of shortfalls could change in future years based on the inputs to this shortfall analysis, he said, going up or down. Vogel said he expected NASA to update the prioritization annually. “The first year or two is going to be where most of the changes are going to happen. After that it will smooth out, and you’ll see it as a tool you can use in a similar way we’re going to use it as well.”

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