There are a number of reasons that the next few years are a particularly good time to perform technology demonstrations. The obvious driver is that the Ares-based form of Constellation has failed and is being shut down and the Shuttle has been on a path for retirement for several years, requiring a focus on establishing a foothold in LEO again. Technology demonstrations allow us to make considerably more progress towards exploration than Ares-based Constellation would have made in the same years while much of our attention is necessarily focused on the immediate LEO access problem. Now is also a good time for technology demonstrations because a number of factors give us more opportunities for success with these demonstrations:
- a focused driver and motivator for selecting and prioritizing technology demonstration choices - The Flexible Path to the Moon can provide this focus and motivation.
- a backlog of technologies ready for demonstration
- the near-term availability of the completed, funded, and fully staffed ISS as an in-space technology demonstration platform
- the growing capabilities of the low-cost and responsive small satellite industrial base
- the potential near-term availability of commercial reusable suborbital rockets as technology demonstration platforms
- the near-term availability of robotic HSF precursor missions in the 2011 NASA budget that can serve as technology demonstration platforms
- the potential for near-term incremental improvements in launch vehicle cost, availability, and responsiveness presented by new entries in the space access market, the NASA COTS program, and shared space access industrial base costs enabled in part by NASA's switch to rockets that can be used by multiple users like the EELVs
- the potential near-term availability of commercial space lab platforms like the DragonLab that can serve as technology demonstration platforms
- the availability of commercial space businesses that will likely be interested in partnering with NASA on certain technology demonstrations (e.g.: Bigelow Aerospace and others for inflatable modules, ULA and others for orbital propellant depots) and that will therefore likely be willing to contribute funding and focus to these efforts if they can benefit from the demonstrated technologies
- the potential availability of early Flexible Path to the Moon destinations as technology demonstration locations - if we can squeeze a basic capability to reach these destinations into the 2011 budget
Entry, Descent, and Landing Technologies; Autonomous Precision Landing - Focus should be put on demonstrating landing technologies relevant to the Flexible Path to the Moon (precision landing and hazard avoidance on the Moon, landing on Earth following Flexible Path to the Moon missions) rather than on, for example, landing on Mars.
Advanced In-Space Propulsion - Focus should be put on demonstrating in-space propulsion technologies relevant to the Flexible Path to the Moon (lunar lander propulsion, efficient and possibly reusable propulsion for cislunar space transportation) rather than on, for example, propulsion for quickly reaching distant deep space destinations like NEOs and Mars.
Human-Robotic Interactive Systems Demonstrations - Focus should be put on demonstrations relevant to the Flexible Path to the Moon, like cooperative human and robotic satellite servicing or observatory assembly in cislunar space, or telerobotics for robots on the lunar surface.
Extravehicular Activity Demonstrations - Focus should be put on EVA demonstrations relevant to the Flexible Path to the Moon, such as spacesuits usable on the lunar surface, and suits that enable servicing, assembly, and similar work in cislunar space.
You begin to get the idea. If the Flexible Path to the Moon is taken, each type of technology demonstration should be focused mainly on enabling or improving the cislunar and lunar surface destinations along the Flexible Path to the Moon.
The successes and failures of these technology demonstrations will help drive the operational missions on the Flexible Path to the Moon. At the same time, they will still break ground for more distant destinations, since there is room for some deep space technology demonstration work, and since many of the demonstrated technologies have applicability both on and beyond the Flexible Path to the Moon.