Since retiring from the Navy in 2000, Admiral Steidle has served as an independent aerospace consultant, and prior to 2000, was Chief Aerospace Engineer and Vice Commander of the Naval Air Systems Command, which develops, acquires, and supports naval aeronautical systems. He is a decorated fighter pilot and test pilot, and flew carrier night combat missions in North Vietnam. He commanded the Navy's F/A-18 program and A-3 weapon systems program, and was Director of the Department of Defense Joint Strike Fighter Program.
NASA Tech Briefs: The new "Vision for Space Exploration" sets lofty goals for NASA. What types of new technologies will need to be developed to achieve those goals?
Admiral Craig E. Steidle: I'm not sure this vision will require new technologies. I think it may be the application of current technologies to do things differently. There are almost 140 technology maturation programs that have been integrated into this Enterprise. We've found that from a human spaceflight perspective, about 30% of them fit, from a robotics standpoint about another 30% fit, and about another 30% needed to be refocused. Some had to be canceled. We're going to refocus the technologies we have to what we're doing in exploration. We're going to do a complete scrub of the requirements for exploration as they came down in the President's vision. We'll see what's missing - perhaps in space assemblies, autonomous rendezvous work, materials work, and integrated subsystems prognostics. Maybe there are some areas where we need some focus, but we're not necessarily depending upon any inventions to continue on with the President's vision. However, we'd certainly accept some if they lower the cost, and make it affordable, safer, and achievable. Right now, there are no breakthroughs we need. Further on down the road, there may be some more work we need done as we move into nuclear electric propulsion systems and thermal systems.
NTB: Is Project Prometheus an example of a re-application of existing nuclear technology, or will there be new research and development in that area? (Editor's Note: Project Prometheus is a program focused on developing the means to efficiently increase power for a spacecraft using radioisotope-based systems and nuclear fission-based systems.)
Admiral Steidle: There is research and development going on in that area. We have Navy reactors under the Department of Energy onboard - that will be our design and acquisition agency for the nuclear reactor. That's on the front end. On the back end of that are engines - this produces heat, and has to distribute that heat through some sort of distribution mechanisms. We don't have that. Glenn Research Center and Marshall Space Flight Center are working on that. There are other interconnections between these ion engines and that work's being done at some of our centers such as Jet Propulsion Lab and in industry.
It's the application of those technologies to this particular spacecraft. Can a nuclear electric propulsion system provide power in a habitat? Can it provide power on the lunar surface? What does it also do beyond going to one of the icy moons of Jupiter? So, there is technology, and we're expanding it to include exploration and other applications.
NTB: What role will industry play in advancing these technologies?
Admiral Steidle: We had a Request for Information (RFI) out on the street that had 39 different elements of areas we're interested in. We've also come out with a broad agency announcement to initiate competition for work in these areas. These are all the exploration vehicle pieces. That will be followed by a broad agency announcement in October for technology maturation programs, followed by a third one in April of 2005. The way we get innovation in is that people respond to those broad agency announcements. We've also asked for new acquisition methodologies - how we can do acquisition better, and how we can streamline those collaborations.
We also have the Innovative Technology Transfer Partnerships (ITTP) program, which has been moved to this Enterprise. They're doing a super job. We have SBIRs (Small Business Innovation Research) and STTRs (Small Business Technology Transfer) from universities. Also, at the next tier, we have the Centennial Challenges. With that spectrum, we think we can open up the scope from the primes to small business and get everyone engaged in participating and collaborating on technology maturation.
NTB: What might the benefits be to life on Earth as a result of this new vision?
Admiral Steidle: That is the most misunderstood as you get away from this agency. I've had the opportunity to talk to people, and you start with, 'Do you realize that MRIs, CAT scans, cancer detection, smoke alarms, cordless tools, battery technology, chip technology, and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology came from NASA?' All those things are the return on investment, which is significant, and we don't talk enough about that. I think you have the same thing here as we leap forward in this technology - in manufacturing techniques, in prognostics, and in communications and navigation systems. That's all going to flow back.
In these space applications and manufacturing techniques, industry will be looking for those spinoffs, and that's why our tech transfer program is so good - we can spin this technology off, and we can also see what's going on in industry and spin it in for our particular needs. I can't define what those specific areas are, but I know, predicated on history, that it's going to be significant.
NTB: What do you hope to achieve with the Centennial Challenges?
Admiral Steidle: It's another tier of getting people involved in what we're doing with innovative technologies, either from universities or from people who want to put an experiment on one of our spacecraft. It has to be demonstrated. We're not going to pay for an idea - we pay for a demonstrated idea. This differs from the SBIR program. With SBIRs, you start paying up front in your Phase I with only a piece of paper to show. This is beyond that. This is the way you get innovation.
NTB: Can you explain how the Crew Exploration Vehicle differs from the shuttle?
Admiral Steidle: The requirements for the Crew Exploration Vehicle are to go to Mars and take a man back to the Moon - it's an exploration vehicle. The shuttle is a large cargo hauler that goes to low Earth orbit. It's a transfer vehicle, and it's certainly the best in the world - it does a tremendous job. Apollo was an exploration vehicle - it went to the Moon, but you couldn't take large amounts of cargo up and down.
As we define our requirements, we're looking at different development pieces. We'll develop the manned version, which will be demonstrated with a crew in 2014, and then we'll be looking for our lunar exploration piece of this. Out of that will come what eventually goes on to Mars. This will be a system of systems combined together around this exploration vehicle. The CEV also might be used as a transfer vehicle or rescue vehicle, but that's not its primary requirement.
Will the Space Station be used as an intermediate point? I don't know. It might, because you may want to put something up there and do in-space assembly. You may want to go to the space station and put pieces together. We don't know yet.
NTB: Is it a challenge to coordinate your new plans for the space station with your international partners?
Admiral Steidle: No. I briefed the international group for the space station twice on exactly where we're going and what we're doing. We haven't really done anything other than planning the future. We know there are obligations that have to be met and agreements that have to be in place. The Office of Biological and Physical Research has to look at all the particular requirements, what needs to be done, and what is going to be relevant for exploration. Then they have to prioritize all these pieces. That has to be dialoged with other offices, and then presented. If it does impact anything we're doing in the future, then we have to come up with alternate plans. There hasn't been any impact, and hopefully there won't be.
NTB: Why is it important to NASA to go back to the Moon, and will the next step be a human mission to Mars?
Admiral Steidle: Yes - with a lot in between. Exploration in general and discovery - that's what our vision is. The Moon is a great demonstration. We look at the Moon as aeronautics looked at the wind tunnel. What a great demonstration facility three seconds away in time from a communications standpoint. What can you demonstrate on the Moon in terms of habitat, supply capabilities, demonstrated performance, and mobility? It's just getting there and the facilitation of the infrastructure. Our first mission will be looking at the topography and finding a landing facility. The second one is to put a lander on the Moon, and perhaps we'll keep an orbital communications satellite. We'll start building up that infrastructure as we move on.
NTB: Going back to the Moon now will be quite different than it was with Apollo.
Admiral Steidle: Yes, definitely. That was a one-data-point demonstration of the capability to go for one specific purpose, and that was to land on the Moon, and then pick up what we possibly could. This is different. This is a continuum of exploration beyond the Moon. The Moon is just one piece of it - the space station, outside low Earth orbit, to the Moon, establishing the infrastructures in the solar system, and beyond. Also, it's an economic development program. Your earlier question is a significant one: What benefits do we get back from this? It's an economy that is leaning forward in that particular direction. It is significant and different. And it's exciting.
NTB: How do you address concerns from the public about using humans in these exploration missions?
Admiral Steidle: To be honest, no one has asked me that. I have my own personal views - I was a test pilot, so I understand the risks associated with it. There are some things that humans can do much better, and that's the reason for the synergistic approach we have of robotic and human exploration. Humans have got to go there eventually. We need to do risk mitigation to ensure that we do it safely. There are organizations - not in the government, but in other areas - that say 'I can do that in half the time at half the expense.' Well, they can probably do it once, but they can't do it repeatedly - they can't put the infrastructure in place, and they can't do it at a lower risk. We develop methodically the risk reduction, the infrastructure, and the pieces to do it safely before we go forward with it.
NTB: The goals of the President's vision are to "advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests." What does this do for U.S. or world security?
Admiral Steidle: We don't know yet. We are working in partnership with other agencies. Our tech maturation area right now is setting up a board to look at the technologies being developed in other agencies, including Homeland Security. Some of the pieces that we're working on are the higher-risk pieces up front that they may be able to use in the future. I cannot right now put my finger on tech maturation programs that would enhance from a security standpoint, but I will be able to.
NTB: When introducing this vision, the President seemed hopeful that it will re-ignite excitement in the space program. Do you share that hope?
Admiral Steidle: Absolutely. It's hard from my standpoint, because when I go somewhere to talk about exploration, I've got an audience that's interested in that. The feedback I've had has just been overwhelming. People have been looking for a vision that ties all these pieces together. Here inside the agency, I've seen people galvanizing to this. I've seen industry move their organizational structures here in Washington along our lines of exploration. People ask what's in it for them and their quality of life. So, I talk about the amount of money this will cost being significantly low compared to everything else that we're doing. And then, when we have that dialog, I'll see a lot of interest in everything from the Hubble to the space station.
For people in this country, NASA is their agency, even though we've had a couple of bumps along the road. They're passionate about where we're going and what we're doing. Hopefully, we'll see this translated into people getting into science. I grew up in the 60s, so I was an engineer, just like everybody else at that particular time was going to be an engineer. We had that stimulus. Hopefully, we can generate some of that. Administrator O'Keefe has given tremendous support for this, and Deputy Administrator Fred Gregory is the individual I go to when I need help and guidance, and both of them together have just been outstanding.
NTB: You have a forum through NASA Tech Briefs to talk to a great cross-section of American industry. Is there anything you'd like to say to them about this vision?
Admiral Steidle: We want to include American business in this. I found out as Director of the Joint Strike Fighter program that most of the innovation that came in to that program came through my broad agency announcement, and that's why I'm doing it here. They brought fresh, new ideas of doing things differently. I expect and I hope for a very large turnout from the business and industrial side to participate in these programs. I hope to have that open dialog with industry so we can get them included. We cannot do it ourselves. We need to get industry in this country aligned with this and participating with us.
I'd ask that your readers look to this office. They can always call our office and we'll provide them with the latest information. That's the important piece - to get this word out. Read the solicitations, be here for our Industry Days. We had one Industry Day and we're going to have another one on the West Coast.
NTB: NASA Tech Briefs is happy to support your efforts and those of the ITTP.
Admiral Steidle: I appreciate that. You do good work. I've only seen two issues so far since I've been here. I picked it up one day when I was here and I went back to our technology people, talking about a particular article. Two days later, they came back and said, 'You know, that's our magazine.' I said, 'What do you mean, our magazine?' And they said that it's part of the ITTP. I was on Capitol Hill briefing staffers on what ITTP is doing. I explained how we've got the agents in the areas, what we're going to do, the dual-use capabilities, and why it's important. I totally support the ITTP and asked that it be part of our organization. Whatever we can do to support this. And if you get any feedback, just let us know. We really want to be different and open - we want that participation.