A Closer Look at NASA’s Strategic Space Technology Investment Plan

NASA_Tech_FundingEarlier this month, NASA released its Strategic Space Technology Investment Plan that prioritizes the space technologies the agency considers to be essential to achieve its goals over the next 20 years.  The 92-page plan calls for a balanced series of investments across 14 key technology areas. The document also specifically outlines spending priorities over the next four years, which cover the remainder of the Obama Administration’s term.

The investments are divided into three main categories: core technology (70%), adjacent technology (30%), and complementary technology (10%).  The investments are placed within a larger framework composed of four pillars that describe NASA’s overall goals in space.

The investment categories and pillars are described below in excerpts from the report. You can view the entire report online on NASA’s website.

Core Technology Investments (70%)

The Core technologies represent focused areas of technology investment that are indispensable for NASA’s present and planned future missions. The Core technology investments have significant impact on NASA’s scientific, robotic, and human exploration missions and further the technology needs of other Government agencies and the commercial sector. The Core priorities include both mission-specific technologies and pioneering and crosscutting developments.

The Core technologies are:

1. Launch and In-space Propulsion
2. High Data Rate Communications
3. Lightweight Space Structures and Materials
4. Robotics and Autonomous Systems
5. Environmental Control and Life Support System
6. Space Radiation Mitigation
7. Scientific Instruments and Sensors
8. Entry, Descent, and Landing


Adjacent Technology Investments (20%)

Adjacent technology investments relate to the Core investments that are not strategically indispensable. Adjacent technologies are not part of the Core technologies but are part of the NRC’s 83 high priorities. Their development may take more time than the pressing needs identified in the Core.

Potential Adjacent technology investments include investments related to thermal control, crew health, energy generation, and nanotechnologies. Adjacent technology investments also include investments in support of collaboration with other Government agencies such as cybersecurity, structural monitoring, and vehicle safety technologies. Many of these technologies are also applicable to national goals and priorities, such as cybersecurity and nanotechnology, which were specifically addressed in the Science and Technology Priorities for the FY 2014 Budget memorandum. Three Adjacent technologies—power generation, thermal control systems, and long-duration crew health—are associated with the NRC’s top 16 priorities.

Adjacent Technologies

Complementary Technology Investments (10%)

Complementary technology investments represent breadth, where Core and Adjacent technologies represent depth. These investments are characterized by limited immediate relevance. They include technologies with the potential to bear relevance within the 20-year horizon of this strategic plan, although investing now ensures that those that can bear fruit sooner are given the chance to do so. This set of investments completes the strategic approach by ensuring NASA casts a wide net, seeding future innovation. In some cases, Complementary technologies depend on other technology development for completion or far-term need dates.

Advanced (TRL<3) In-space Propulsion Technologies include technologies like beamed energy, high-energy-density materials, antimatter, and advanced fission propulsion. While the NRC considers these technologies “game-changing,” they are unlikely to occur in the next 20 years. The NRC recommended that these and other low-TRL, very-high-risk technologies be provided a low level of funding, making them Complementary technologies.

Some information technologies, including semantic technologies, intelligent data understanding, and collaborative science and engineering, are considered Complementary investments. While they can provide improvements and benefits over current information technologies, the NRC noted that much of the development of these technologies is being done now by industry. The inclusion of these technologies in the Complementary category stems from the low level required of NASA investment, not TRL.

Launch and ground processing technologies are also Complementary. The primary benefit from advancements in these technologies is reduced costs, as opposed to direct enhancements in technological capabilities. Current technologies in this area are significant contributors to mission lifecycle costs, including those supporting:

  • Transportation, assembly, integration, and processing of the launch vehicle, spacecraft, and payload hardware at the launch site, including launch pad operations.
  • Launch processing infrastructure and its ability to support future operations.
  • Range, personnel, and facility safety capabilities.
  • Launch control and landing operations, including weather and recovery for flight crews, flight hardware, and returned samples.
  • Mission integration and control center operations and infrastructure.
  • Environmental impact mitigation for ground and launch operations.

Ground and launch systems processing includes several challenges, such as reducing the cost of maintaining and operating ground control and launch infrastructure, improving safety, and improving the timeliness, relevance, and accuracy of information provided to ground control and launch personnel. The NRC noted that advanced technology can contribute to solving these challenges, but recommended that management practices, engineering, and design would be more effective means for addressing improvements.

Complementary technologies are the pioneering and crosscutting technologies in the NASA SSTIP pillars (discussed below) that were neither in the NRC’s 16 top priorities nor the NRC’s 83 high priorities. These technologies were consistently determined, by the NRC, to have the potential for only minor improvements in mission performance, lifecycle cost, or reliability, but are still considered widely used and important to future NASA programs and missions.


The Core, Adjacent, and Complementary technologies support the goals of NASA’s internal and external stakeholders, which the NASA SSTIP summarizes in a four pillar framework. Each of the pillars of NASA’s space technology strategy includes three components: a strategic investment goal, associated capability objectives, and technical challenge areas underpinning those objectives.

The strategic investment goals are:

  • Pillar 1 Goal: Extend and sustain human presence and activities in space.
  • Pillar 2 Goal: Explore the structure, origin, and evolution of the solar system, and search for life past and present (in-situ measurements).
  • Pillar 3 Goal: Expand understanding of the Earth and the universe (remote measurements).
  • Pillar 4 Goal: Energize domestic space enterprise and extend benefits of space for the Nation.