The Future is Now

By Michael Gillis

Cornell's Mason Peck leads NASA's technology mission.

NASA chief technologist and Cornell's associate professor Mason Peck


In his speech to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy urged the nation to support a direct and bold course for the space program.

“It is time to take longer strides—time for a great new American enterprise—time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth,” Kennedy said that day. Over the next several years, the world watched in awe as the astronauts of the Apollo missions orbited the earth and moon, and on July 20, 1969, set foot on the moon for the first time.

The Apollo program and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) mesmerized the world. Their adventures and remarkable accomplishments in space has ignited the imaginations of budding astronauts and scientists across the nation. One of those budding scientists was Mason Peck.

“When I was two or three years old, my dad went out and bought our first television to watch the Apollo landings,” Peck says. “He took me along with him. It’s one of my earliest memories.”

Peck says he’s been a lifelong fan of NASA ever since. The associate professor at the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering is more than a fan, though. In January 2012, he walked through the doors at NASA as the agency’s chief technologist, responsible for overseeing more than a thousand technology programs and policies, and making the case for how the agency’s commitment to technology benefits the public.

It’s a task Peck says his life and career have prepared him to tackle.

“My whole career has been directed toward making some positive impact on space exploration and aerospace, generally,” Peck says.

“My career at Cornell has given me the freedom to explore some new ideas in a way that might not have been possible any other way. What it’s introduced me to is the range of work we can take on with technology. We have an opportunity at NASA, and I do personally, to make a real difference in how we meet the future.”

NASA and the Public Good

Peck is the second chief technologist at NASA since 2010, following a 10-year vacancy for the top technology spot. His office consists of more than 30 staff members at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and staff at NASA’s 20 field centers throughout the country. Overall, his office oversees more than 1,000 technology programs and manages the $600 million budget for one of the agency’s most significant and ambitious efforts, the Space Technology Program. Although it may seem daunting to manage such a volume of work in various technologies at NASA, Peck knows his mission.

“NASA’s benefit is clear as crystal,” Peck says. “When we invest in technologies, they may be for something that is far from everyday experience, like exploring space or investing in new ways to do aeronautics. The fact is, we are creating the next generation of innovative ideas that drive the U.S. economy. We have a big impact at NASA in creating the kind of innovative ideas that enable small businesses and large businesses to be competitive globally, as well as in the U.S.”

Peck says there are hundreds of examples of technology developed for the space program adapted for everyday use.

“The CMOS camera in your cell phone is thanks to a technology developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California,” he says. “About 95 percent of the baby food sold across the world includes within it some compounds that were developed for astronaut nutrition for the space program.” Other technologies, too, have immediate potential, such as NASA’s work on microorganisms that can clean up oil spills. “You can show how it could have beneficially affected the Deep Horizon oil spill.”

The result, Peck says, is that investments into the space program at NASA benefit everyone.

“When we spend money on the space program, we’re not spending it in space, we spend it on Earth,” Peck says. “We spend it at small companies and large companies, developing technologies that do help us explore space and then come up with new ideas about science, but also have a big impact every day.”

Curiosity is Critical

The Mars rover Curiosity touched down on the red planet on Aug. 5, 2012, beaming back stunning images and beginning a years-long exploration of the planet’s surface and atmosphere. It was a significant accomplishment for NASA (as well as some former Cornell students who now work on the mission), but also reiterates how NASA approaches the technology of the future.

“The Curiosity rover is a great success for NASA,” Peck says. “There are many ways in which you can talk about technology in connection with Curiosity. Even as we’re seeing some of the first pictures of Curiosity right now, we’re working on the next generation of Mars exploration technologies. Some of them are actually on board Curiosity.”

One example, Peck says, is the MSL Entry, Descent and Landing Instrumentation (MEDLI) sensors in Curiosity’s heat shields, which were activated as Curiosity entered the Mars atmosphere. “(MEDLI) takes data on temperature and pressure, and what we call recession rate, which is the speed at which the heat shield eats away because of the heat and temperature. All that data will be used to create the next generation of re-entry technologies for other science missions to come and for humans someday.”

As Curiosity continues its work, Peck says NASA is working on the technology that will one day ferry humans to the red planet by 2030, which is an agency goal. Among the projects under way to meet that goal is inflatable spacecraft technology, called Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, or HIAD.

“HIAD is a great project where we are creating an inflatable heat shield that’s meant to travel at very high speeds; mach 10 or faster, maybe hypersonic velocity,” Peck says. “It will allow us to land twice as much mass on Mars (than we can now) and maybe even more than that.”

Investing in the Future

Because of NASA’s “portfolio approach” to technology, Peck says there is no shortage of great ideas, which are only limited by funding. The approach allows NASA to cast a broad net, Peck explains, investing in the full range of technologies, from merely conceptual to nearly flight-ready. Some technologies mature and shape the missions of the future, while others fall by the wayside because they are determined not to justify significant investment.

Those great ideas aren’t only generated in house, Peck stresses.

“One of the great things about the way NASA is currently pursuing technologies is it takes these great ideas from everywhere,” Peck says. “Some come from NASA, some from academia, and some from industry.”

Peck points to the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program as an example, one in which Cornell has had some success in the past. NIAC looks for concepts that may be radical or entirely new, but are at least a decade out, or even 30 to 40 years in the future, Peck says. “We have to be investing, to some extent, in the distant future, in the very far out ideas, which will become the present someday, and perhaps sooner than we think,” Peck says.

One example of a radical concept is three-dimensional printing, or additive manufacturing, which would allow astronauts to build the tools they need in space, or even manufacture an entire spacecraft in orbit, saving on launch costs, and offering much more flexibility and adaptability.

“It’s also the kind of thing that leads to commercialization because now even small companies can have a hope of building their own spacecraft,” Peck says.

Partners for the Future

Peck and his team manage one of NASA’s most recent and significant campaigns, the Space Technology Program, which aims to find the technology of the future today. Peck says the program looks not only within NASA to identify and prioritize new technology for space missions, but also seeks out partnerships with other governmental agencies, academia, small businesses, and the fledgling commercial space industry. The program is an offshoot of the agency’s strategic plan, as well as a reflection of the president’s space agenda.

“This renewed emphasis on innovation and technology at NASA is also part of a broader national agenda that emphasizes this kind of research and innovation as a high priority for the nation,” Peck says. “It’s important for the economy, and it also makes America unique.”
SpaceX is an example of how these partnerships benefit both NASA and the private sector, Peck says. California-based SpaceX was formed by Elon Musk in 2002 as a commercial space transport company. In May 2012, the Dragon spacecraft developed by SpaceX became the first commercial craft to dock at the International Space Station.

Peck says that was an exciting moment for NASA, not to mention a number of Cornell students, too, who were involved with the Dragon capsule and the Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

In fact, it’s an exciting time for education, Peck says. Students have many more opportunities now, he says, whether still in school or after. Peck, who was principal investigator for the Cornell University Satellite project (CUSat), which is scheduled to launch its nanosatellite on a Falcon 9 rocket this year, and principal investigator for Cornell’s Violet satellite imaging project, says students can engage directly with private enterprise and spacecraft in a way not possible before.

“Students have the opportunity now, where they may not have years ago, to engage in private enterprise connected with space exploration,” Peck says. “There are a lot of opportunities, whether it’s working at NASA, or working with contractors, or even going out on a limb and joining one of these startups. From an academic perspective, when I was in college, you had no hope of launching your senior project. But CUSat is exactly that.”

While at NASA, Peck’s work at Cornell is being led by other faculty, and he is not paid for or competing for any research at the college. In the meantime, Peck says he looks forward to returning to Cornell in a year or two. Cornell is more closely aligned with the goals of NASA than many people realize, he says.

“Cornell, although maybe people don’t quite realize this, is absolutely a leader in the academic community in space because we cover these bases,” he says. “We cover near space in the form of ionosphere, we cover the orbit of the earth through the satellite work we do, and deep space, through Mars exploration among the many activities in astronomy. I think it’s to Cornell’s credit that we have such a broad background in this area. It’s one of the reasons I benefitted from Cornell’s reputation in being offered this position.”

More importantly for Peck, whose boyhood fascination with space exploration became a career at the top of his field, is appreciating that NASA’s mission is universal for the betterment of humanity.

“When we explore and reach the new heights that we associate with NASA, we do so for the benefit of everyone,” Peck says. “The impact that NASA has is nationwide, and even worldwide. Space is not a narrow discipline. It is not narrowly relevant. In fact, it’s broadly relevant because it’s shaping our future. And not just the future of science, and not just the future of technology, but the way that we live our lives.”