NASA Flight Opportunities Program Manager Danielle McCulloch discusses rapid demonstration of technologies and capabilities for NASA missions and commercial spaceflight.
The Flight Opportunities Program in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate rapidly demonstrates promising technologies for space exploration, discovery, and the expansion of space commerce through suborbital testing with industry flight providers. The program matures capabilities needed for NASA missions and commercial applications while strategically investing in the growth of the U.S. commercial spaceflight industry. Awards and agreements for flight test are open to researchers from industry, academia, non-profit research institutes, and government organizations. The flight tests take technologies from ground-based laboratories into relevant environments to increase technology readiness and validate feasibility while reducing the costs and technical risks of future missions.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- Upcoming Flight Opportunities test flights
- Available mechanisms for innovators to flight test technologies
- Technology gaps NASA is addressing through Flight Opportunities
Danielle McCulloch serves as NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program Manager within the Space Technology Mission Directorate. In this role, McCulloch provides strategic integration between researchers, mission stakeholders, and flight providers as well as other NASA programs to maximize impact for technology advancement and ensure that the flight test community is actively engaged in available opportunities. During her time with NASA, she has also held positions as Deputy Program Manager for Flight Opportunities and Acting Chief of Staff for the Small Spacecraft Technology and Flight Opportunities program portfolio. McCulloch previously held various leadership roles in the medical device and paper manufacturing industries and served as vice president for a small technology transfer consultancy. She has a wide breadth of technology-related experience, including technology evaluation, technology transfer, entrepreneurship, research culture development, innovation management, and fostering researcher and inventor diversity. McCulloch has a bachelor’s in chemical engineering from Washington University and an MBA from Dartmouth College.
Danielle McCulloch: Our goal is to help enable a really rapid pace of scientific discovery.
Not everything has to go perfectly in order for a flight test to be really valuable. So, we always want to be safe, but it’s OK if things don’t quite go as planned because we’re always learning something from that.
It’s also part of what allows us to go really quickly when we’re trying to advance technologies.
Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned, and novel ideas. I’m Deana Nunley.
NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program rapidly demonstrates promising technologies for space exploration, discovery, and the expansion of space commerce. The program takes technologies from ground-based laboratories into relevant environments to increase technology readiness and validate feasibility while reducing the costs and technical risks of future missions.
Danielle McCulloch is the Flight Opportunities Program Manager. Danielle, thanks so much for joining us today on the podcast.
McCulloch: Thank you. It’s my pleasure to be here.
Host: Could you give us a quick overview of the Flight Opportunities Program and explain what makes it unique?
McCulloch: Sure. So, NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program was created to work with researchers to help flight test their technologies, so get them tested in a relevant environment, which in turn increases the speed with which we can get these technologies to their uses, either in NASA missions or other national applications of these technologies in the space industry or other applications. And one of the things that’s most unique about our program is the fact that all of this testing is performed on flights with commercial flight providers. So, in addition to helping very quickly advance critical technologies for missions, we’re also helping to foster the growth of the commercial space industry and, in particular, the suborbital flight test sector.
Host: How do people or organizations get involved with Flight Opportunities?
McCulloch: Yes, so we have a broad range of researchers and technologists that we help with their technology advancement. And so, one of the ways that they get involved with us is through a traditional NASA solicitation. And so, we have what’s called the TechFlights Solicitation. So, members of universities, companies as well as private research institutions can propose to the TechFlights Solicitation. And there are typically topics that pertain to some of the most important gaps that NASA is trying to address in their technology roadmap. And then the PIs that are selected, the researchers that are selected from that, receive a grant from us to go purchase a flight from one of those commercial flight providers. And that is a system that’s been in place for quite some time. But it can be kind of time-consuming. So, the program also worked on what are some of the ways that we can get researchers to flight faster. And so, we discovered prizes and challenges.
And so, we created the NASA TechLeap Prize, which puts forth a really specific technology challenge. And innovators of any type from outside NASA can propose to that challenge with their technologies. And so, they win a cash prize to develop that payload as well as get access to a suborbital flight test as part of that competition.
For researchers inside NASA, they actually just contact our program and let us know about the technology they’re developing. We help them figure out what type of suborbital vehicle might be a good match for them, and we then figure out what are the different funding mechanisms and the different paths that might exist for them to get access to a flight.
Host: Let’s talk more about these mechanisms. What mechanisms do you have in place for innovators to test their technologies?
McCulloch: Yeah. And so, I think in particular what you might be talking about is the vehicles that we have. And so, they’re actually the vehicles that we use and then the funding mechanisms that are used to get there. We are really creative in how we put agreements in place with our flight providers as well as how we work with others at the agency to do a lot of cost sharing and different types of support to get all sorts of innovators access to these flight test environments.
But in terms of the vehicles that they can test on, so suborbital flight test is really where Flight Opportunities started, and that’s where the bulk of our work is. And that basically means that we’re testing technologies that oftentimes either go into space or to the edge of space, but they don’t go into orbit. We have recently started offering the opportunity to fly payloads that are hosted on orbital vehicles. So, they essentially ride along on a vehicle to get into a test environment. But again, most of the history of the program is with suborbital flight providers. And those are suborbital rocket vehicles, rocket-powered vehicles, and some of those are going up into space and providing about three minutes of microgravity to the payloads. We also have some rocket powered vehicles that actually stay pretty close to Earth but simulate landing type situations. So, for entry, descent and landing, they’re a really good test bed.
We also use high-altitude balloons, and they fly at various altitudes for various periods of time to give exposure to the various atmospheres or different types of conditions, even dropping payloads from altitude to help test those technologies. And then we also have access to providers that use their aircraft to fly parabolic profiles. And so, as they’re flying those parabolas, they get about 20 seconds of microgravity where PIs can test different elements of their experience and understand how their technologies react to that microgravity. So, it’s a very broad array of vehicle types that our payloads have access to.
Host: What are a few of the flights planned for this year?
McCulloch: Yeah. So, we actually have a number of flights planned for this summer. So, we have technologies, as I mentioned, that are flying on a rocket-powered lander with Astrobotic and they will be testing their ability to sense terrain to help land in really dark regions or permanently shattered regions of the Moon. So that is part of our TechLeap challenge and it’s called the Nighttime Precision Landing Challenge. And we have three teams that won, and they will be testing their sensing technologies in nighttime flights to see how well they can map a simulated lunar terrain.
We have another flight that is planned. It’s a high-altitude balloon flight, and it is planned to stay aloft for several weeks, and we call that a station-keeping flight. And onboard that flight will be technology that can be used by emergency responders. So, in this case it is going to be used by firefighters fighting wildfires. One of the most challenging pieces of fighting a fire, a wildfire, is the last mile of communication, which is the term that’s used. And so, they’re going to use a high-altitude balloon to provide some of the technology that links to all of the emergency personnel’s phones and really helps facilitate communication for those personnel that are in the field. And so that flight will be led by Aerostar, who is a high-altitude balloon provider, and we’ll be working with the U.S. Forest Service on that flight as well.
Some of the other fun flights, so I didn’t mention this mechanism for researchers, but we also work with students in grade 6 through 12. We have what’s called the TechRise Student Challenge. In mid-June, we flew 20 payloads on a high-altitude balloon from Aerostar, and then we will also be flying a couple of other high-altitude balloon flights with these student payloads aboard. And that’s really exciting because they’re essentially doing exactly the same thing that professional researchers do. They’re building a payload, trying to figure out how they actually get it to work in a very constrained mass and volume situation, and test something of interest to them aboard these suborbital platforms. So it’s really fun to see them approach these flights as well.
Host: From a program management standpoint, how do you support such wide-ranging flights and technologies?
McCulloch: It is a really broad array of types of flights that we do, the types of testing we’re doing, the types of vehicles we’re using, and like you said, the different types of technology areas that are addressed by the payloads. There are a couple of keys to making that work. So one is that we have a great team of people on the Flight Opportunities Program that have flight test experience. So, our home within NASA is at Armstrong Flight Research Center, and they have of course a lot of flight test experience. And so, we’ve really adopted their ethos of being risk-tolerant, really smart about flight testing but also understanding that not everything has to go perfectly in order for a flight test to be really valuable. So, we always want to be safe, but it’s OK if things don’t quite go as planned because we’re always learning something from that. So that ethos that Armstrong really set forth for us is something that’s very important in our program and it’s also part of what allows us to go really quickly when we’re trying to advance technologies.
Our goal is to really get things moving quickly and get to space as fast as possible. Or again, not everything goes to space. In some cases, it’s other applications that support. But most of our technologies are slated for some sort of space mission. So that ethos is kind of the underlying factor here. And so, several people on our team really have a lot of flight test expertise and they are really good at generalizing that across the various vehicles so that we have that just general approach to risk-tolerant flight testing, but also really thinking carefully about the outcomes and what is it that we’re trying to study, what are we trying to get out of this test?
In addition to that, they’ve also become very strong partners with our commercial flight providers and have come to know their vehicles quite well and also have figured out how to manage those relationships in a really productive way so that our flight providers are great partners in helping our PIs get ready for flight and really understanding what we can get out of the vehicles that they have.
We also are really good about leveraging all of the subject matter expertise from across NASA, and that ranges from the people who help us select the technologies to be tested so that we’re making sure that we’re really selecting the technologies that have the highest impact for the agency and for the nation, as well as helping us identify those gaps that really need to be addressed where suborbital flight test can help. And so, as you can hear, it’s really this very comprehensive group of people that we’re bringing together to help our community figure out how best to advance these technologies.
One of the other pieces that’s kind of neat is we have a great community of researchers that are willing to share their experience. So, we have a monthly community of practice webinar where PIs and flight providers actually join us and talk about the things that went well, the things that they learned along the way. They talk about how they prepare for flight. A lot of our flight providers have their operations in remote areas because some of them are hazardous or require a lot of space. And so that presents some unique challenges of if there’s not a hardware store nearby, how do you make sure you have everything you need when you go to these operations? So, it’s a really great community that comes together to make these flight tests happen.
Host: And it sounds like there’s great comradery among these innovators.
McCulloch: There really is. And in some cases they’re actually competing against each other for this funding, but they kind of set that aside and really do collaborate. People who are on the same flight together are often helping each other solve problems before launch. There are some really strict timelines and some really difficult situations, and they really all do come together and help each other. And then even before proposals, they’re sharing ideas with each other to really make sure that everyone has what they need to be able to think about a flight test and really be successful in their technology advancement. So, it’s really quite a pleasure to be part of this really unique, committed community.
Host: Danielle, what are the most challenging aspects of being the Flight Opportunities PM?
McCulloch: Yeah, so I think you covered one of them, which is that there’s really disparate activity that we work with. We’re working with a lot of flight providers that are very different. Some are very, very small businesses. Others are a little bit larger. But this whole industry is still pretty new and trying to figure out what business models look like and how they interact with their PIs. So that’s a little bit tricky, making sure that we really understand the broad array of technologies that can be advanced with our platforms, and that’s where we rely on a lot of other people throughout the agency and the community. And then I think one of the other pieces is just making sure that people understand that flight test really is test. And so, some things are going to work really, really well and other things might not work great. And that’s the technology itself as well as some of these vehicles that are still new and being proven out.
A lot of things have to go right for a flight test to come off without a hitch. And so, there’s definitely things that happen and we’re constantly reminding people that we’re approaching flight test with the utmost responsibility and understanding what a privilege it is to have this, but there are going to be times when things aren’t going to go as planned and we’re all learning from that and really benefit from it. And that is part of the program. And so that’s one of the harder things is that sometimes there is that maybe even disappointment that things didn’t go as you planned, that you really have to overcome and start looking for those things that were really valuable out of the flight tests.
Host: Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned NASA’s technology roadmap. Are there specific technology gaps that get NASA’s attention and that need to be addressed sooner rather than later?
McCulloch: Yeah, so that’s actually a really interesting question because that’s something that the Space Technology Mission Directorate, which is where Flight Opportunities sits within the agency, has spent a lot of time thinking about, and many people maybe have heard about the Moon to Mars initiative as well. And so within STMD, there is a strategic framework that specifies technology areas that we see as critical gaps right now. And so, for folks who are interested in learning more about that, there’s a tool called TechPort, and it’s very easy to find that online and within TechPort you can find the strategic roadmap and it really lists out all of those technology gap areas that we’re focused on and provides some additional details about specifically what the challenges are that we’re trying to address. And so for PIs that are interested in flight tests through Flight Opportunities, typically our support goes to those gaps that are identified by NASA. Not every solicitation addresses all of them, but that’s where we’re really looking is to that strategic framework is what STMD has, and those are the critical gaps right now for technologies.
Host: What are a couple of those specific technology gaps?
McCulloch: Yeah. So, some of them where we have seen Flight Opportunities and suborbital flight tests really have an impact, like I mentioned before, that entry, descent, and landing technologies. We’ve helped advance a number of those. People are looking at cryogenic fluid behaviors and what those look like in microgravity. We’re also looking at a number of technologies with respect to lunar exploration and how you actually pull all the different parts and pieces together that are required to do work on the Moon. And so, while we do have a really broad array of technologies, those are just a few examples of things that have been advanced through our program.
Host: Could you share a couple of Flight Opportunities success stories?
McCulloch: Yeah. There are so many that it’s actually pretty hard to pick, but I certainly can come up with a couple of examples here. So, for the Mars Perseverance Rover Landing, there was actually a technology that was advanced over many years with Flight Opportunities for terrain relative navigation. And so, the system really looks at what is on the surface of Mars as the vehicle is landing. And in the case of this landing for Mars Perseverance, it actually noted that there was an obstacle, and the system executed a divert to get to a safer spot. And that technology was tested first with Flight Opportunities before it actually went on that mission. And so that’s pretty exciting to see that technology in action there.
We also have a lot of technologies that go from suborbital flight tests, both rocket-powered tests as well as parabolic flight tests onto further research on the International Space Station. There are a couple that have actually gone to station, and as the astronauts were working on them, things didn’t work quite as they expected. So, they actually went back down to the parabolic flight testing, tested a few different things, in some cases, even worked through astronaut protocols and then sent those technologies back up to station where they were able to have much greater success the second time. Several small businesses have actually matured their technologies through us and are doing different types of in-space manufacturing on the station as well. So that’s really exciting to see.
And then we actually have a student team that has kind of a fun story. So, there’s an undergraduate team out of Cal Poly Pomona. There’s the Bronco Space Club, and they actually won our First TechLeap challenge and developed a sensing technology for looking at plumes and other phenomena on Earth, and they’ve actually applied that to wildfire detection. Well, this team actually used their winnings. So, like I mentioned before, they get a prize as part of this competition. And so, in addition to building their payload, they were able to fund the development of a new lab and some new resources, some new technology for supporting their technology development. And they actually developed a winning technology for our second challenge as well, which is the Nighttime Precision Landing Challenge where they have a sensor system for landing on the Moon. And so it’s been really fun to see groups like that really grow their capabilities through their involvement with Flight Opportunities.
Host: Danielle, it’s been fun getting to talk with you and getting to hear these stories. Thank you so much for sharing all this information with us and for taking time to talk with us today on the podcast.
McCulloch: Thanks so much for having me here today. It really is fun to talk about Flight Opportunities and how passionate we are about quickly advancing space technologies. Our goal is to help enable a really rapid pace of scientific discovery, and so it’s really a pleasure to get to share that with other people and help them be more aware of the program and the opportunities that might exist for them.
Host: Danielle’s bio and links to topics discussed during our conversation are available at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast along with a show transcript.
If you’d like to hear more about what’s happening at NASA, we encourage you to check out other NASA podcasts at nasa.gov/podcasts.
As always, thanks for listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps.