NASA's Favorite Martian

Robert Braun returns to NASA as its top technologist and Mars-mission enthusiast

Photo: NASA

Former NASA researcher Robert Braun was happily ensconced as an aerospace engineering professor at Georgia Tech when NASA made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: to return to become the first new Chief Technologist in 11 years—and, at 44, the youngest.

Braun, who’s spent his 25-year career researching, designing, and advising numerous robotic missions to Mars, saw it as a chance to help the space agency do the cutting-edge technology that, he says, "no one else can do."

To that end, Braun is opening his doors to all reasonable suggestions. His office is expected to soon launch a series of "grand challenges" to solicit technological ideas from the public in aeronautics, space exploration missions, national security, and communications, as well as more earthbound societal and environmental issues [see "A Guide to NASA’s Upcoming Grand Challenges"].

NASA’s long-term goals have humans landing on an asteroid around 2025 and orbiting Mars around 2035, after a series of robotic missions to work out the kinks. The fundamental technologies might include lighter tanks, more efficient propulsion systems, and inflatable habitats with deep-space radiation protection and closed-loop life support for humans. "Many of our space-age technologies translate directly into solving some of our problems on Earth," he says. "We’re going to search for the best ideas in government, academia, and business—hopefully, in partnership."

Braun returned to NASA after six years at Georgia Tech, where he focused on robotic planetary exploration systems design. Before that, he worked on robotic and human Mars exploration missions at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., and served on design teams and review boards for such projects as the Mars Pathfinder and Mars Exploration Rover. Since earning a Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford in 1996, he has garnered more than a dozen awards and authored more than 175 publications.

Braun was lured back to a space technology division that’s been promised an infusion of nearly US $5 billion over the next five years. He sees it as both a wake-up call and opportunity to jump-start the division’s research and technology arm, which, he says, languished for a decade.

During an August press conference at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which he has advised since 2006, he told journalists, "We are laying the foundation for the agency’s future through strategic investments in aeronautics, science and exploration missions, propulsion, robotics, autonomy, structures, and optics, among others. I’m not talking about investing in a specific sensor that’s going to fly on the next mission to Mars. I’m talking about investing in a communication system that’ll allow us to bring back data more effectively from all of those destinations."

"It’s those foundational investments that will enable these future missions and that, frankly, we haven’t made in this country over the past decade," he adds. "We can’t keep living off of 30-year-old technology."

About the Author

Sue Karlin is a frequent contributor to IEEE Spectrum . For the September 2010 issue, she interviewed engineers who have turned to comedy.

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