Sandia LabNews

NASA, Sandia drawing nearer an expanded and moreformalized research relationship

A high-level delegation of Sandians, including Executive VP John Crawford, Division 1000 VP Bob Eagan, and directors from centers in several divisions, traveled to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory earlier this month to help forge a new relationship between NASA and Sandia. And this week, Bob led a similar delegation on a visit to Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland to continue a round of high-level exchanges of information.

"We are addressing Vic Reis’s request, who encouraged Sandia to partner with NASA," Bob says. Reis is DOE’s Assistant Secretary for Defense Programs.

The visits are part of a series of reciprocal briefings that started last December when officials from NASA’s major research centers spent two days to learn about Sandia’s technical capabilities (Lab News, Dec. 19). The Sandia delegations, in turn, are receiving briefings about NASA’s technical goals, needs, and capabilities.

NASA Administrator Dan Goldin – closely identified with the now-ubiquitous "Cheaper. Faster. Better" motto that has become a mantra of the downsizing era – has a way of expressing basic truths with an economy of words. In an era of static budgets, he says that NASA has two choices: "Do less with less or more with less." And since Goldin isn’t a man who wants to do less, it’s a sure bet that he intends to figure out how to do more, even in a time of diminishing material resources.

Aggressive pursuit of partnerships

To that end, Goldin has given the green light to an aggressive pursuit of new partnerships with science and engineering labs that can augment the space agency’s skills set. His commitment to forging partnerships coincides with significant efforts by Sandia’s management – as expressed in the Labs’ strategic goals – to pursue mutually beneficial partnerships with industry, universities, and other government agencies.

The Sandia/NASA exchange of technical briefings stems from this mutual outreach effort. As a result of the NASA/Sandia briefings, the Labs and the space agency appear on track to enter into a new level of cooperation.

"We are seeking to identify in some detail the areas where Sandia and NASA can and should work together to address technical challenges," says Bob.

The Air Force Research Laboratory has also participated in the exchange of briefings and will likely be closely involved in NASA-related work along with Sandia.

According to Bob Blewer, Deputy Director, Microelectronics Partnerships, Dept. 1705, and coordinator for Sandia’s NASA interactions, the matchup between NASA and Sandia is a natural. Over the years, he notes, Sandia and NASA have worked together on many projects in various parts of the Labs. However, it has not been unusual for Sandia participants to be unaware of other ongoing Sandia/NASA efforts. One goal of the coordination effort is to not only establish a heightened awareness at NASA of the broad range of capabilities at Sandia but also to form a network among Sandians who are (or could be) working with NASA labs.

Sandia has done key work on the Mars Pathfinder airbag system. Its radiation-hardened microcircuits have traveled to the outer planets aboard NASA spacecraft (including Galileo, currently orbiting Jupiter), and its computer codes have helped NASA engineers conduct risk assessments about launching spacecraft carrying nuclear power sources. Although the areas of cooperation between Sandia and NASA will evolve over time to reflect the changing needs and missions of the two organizations, there are already specific areas where additional cooperation seems to makes eminent good sense.

After the first reciprocal briefings, Bob Eagan said, "I’m enormously encouraged from the results of the interactions that have already taken place, and I’m looking forward to a broader and more formalized relationship with the various NASA Field Centers in the future."

Here are some likely areas for cooperation:

· NASA has always placed a premium on miniaturization – it practically introduced the concept to the language in the early days of the space age. NASA is now very interested in Sandia’s microelectromechanical systems capabilities. These MEMS, as they are called, may be quite useful to NASA as it moves to an era of microspacecraft, which can be fabricated and launched for a fraction of the cost of more conventional spacecraft while performing all of the science of their larger antecedents. Sandia, meanwhile, has a compelling interest in perfecting MEMS for the role they can play in making nuclear weapons more safe and secure. Good synergistic matchup there.

· NASA has an interest in so-called in situ sensors, sensors with the built-in autonomous capabilities to monitor and analyze their environment in place, even if that place is millions of miles from home. As such, NASA is especially interested in Sandia’s µChemLab lab-on-a-chip initiative, which as the name suggests incorporates the components of a sophisticated chemistry laboratory on a single chip system. For Sandia, the µChemLab has a handsome pedigree: it’s being funded under the µChemLab Grand Challenge LDRD (Laboratory Directed Research and Development). The device is expected to have important applications in nonproliferation, counter-terrorism, and nuclear weapons surety. µChemLab represents a good matchup between NASA and Sandia needs and capabilities.

· When you send spacecraft hurtling across the solar system, you encounter some pretty severe conditions, not the least of which is extreme radiation. Unfortunately, most conventional microelectronic devices don’t perform reliably in a radiation environment. So, for NASA, the problem is how to equip spacecraft with microelectronics that are both state-of- the-art and immune to radiation? Sandia, as it happens, needs radiation-hardened microelectronics for its weapons work; indeed, the Labs is a world leader in so-called rad-hard microelectronics. It is clearly in both the Labs’ interest and NASA’s interest to work together on maintaining a dependable supply of qualified rad-hard microelectronics.

As in all good marriages, the total of the relationship among Sandia, NASA, and the Air Force Research Laboratory is greater then the sum of its parts.

Says Blewer: "The timing is just perfect for Sandia to partner with other federal agencies to address related needs. Because there is a willingness at NASA and others to work with us, to synergize, we’ll all come out better."