August 2, 2011 | last updated March 25, 2012 12:34 pm

Private Sector Vital To NASA's Future

With the space shuttle program officially over, the private sector will play an increasingly vital role in NASA's future, a top agency official said Monday at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Preston Carter, the space agency's director of game-changing technology, said that NASA wants to provide financial backing to nurture innovative technologies that could revolutionize future space missions.

Some of the agency's current missions include sending a rover to Mars, with a launch slated for late this year, and continuing research on the International Space Station.

"Things are pretty exciting in the space business going forward from here," Carter said.

Location-Based Technology

Carter's one-hour keynote speech at WPI came during a one-day conference in which scientists and industry shared the latest in the science of precision indoor human tracking. The conference was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Carter said precision tracking is needed in space for a number of purposes, from knowing where astronauts are located on the space station in case of an emergency to keeping better track of research equipment.

"The same technology you guys are working on here can apply to that," he said.

WPI faculty members have been working to develop a better system of human tracking since the 1999 cold storage warehouse fire that killed six Worcester firefighters. Their aim is to enable public safety officials to track the exact whereabouts of firefighters and other personnel inside of a burning building.

David Cyganski, an electrical and computer engineering professor at WPI, said that he and other scientists originally thought that precise tracking would not be very difficult to develop. And now, with GPS systems built into many smartphones, it seems all the more feasible.

But more than 11 years later, the task has proven difficult. Signal interference and other conundrums have resulted in inaccurate readings that could mean the difference between life or death for a firefighter.

But the technology is getting more accurate each year, Cyganski said. Researchers are trying to get the systems to track a human's movements within a one- or two-foot margin of error.

"There's an onion and we keep peeling away the layers," he said.

The New NASA

In addition to commenting on the research efforts going on at WPI, Carter also talked about the evolution that is going on at NASA.

Facing a freeze on federal funding for its budget, NASA has said it is banking on the development of reliable and less costly commercial spacecraft to transport its astronauts, fuel and other materials to the ISS.

Carter said that the game-changing technology program, which makes bets on new technologies, has required a bit of a culture shift for an organization that has been "mission-driven" ever since the Apollo moon landing.

Carter said his mission is to create a "DARPA-like" atmosphere of innovation at the agency. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is the Department of Defense's research and development arm that partners with companies to develop novel technologies for soldiers.

"It's a bit of a change for NASA," he said.

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