Special Report: NASA Future Forum

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently held the sixth of seven planned Future Forums at the Museum of Science in Boston in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The forum included presentations by NASA Deputy Administrator, Shana Dale, the head of Ares development, Stephen Cook, and Chief Scientist at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, James Garvin as well as three panel discussions featuring a mix of NASA personnel, industry experts, and science and engineering educators.
Scale model of Chandra X-Ray Observatory on display at NASA's future forum
Scale model of Chandra X-Ray
Observatory on display
at NASA’s future forum

Each of the three panels focused on one of three words NASA is using to describe their organizational mission: Innovation, Discovery, and Inspiration. The innovation panel, subtitled “Unleashing the power of technology and creativity”, featured Lisa Roe (Director of NASA’s Langley Research Center), Helen Greiner (Chairman of the Board and founder of iRobot Corporation), Dr. Dava Newman (MIT aerospace engineering professor and designer of the BioSuit spacesuit), and Darryl Sargent (Vice President of Programs at Draper Laboratory). Representing NASA, industry, academic research, and the non-profit laboratory, this panel brought a wide variety of perspectives to the question of how we encourage creativity and all work together to bring out the best in each of us.

The Discovery panel, subtitled “Pushing the limits of knowledge to inspire new generations”, examined the pure science aspects of NASA’s mission and how access to space has enhanced research on Earth. The panel studied astronomy, of course, but had a surprising focus on the biosciences and medical research. The panel included James Garvin (Chief Scientist at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center), Harvey Tananbaum (Director of the Chandra X-Ray Center at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), Charles Czeisler (Director of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School), and Laurence Young (MIT professor and Director of the National Space Biomedical Institute).
MIT's BioSuit spacesuit displayed next to a traditional Apollo spacesuit
MIT’s BioSuit spacesuit displayed
next to a traditional Apollo spacesuit

The Inspiration panel, subtitled “Building idea factories for the future”, featured Jeff Hoffman (Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium), Ioannis Miaoulis (President and Director of the Museum of Science), Joseph Sciulli (Program Director at the National Science Teachers Association), Lee Silvestre (Vice President of Mission Innovation, Raytheon Corporation), Joyce Winterton (NASA Assistant Administrator for Education), and Isa Zimmerman (Senior Fellow, STEM Initiative, University of Massachusetts President’s Office). The main topic of this panel was the state of current science and engineering education, with a focus on how engineering and technology are ignored throughout much of the education process today.

The two recurring themes of the day were the ties between NASA, industry, and academic research and the state of science and engineering education in the United States. Dale spent much of her morning keynote highlighting several of the many industrial inventions and applications that were based on technology initially designed for the space program, and how some ideas originating in NASA had been further developed for commercial use then readopted back into NASA programs.
The close relationship between NASA and industry arose several times throughout the day, most notably during the Innovation panel. iRobot founder Helen Greiner talked about how NASA purchased the very first two robots designed by the iRobot company (before it even was a company) despite the fact that NASA already possessed the ability to construct more robust robots themselves. When she asked about it later, NASA personnel told Greiner that they bought her robots to encourage the development of an industry of commercial robotics. Today, iRobot employs over 500 people and has sold more than 3 million robots worldwide.
Scale model of the Ares I rocket
Scale model of the Ares I rocket

In addition to the talks and panels, NASA organized a small space exhibit featuring a scale model of the Ares I rocket, the BioSuit spacesuit designed by Dr. Dava Newman at MIT, a scale model of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, a station touting NASA’s new eClips program providing free educational videos on a variety of science, engineering, and space topics, and other space-related information and models.

TFOT has reported on recent and upcoming NASA projects including the NanoSail-D solar sail, the launch of the GLAST gamma ray telescope (now the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope), the upcoming MAVEN Mars mission, and a plan to launch a solar probe by 2015.
You can read more about the Boston Future Forum here. You can read more about NASA’s educational outreach programs here and you can find more information about the Ares I rocket here and the Constellation program here.

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