Who has the toughest job of all?

For an institution that once led the world in space exploration NASA has recently appeared a little shabby.

Starved of funds, it has been repeatedly savaged by commentators for its lack of coherent direction and measurable progress.

But according to Jim Bilbro, NASA chief technologist at the Alabama-based Marshall Space Flight Centre (MSFC), at least some of this is about to change. The facility is best known for its work on launch systems, microgravity and, most recently, advanced optics for telescopes, and in his newly created position Bilbro plans a complete reorganisation of its technological development. His task will be to find, develop and use the latest technologies to further space exploration, rationalising MSFC’s science and engineering programmes.

‘I have felt the Centre needed a focal point for technology for some time,’ he said. ‘Though I hate the term, we need to be at the cutting edge.’

However, his appointment is seen by some as the final confirmation that NASA will never again attempt the big prestige projects of the past. The vision that drove the agency in years gone by has been replaced by pragmatism, of which Bilbro is a devotee. He admits the results he will achieve may not be as grand as those of the 1960s and 1970s, but the public will at least get value for money, he claims.

Growing up on a cattle ranch in Colorado, Bilbro, now 56, was fascinated by the space race, keeping a scrapbook on its progress. Yet as the son of a cowboy, he assumed he would follow in the footsteps of his father. But after his death the teenager took over running the ranch, spending his days riding out for 10 hours at a time. Further work in a logging camp and as a ‘gandy turner’ on a railroad laying track in 40 degrees C confirmed engineering might be a better choice.

After enrolling on an engineering degree at Colorado State University, a chance introduction to NASA scientist Dr Fritz Krause led Bilbro to be invited to join NASA’s Fluid Mechanics Research Office at MSFC while continuing his studies. However, fate was to intervene. In 1968 his university enrolment should have been transferred to his new location. Instead, he was removed from college records, making him eligible for the Vietnam draft the following year. Called up in what, in a typically understated manner, he terms ‘a sort of mistake’, he served a year as a sergeant in the 101st Airborne Division.

He returned to NASA in 1971 to work on laser developments, such as a tracking device for monitoring aircraft wake. During this research he developed a fascination with optics that was to lead him up through NASA’s ranks.

Despite his talk of the need to drive progress Bilbro seems unusually calm in the face of what must be a tremendous task. After observing three decades of the Centre’s operations, he explained that the need for such a strategy has been a long time coming.

‘Over 35 years there have been a lot of direction changes. Some are disappointing, some are enlightening. We need to be programme specific, but when the programme is gone or withdrawn we must be able to keep the technology going. It must also fit with the agency’s vision. Most recently we have been allowed to become more businesslike, working not competing with companies.’

Over the years NASA’s own R&D capabilities have been eroded to a fraction of what they used to be. At the height of the Apollo programme 14,000 people worked at MSFC, now it’s around 2,700 staff and the same number of contractors.

For the agency to benefit from the latest technologies Bilbro will have to build on its relationships with academia and other institutions. ‘We have to reach out and look at cutting-edge technologies, establishing ties with others, home and abroad, to foster developments that will extend our programmes.’

While this may sound promising for current partners such as the European Space Agency, the reality may be less clear-cut. ‘Increased collaboration is welcomed as a general principle. Sharing expertise increases the outcome of research,’ said Frederick Nordlund, head of ESA’s Washington DC office. Yet he warns that joint agreements can also bring problems, particularly if one partner is unwilling to share all its knowledge for security reasons.

Like Bilbro, he also highlights NASA’s dependency on a yearly scramble for government budgets as a barrier to progress, unless reforms occur. ‘If one partner fails to find money or its policy changes at a critical stage there is a problem for the partnership,’ he said.

While the ESA view supports Bilbro’s reforms, his talk of rationalising investment does seem to point to a more staid future. Making investments in technology is very difficult, he said. ‘As research progresses, often things are not as clear-cut as they seemed. We are now trying to assess technologies, their maturity and the difficulties of researching them to their conclusion before we enter into a programme.’

The idea is to get a degree of certainty about possible cost and time before large amounts of money are spent. ‘There are four levels of maturity: variation, foreseen uncertainty, unforeseen uncertainty and chaos. If we do our homework we can limit what we do to the first two. It isn’t that the last two categories are unworkable, but they constitute something out of our remit.’

So does this mean the end for blue-sky research? ‘It won’t be a barrier to entering high-risk activities – we just want to know where the high-risk areas are,’ he said.A major problem, it seems, is that both the public and the government expect scientific discoveries on a par with those of the 1960s and 1970s, but at a fraction of the price. Bilbro’s solution is again to be pragmatic. ‘It’s a problem of expectation.

You can go into high-risk programmes as long as people realise that’s what you’re doing. Most things can be solved with unlimited time and funds but as budgets tighten we must change our approach. We can’t hope to have the same depth of knowledge as we used to but must focus and rebuild ourselves in selected areas.’

Despite the Centre’s online literature highlighting space adventure tourism and travel as an ‘exciting new market’, Bilbro is notably cautious as the subject of manned space flight is mentioned. ‘Manned space flights must support scientific research,’ he said. ‘Manned missions for the sake of manned space flight alone are not a good option.’

This does not bode well for inspirational developments such as manned missions to Mars. ‘Prestige schemes require the vision and backing of headquarters, Congress and the administration to become reality,’ said Dennis Jenkins, a systems engineer with over 25 years’ experience working for NASA, and a critic of many current objectives.

‘Until NASA can create a vision that is compatible with its funding, and energise the American people and political machine to support the vision, none of the prestige missions are going to happen. That is probably why [NASA administrator Sean] O’Keefe has decided to pursue enabling technologies instead of mapping out a specific destination. He can create the illusion of progress with no chance he can fail since he is not actually doing anything towards an end.’

But as Bilbro said, creating expectations is a dangerous game. While his emphasis on rationalisation looks to make the most of what the facility has, unless there is change in policies beyond his control those expecting a return to the excitement of years gone by will be disappointed.

For the record

Jim Bilbro’s career at NASA began in 1968 after he was plucked from Colorado State University to join the staff at Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Centre (MSFC). An engineer with over 30 years’ experience of the US national space programme, Bilbro was last year appointed as the agency’s first chief technologist, a role created to oversee R&D at MSFC. Bilbro’s expertise is designing lightweight, cheap-to-launch optics for use in space telescopes, including work for the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the world’s most powerful X-ray telescope. He has twice been awarded NASA’s top award, the medal for exceptional service.

Bilbro is a fellow of the International Society for Optical Engineering (SPIE) and stands to become president of the 15,000-member organisation next year. In 1998, while assistant director of the Marshall Astrionics Laboratory, he worked on rocket guidance and control systems and is co-holder of a patent on the use of Doppler laser radars (lidars) for tracking aircraft wake and vortex fields.

He is also credited with establishing the Space Optics Manufacturing and Technology Centre, a body devoted to developing, manufacturing and testing components for optical systems in space exploration. As well as holding a Master’s in engineering, Bilbro is completing a PhD in Optical Sciences.