2010 Advanced Space Propulsion Workshop
The 2010 Advanced Space Propulsion Workshop (ASPW) was held at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS) from Monday, November 15 through Wednesday, November 17. The conference was sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL, based in Edwards, CA), the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL, based in Pasadena, CA), and the NASA Glenn Research Center (GRC, based in Cleveland, OH.
This was the 18th edition of the workshop, the first having been convened in 1990. Owing mainly to NASA budget cuts, the conference ceased being “annual” after the 16th edition in April 2005 in Huntsville, AL. The most recent 17th edition of the workshop was convened in October 2008 in Pasadena, CA.
This workshop focuses primarily on early-stage propulsion research, ideally in the “Technology Readiness Level” (TRL) 1-2 range. NASA’s increased 2011 funding for basic research has sparked renewed interest in early-stage space propulsion research, so the conference was well-attended with 75 registered participants and over 50 presentations in just three days. Sessions ran from 8:00am until 6:00pm Monday and Tuesday, with an “early” finish on Wednesday at around 4:00pm. Due to time constraints, talks were limited to just 20 minutes, including questions. Group dinners on Monday and Tuesday nights were scheduled just after the completion of the day’s presentations, so it all made for a rather grueling pace.
Presentations were loosely grouped by topic, subject to individual scheduling and time constraints. The first two segments of Monday were devoted to nuclear propulsion (both fission and fusion), while the third segment on Monday dealt with electric propulsion. Tuesday’s presentations dealt with solar thermal propulsion, solar sails, micro-propulsion, tethers, and beamed energy systems. Wednesday held all of the presentations that didn’t fit into the first two days, including some that arguably should have been included in the previous two days if time had allowed.
The Icarus team was represented by Project Leader Dr. Richard Obousy, Deputy Project Leader Dr. Andreas Tziolas, Dr. Robert Adams, Jim French, and Robert Freeland. Dr. Obousy and Dr. Tziolas presented back-to-back talks on Monday morning. Richard’s talk introduced the Icarus Project and discussed the Daedalus engine configuration. Andreas’s talk discussed candidate technologies for Icarus propulsion, as well as other Icarus ideas. Dr. Adams presented a talk that afternoon on z-pinch fusion, as well as a second (very amusing) talk on Wednesday regarding the Oberth two-burn escape maneuver. Jim French presented an analysis of gas core nuclear engines on Wednesday morning.
In addition, a subset of the Icarus team held a “focused discussion” on Wednesday evening after the conclusion of the conference, since most of us were flying out the following day. Unfortunately, Jim French had to return home earlier that day, and Rob Adams had family obligations that prevented him from attending.
While the presentations and talks were the centerpiece of the conference – and they certainly covered some interesting topics – the networking value of the conference can’t be understated. We were sitting elbow-to-elbow for three days with some of the brightest rocket scientists in America, so we had a chance to introduce ourselves, share the Icarus concept, and solicit valuable technical and organizational feedback.
People were generally supportive, though perhaps a bit bemused that we would all fly out to Colorado Springs on our own dimes to attend the workshop. We got a lot of questions about how we were funded, so perhaps we didn’t make it clear enough that Icarus is a theoretical study. These individuals probably thought that we were actually building a fusion drive in a lab somewhere – not necessarily an unreasonable assumption given that half the presenters seemed to be constructing prototype drives of some sort in their labs.
In fact, the funding question in many ways dominated the conference. A staggering number of the presentations (including ours) began with a recap of research done 30+ years ago, and it seemed that a remarkable number of promising projects had been cancelled and/or defunded over the years. Now the renewal of NASA’s funding for basic, low-TRL research is breathing new life into these older projects, with the hope that some of them can eventually make it up the TRL ladder to see actual use in future space missions. With the brain power and expertise concentrated in that room, it was easy to believe that truly advanced propulsion suitable for interstellar travel couldn’t be far off.