[We asked Pete Worden, director of the NASA Ames Research Center to tell us about NASA’s role in Silicon Valley’s start-up community]

The future is now, as NASA begins its quest to fulfill the goals of the Vision for Space Exploration. With a return to the moon and later travel to Mars, NASA Ames Research Center, located in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, is playing a key role.

NASA is developing the next generation vehicle to replace the space shuttle, which will retire in 2010. The Orion crew exploration vehicle will be NASA’s primary vehicle for future human space exploration. Orion will carry astronauts to the International Space Station by 2014, with a goal of landing astronauts on the moon no later than 2020. Orion will be a key element of extending a sustained human presence beyond low-Earth orbit to advance U.S. commerce, science and national leadership.

As NASA’s lead field center for thermal protection systems, Ames will use its thermal (arc jet), structural and environmental facilities to conduct critical testing and evaluation of a new heat shield for the Orion crew exploration vehicle. The heat shield will protect the spacecraft and crew during atmospheric re-entry, following missions to the moon or the International Space Station. This is a significant role for Ames and one that we’re particularly proud of. In addition, Ames has the lead role in developing the information technology tools, including the integrated systems health monitoring system, necessary for Orion. Ames also will play a key role in developing software for human-machine interaction, mission control, project planning, management and documentation systems for future exploration.

In addition to hardware and software development, NASA is replicating business practices of other high technology organizations. For example, to help spur some of the necessary technology development for future space exploration, NASA launched a capital venture program in October 2006 to support innovative, dual-use technologies to help us achieve our ambitious mission affordably, and better position these technologies for commercial use. Our partner in this venture is Red Planet Capital Inc., a non-profit organization based in San Mateo. Red Planet Capital will use venture capital and a NASA investment of approximately $75 million over five years to establish a strategic venture capital fund for NASA. Working with innovators and investors from the private sector, Red Planet Capital will develop technologies needed for future space exploration. We anticipate this will usher in a new era of collaboration for NASA with dynamic companies.

Red Planet Capital will operate from our NASA Research Park, located here at NASA Ames. NASA Research Park (NRP) is rapidly becoming a world-class, shared use, R&D and education campus for government, academia, non-profits and industry supporting NASA’s mission. We expect these partnerships to continue.

Another Silicon Valley company we are partnering with is Google, our nearby neighbor, with whom we signed an agreement last September to collaborate on a number of technology-focused research-and-development activities.

This new era of exploration will accelerate advances in robotics, autonomous and fault-tolerant systems, human-machine interfaces, material, life support systems and novel applications of micro- and nano- devices. We’re optimistic this will open up the entire sphere of the inner solar system to commerce and result in the development of impressive new technologies and capabilities that will benefit people on Earth, such as addressing our energy and global warming crises.

One of the technology development areas that I would like to see Ames involved in over the next few years is the development of small satellites for missions costing less than $200 million. I think that’s something that we can do well, and we’ve established a small satellite office to manage that endeavor. In the next few months, we will be announcing the formation of partnerships with various Silicon Valley companies to work with us to develop these small satellites for future low-cost space missions.

With a modest investment of our national resources, the Vision for Space Exploration will fuel the growth of human creativity, innovation and technology development contributing to U.S. leadership as a space-faring nation, scientific advances, and economic competitiveness: This is our destiny.