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NASA’s “Technology Readiness Levels”: A System Worth Learning

Back in the 1970s NASA developed a nine-level system of “Technology Readiness Levels” (since widely adopted by other American and foreign agencies) as a way of measuring just how far a technology has progressed from concept to reality.

Level 1, the lowest, indicates that the “basic principles” of the technology have been “observed and reported” — that, at the risk of putting it crudely, someone is telling us that a technology is feasible “in theory.” This is, of course, very, very far from such a technology actually becoming “a thing,” as reflected in NASA’s definitions’ document having the exit criteria from Level 1 “[p]eer reviewed publication of research underlying the proposed concept/application.”

By contrast a technology at Level 9 is one which has already proceeded through the “validation” of key elements in a “laboratory environment” (Level 4), demonstrations of a “prototype in an operational environment” (Level 6), and even the completion and “flight qualifi[cation]” of an actual system “through test and demonstration” (Level 8), to the system’s being “proven through successful mission operations” (Level 9), proper documentation of which means that the system has fully “graduated” from development.

When you read a great deal about technological research and development you quickly find that a very great deal of journalism talks about technologies that are on Level 8, or 6, or 4, or 2 (or even 1) as if they were on Level 9. Consider, for instance, the media reports about a paper in the Journal of Plasma Physics last year discussing a concept for a plasmoid-based thruster that might deliver an exhaust velocity of over a million miles an hour. (When Mars is at its closest this would get us to the red planet in under two days — less time than it took the Apollo missions to make the far shorter trip to our moon, while it would get us to the moon in less time than it probably takes you to get to work in the morning.)

Exciting stuff for those of us who follow space technology? Absolutely. But the wording of the mainstream media reports, which used the word “invented” in reference to the thruster (a term associated with the actual physical existence of a thing) gave the false impression that a technology that would seem to be at Level 2 (published paper) is on Level 4 (key elements being validated), or even higher (some pieces giving the impression that the thing is on its way to the launch pad for its first flight). Perhaps it will be, someday, but the point is that it is not there now, or even a sure thing in the near term. (The design uses a tokamak fusion reactor to generate those plasmoids, after all. They’ve been working on those since 1958, and have yet to reach “fusion breakeven” — a fact unacknowledged in the pieces I have read.)

The strong contrary impression the writing on the matter offers is just one (if particularly blatant) example of the illiterate and irresponsible tech journalism in which we are awash. There is no excusing it, especially in this age where R & D so often entails such massive investment, and so many of the major problems we face require, as at least part of the solution, our investing in the right technologies.

It seems to me that the popularization of the Technology Readiness Levels system, or at least something like it, could be helpful in clearing these things up because of its admirably clear benchmarks. (Either the paper has been published, or it hasn’t; either the prototype has been completed, and tested, or it hasn’t.) Perhaps it could become something like the use of the famed star system when critics talk about movies — the Level a technology is on, maybe even the Level it might be on at such and such a date, given as a matter of course. In the absence of such a courtesy on the part of the author we can consider what they have to say in terms of that system — judging for ourselves whether they are presenting something of substance, or subjecting us to the simple-minded gee-whizzery of which there is always too much about, eternally distorting a very important conversation.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.

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