So far there have been no formal expressions of interest in the technology for scientific space probes or recovery of samples and hardware from the ISS, although Cheatwood says NASA may offer it in future announcements of competitions for New Frontiers and Discovery missions. Meanwhile, the IRVE team will continue working on the ground to find better thermal-protection materials in an effort to raise its capability while lowering the payload weight.
At present there are no more flight tests planned in the nine-year-old project. If that changes, Cheatwood says one concept would involve using ISS garbage as ballast for a test of an inflatable heat shield returning from the station.
NASA was limited by the 22-in. diameter of the Black Brant nose cone, and also would like to increase the diameter of the inflated heat shield to gain more drag on reentry. At Mars, the more drag an aeroshell can provide on entry, the more surface is opened up to landings because an entry vehicle could be slowed more rapidly to the point where parachutes can be deployed in the thin atmosphere.
Beyond the data collected for future exploration and perhaps commercial operations, the test flight begins a process of developing enabling technologies before they are actually needed, an approach favored by President Barack Obama's NASA appointees over the mission-driven technology-pull approach used in the past.
“We're going to be doing many more tests just like this over the coming months and years,” says James Reuther, deputy director of NASA's Space Technology Program.