Time to let NASA think big and bold again -- for a pittance

From NIAC's final annual report
NIAC, NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts, nurtured some visionary ideas for space hardware -- ranging from new space suits to space-telescope technologies. Now, experts recommend that NASA bring NIAC back to life after shutting the program down two years ago.

When budgets get tight, one of the first things organizations often seem to do is jettison their seed corn. NASA is no exception. Two years ago the agency pulled the plug on it's blue-sky technology incubator.

The reason: Money was tight, and the incubator in question had no immediate relevance to the plan President Bush outlined in 2005 for replacing the shuttle and sending humans back to the moon.

But today, the National Research Council (NRC) issued a report strongly urging Congress and the space agency to reestablish the one-time NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC).

This outfit, on a shoestring budget, was not asked to nurture ideas that would lead to technologies for the next mission. Instead, NIAC's job was to focus on concepts for technologies that might be needed 10, 20, 30, or 40 years down the road.

What sorts of ideas was NIAC nurturing? Advanced space suits, spacecraft powered by flowing ions captured in a "sail" of magnetic fields, and all sorts of concepts for robotic exploration of the surface of Mars and the clouds of Venus, just to name a few the Monitor has covered over the years.

Other research projects looked into space elevators for slashing the cost of putting payloads into orbit as well as concepts for advanced space-based telescopes.

How well did NIAC perform? Quite effectively, according to the NRC report (which has yet to be posted on the Internet). NASA funded NIAC to the tune of about $4 million a year between the outfit's inception in 1998 and its demise two years ago. For comparison, the president's fiscal 2010 budget asked $18.7 billion for the agency.

More than 75 percent of NIAC's money went directly to researchers as peer-reviewed grants so they could figure out ways to turn the stuff of science fiction into everyday space hardware.

You'd get two shots at your idea -- maybe. You'd get a grant for six months for feasibility studies. If the idea looked feasible (to experts other than you, of course), you'd get a two-year grant to continue developing the idea.

The NRC would tweak the old NIAC slightly. The original NIAC sought ideas only from researchers outside the space agency. The report recommends opening the process to researchers inside the agency as well. But the NRC also recommends ensuring that even NASA proposals clear outside peer review before NIAC decides whether or not to toss dollars their way.

It also had recommendations on how NIAC v 2.0 should be integrated into NASA's org chart.

Congress ordered up the study in 2008. And NASA now has a new administrator who already is awaiting a major look at the US human-spaceflight program's future. But as he, the White House, and Congress sort out NASA's priorities, they would do well to heed the NRC's bottom line regarding the agency's role in nurturing advanced thinking about space travel.

The bottom line: "...NASA and the nation must maintain some mechanism to investigate visionary, far reaching advanced concepts in order to achieve NASA ’s mission."

That's a roger.

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