No Risk, No Reward
NASA’s High-Tech Revolutionaries
The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) was created in 1998 to fund visionary ideas for space research. Sometimes risky and often far-out ideas proposed by NIAC researchers included the “space elevator,” a cable to ferry equipment from Earth into orbit, and a “solar shield” to be unfurled in space to deflect sunlight and counter global warming. NIAC funded 168 grant proposals before closing its doors in 2007 due to budget constraints. The National Research Council reviewed the institute to see whether it had fulfilled its mission — to produce revolutionary concepts that could dramatically impact NASA missions — and whether a successor is needed.
NIAC was terminated in a period when NASA was struggling to align itself with President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, which focused on human exploration of space, particularly the moon and Mars. With limited funds, NASA cut NIAC, despite the fact that nothing comparable existed. Over NIAC’s nine-year tenure, annual costs were roughly $4 million, about 0.02 percent of NASA’s budget. One element the National Research Council committee looked at to evaluate the program’s success was the degree to which NIAC projects impacted NASA. The committee found that roughly 7 percent of funded Phase-ll projects impacted NASA’s long-term planning, a success given the high-risk quality of the research. In fact, two studies are being considered as possible future NASA missions. Most NIAC projects had long timelines — typically 10 to 40 years — and the committee stated that the number that find their way into NASA missions would likely increase over time.
These successes, and evidence that NIAC promoted scientific innovation and public interest in space, led the committee to recommend that NASA create a successor to NIAC, termed “NIAC2.” Several changes were suggested, however, as the committee found a few shortcomings in the original NIAC that may have contributed to its early demise.
The committee suggested that the new program’s activities be separate from NASA mission directorates and institutional constraints, although NASA missions should provide general themes for funded projects to ensure relevance. The committee also recommended that NIAC2 have a shorter timeframe for its vision; new projects should be scientifically and/or technically innovative and have the potential to benefit NASA in 10 years or soon beyond. The committee also recommended that NIAC2 proposal opportunities be open to teams both internal and external to NASA, and that a better system should exist for transitioning successful projects to NASA. One approach is to increase participation of NASA personnel in earlier stages of development. — Rebecca Alvania
Fostering Visions for the Future: A Review of the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts. Committee to Review the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (2009, 90 pp.; ISBN 0-30914051-X; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $21.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).
The committee was co-chaired by Dianne S. Wiley, technical fellow at the Boeing Phantom Works, and Robert D. Braun, David and Andrew Lewis Associate Professor of Space Technology in the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta. The study was funded by NASA.