Summary

NASA is an investment in America’s future. As explorers, pioneers, and innovators, we boldly expand frontiers in air and space to inspire and serve America and to benefit the quality of life on Earth.1

The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) was formed in 1998 to provide an independent source of advanced aeronautical and space concepts that could dramatically impact how NASA develops and conducts its missions. Until August 2007, NIAC provided an independent open forum, a high-level point of entry to NASA for an external community of innovators, and an external capability for analysis and definition of advanced aeronautics and space concepts to complement the advanced concept activities conducted within NASA. Throughout its 9-year existence, NIAC inspired an atmosphere for innovation that stretched the imagination and encouraged creativity.

Utilizing an open, Web-based environment to conduct solicitations, perform peer review, administer grant awards, and publicize its activities, this small program succeeded in fostering a community of external innovators to investigate advanced concepts that might have a significant impact on future NASA missions in a 10- to 40-year time frame. Funded at approximately $4 million per year, NIAC received a total of $36.2 million in NASA funding, more than 75 percent of which was used directly for grants. NIAC received more than 1,300 proposals and awarded 168 grants, for a total of $27.3 million. There were 126 Phase I grants awarded for 6 months of initial study. Upon successful completion of Phase I and based on the continued promise of the advanced concept, 42 Phase II grants were awarded by NIAC for 2 years of additional concept maturation.

Many NIAC grantees went on to receive additional funding for continued development of their concepts from NASA, other government agencies, or private industry. In addition to developing revolutionary advanced concepts, NIAC increased public interest in science and engineering and provided motivation to the nation’s youth to study technical subjects. NIAC was featured in more than 40 general-interest publications—attracting mainstream media coverage for the agency and receiving more than 226,000 Google hits to its Web site.

Box S-1

Objectives of This Study

  1. Evaluate NIAC’s effectiveness in meeting its mission, including a review of the grants made by the Institute, their results, and the likelihood that they will contribute to the Institute’s stated goals.

  2. Evaluate the method by which grantees were selected and recommend changes, if needed.

  3. Make recommendations on whether NIAC or a successor entity should be funded by the federal government and, if so, what changes, if any, should be made to NIAC’s original mission, goals, operations, or other matters.

  4. Make recommendations as to how the federal government in general and NASA in particular should solicit and infuse advanced concepts into its future systems.

NOTE: The full statement of Task is given in Appendix A

Originally conceived as reporting to the NASA’s chief technologist so that infusion across all NASA enterprises could be assured, NIAC operated in an environment of frequent NASA organizational changes. In 2004, NASA management of NIAC was transferred to the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, where it was not well aligned with its sponsor’s near-term mission

1

National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA Strategic Plan: 1998 Policy Directive (NPD)-1000.1, Washington, D.C., 1998. Available at: http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/nsp/.



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Summary NASA is an investment in America’s future. As explorers, pioneers, and innovators, we boldly expand frontiers in air and space to inspire and serve America and to benefit the quality of life on Earth.1 The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) was formed in 1998 to provide an independent source of advanced aeronautical and space concepts that could dramatically impact how NASA develops and conducts its missions. Until August 2007, NIAC provided an independent open forum, a high-level point of entry to NASA for an external community of innovators, and an external capability for analysis and definition of advanced aeronautics and space concepts to complement the advanced concept activities conducted within NASA. Throughout its 9-year existence, NIAC inspired an atmosphere for innovation that stretched the imagination and encouraged creativity. Utilizing an open, Web-based environment to conduct solicitations, perform peer review, administer grant awards, and publicize its activities, this small program succeeded in fostering a community of external innovators to investigate advanced concepts that might have a significant impact on future NASA missions in a 10- to 40-year time frame. Funded at approximately $4 million per year, NIAC received a total of $36.2 million in NASA funding, more than 75 percent of which was used directly for grants. NIAC received more than 1,300 proposals and awarded 168 grants, for a total of $27.3 million. There were 126 Phase I grants awarded for 6 months of initial study. Upon successful completion of Phase I and based on the continued promise of the advanced concept, 42 Phase II grants were awarded by NIAC for 2 years of additional concept maturation. Many NIAC grantees went on to receive additional funding for continued development of their concepts from NASA, other government agencies, or private industry. In addition to developing revolutionary advanced concepts, NIAC increased public interest in science and Box S-1 Objectives of This Study engineering and provided motivation to the nation’s youth to study technical subjects. 1. Evaluate NIAC’s effectiveness in meeting its mission, NIAC was featured in more than 40 general- including a review of the grants made by the Institute, their interest publications⎯attracting mainstream results, and the likelihood that they will contribute to the Institute’s stated goals. media coverage for the agency and receiving 2. Evaluate the method by which grantees were more than 226,000 Google hits to its Web selected and recommend changes, if needed. site. 3. Make recommendations on whether NIAC or a successor entity should be funded by the federal Originally conceived as reporting to government and, if so, what changes, if any, should be the NASA’s chief technologist so that made to NIAC’s original mission, goals, operations, or other infusion across all NASA enterprises could be matters. assured, NIAC operated in an environment of 4. Make recommendations as to how the federal government in general and NASA in particular should solicit frequent NASA organizational changes. In and infuse advanced concepts into its future systems. 2004, NASA management of NIAC was transferred to the Exploration Systems NOTE: The full statement of Task is given in Appendix A Mission Directorate, where it was not well aligned with its sponsor’s near-term mission 1 National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA Strategic Plan: 1998 Policy Directive (NPD)-1000.1, Washington, D.C., 1998. Available at: http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/nsp/. 1

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objectives. NIAC was terminated in 2007. In 2008, Congress directed the National Research Council (NRC) to conduct a review of the effectiveness of NIAC and to make recommendations concerning the importance of such a program to NASA and to the nation as a whole, including the proper role of NASA and the federal government in fostering scientific innovation and creativity and in developing advanced concepts for future systems. This report of the NRC Committee to Review the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts is organized according to the four objectives set in the statement of task (see Box S-1 and Appendix A). The findings in response to objectives 1 and 2 form the basis for the recommendations made by the committee in response to objectives 3 and 4. The complete findings and recommendations of this study are listed in the second section of this summary, and several key findings and recommendations are discussed immediately below. As described in more detail in Chapter 1, the committee found the NIAC program to be effective in achieving its mission and accomplishing its stated goals. At present, there is no NASA organization responsible for solicitation, evaluation, and maturation of advanced concepts (defined as those at technology readiness level [TRL] 1 or 2; see Appendix H) or responsible for subsequent infusion of worthy candidate concepts into NASA planning and development activities. Testimony from several sectors confirmed that NASA and the nation must maintain a mechanism to investigate visionary, far- reaching advanced concepts in order to achieve NASA’s mission. The committee recommends that NASA should reestablish a NIAC-like entity, referred to in this report as NIAC2, to seek out visionary, far-reaching, advanced concepts with the potential of significant benefit to accomplishing NASA’s charter and to begin the process of maturing these advanced concepts for infusion into NASA’s missions.2 When it was formed, NIAC was managed by a high-level agency executive concerned with the objectives and needs of all NASA enterprises and missions. The committee found that NIAC was most successful as a program with cross-cutting applicability to NASA’s enterprises and missions. When it was transferred to a mission-specific directorate, NIAC lost its alignment with sponsor objectives and priorities. To allow for sustained implementation of NIAC2 infusion objectives, the committee recommends that NIAC2 should report to the Office of the Administrator, be outside mission directorates, and be chartered to address NASA-wide mission and technology needs. To increase NIAC2’s relevance, NASA mission directorates should contribute thematic areas for consideration. The committee also recommends that a NIAC2 organization should be funded and administered separately from NASA development programs, mission directorates, and institutional constraints. Future NIAC2 proposal opportunities should continue to be managed and peer-reviewed outside the agency. While NIAC’s Internet-based technical review and management processes were found to be effective and should be continued in NIAC2, the committee found a few policies that may have hastened NIAC’s demise. Key among these was (1) the complete focus on revolutionary advanced concepts and (2) the exclusion of NASA personnel from participation in NIAC awards or research teams. NIAC’s focus on revolutionary advanced concepts with a time horizon of 10 to 40 years in the future often put its projects too far out of alignment with the nearer-term horizons of the NASA mission directorates, thereby diminishing the potential for infusion into NASA mission plans. The committee recommends that NIAC2 should expand its scope to include concepts that are scientifically and/or technically innovative and have the potential to provide major benefit to a future NASA mission in 10 years and beyond. NIAC was formed to provide an independent, open forum for the external analysis and definition of space and aeronautics advanced concepts to complement the advanced concepts activities conducted within NASA; hence, NIAC solicitations were closed to NASA participants. NIAC was formed at a time when there was adequate funding for development of novel, long-term ideas internal to NASA. As internal funding for advanced concepts and technology diminished or became more focused 2 The full text of the findings and recommendations discussed in this summary is provided in “List of Findings and Recommendations” below this summary. 2

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on flight-system development and operations, the cultural disconnect between the development activities internal and external to the agency grew, and transitioning of NIAC concepts to the NASA mission directorates became more difficult. The committee recommends that future NIAC2 proposal opportunities be open to principal investigators or teams both internal and external to NASA. One important NIAC performance metric to assess was achievement of 5 to 10 percent infusion of NIAC-developed Phase II concepts into NASA’s long-term plans. One way to gauge such infusion is to look at the receipt of post-NIAC funding from NASA for the continued development of a NIAC- funded advanced concept. The committee found that 14 NIAC Phase I and Phase II projects, which were awarded $7 million by NIAC, received an additional $23.8 million in funding from a wide range of organizations, demonstrating the significance of the nation’s investment in NIAC’s advanced concepts. NIAC matured 12 of the 42 Phase II advanced concepts (29 percent), as measured by receipt of post-NIAC funding; 9 of them (21 percent) received post-NIAC funding from NASA itself. Over the long term, the ultimate criterion for NIAC success is the number of funded projects that eventually make their way into the relevant NASA mission directorate decadal survey, strategic plan, or mission stream. The committee also found that three NIAC Phase II efforts (7 percent of the Phase II awards) appear to have impacted NASA’s long-term plans, and two of these efforts have either already been incorporated or are currently under consideration by the NRC Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey as future NASA missions. Considering the 40-year planning horizon of NIAC activities coupled with the 9-year existence of NIAC, the committee believes it is likely that the number of NIAC Phase II projects considered for NASA missions will continue to increase over time. In addition, the committee received much testimony that the potential for receipt of a NIAC Phase III award is needed to aid the transition of the most highly promising projects. Therefore, the committee recommends that future NIAC2 proposal opportunities include the potential selection of a small number of Phase III “proof of concept” awards for up to $5 million each for 4 years to demonstrate and resolve fundamental feasibility issues, and such awards should be selected jointly by NIAC2 and NASA management. A persistent NIAC challenge was the lack of a NASA interface to receive the hand-off of promising projects. To improve the manner in which advanced concepts are infused into its future systems, the committee recommends that NASA consider reestablishing an aeronautics and space systems technology development enterprise. Its purpose would be to provide maturation opportunities and agency expertise for visionary, far-reaching concepts and technologies. NASA’s consideration should include implications for the agency’s strategic plan, organizations, resource distributions, field center foci, and mission selection process. Increased participation of NASA field center personnel, beyond review and management functions, should also significantly enhance advanced concept maturation and infusion into NASA mission planning. In particular, the committee recommends identification of center technical champions and provision for the technical participation of NASA field center personnel in NIAC2 efforts. Participation of NASA personnel can be expected to increase as NIAC2 projects mature. LIST OF FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS Given below is a complete list of the committee’s findings and recommendations, in the order in which they appear in the report. Findings Finding 1.1: NIAC’s approach to implementing its functions successfully met NASA-defined objectives, resulted in a cost-effective and timely execution of advanced concept studies, afforded an opportunity for 3

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external input of new ideas to the agency, and subsequently provided broad public exposure of NASA programs. Finding 1.2: The utilization of an Internet-based management environment enabled broad public scrutiny of NIAC-funded concepts and brought a high degree of efficiency to the proposal submission and review process. Finding 1.3: NIAC was successful in encouraging and supporting a wide community of innovators from diverse disciplines and institutions. Through establishment of its NIAC Fellows program, conferences, and awards, NIAC developed a community of innovators. NIAC was successful in its mission of developing a large community of innovative advanced concepts, as evidenced by receipt of 1,309 proposals in its 9-year lifetime. The 126 NIAC Phase I studies were led by a total of 109 distinct principal investigators, each of which led a research team of 3-10 personnel, often across multiple organizations. Finding 1.4: The majority of NIAC-supported efforts were highly innovative. Many pushed the limits of applied physics. Overall, the efforts supported produced results commensurate with the risks involved. Finding 1.5: NIAC was successful in providing widespread positive publicity for NASA, as evidenced by TV and media coverage and Internet interest. Finding 1.6: Considerable anecdotal evidence suggests that, through establishment of the NIAC student undergraduate Fellows program and media coverage of its activities, NIAC motivated young people to pursue studies in engineering and science. Finding 1.7: NIAC-funded projects were distributed well across the NASA exploration systems, science, and space operations directorates. Although the NIAC solicitation was open across all NASA enterprises, a low number of aeronautics proposals were submitted. As such, NIAC made a relatively limited number of aeronautics awards. Finding 1.8: Throughout its 9-year existence, NASA invested $36.2 million in NIAC advanced concept studies. Fourteen NIAC Phase I and Phase II projects, which were awarded $7 million by NIAC, received an additional $23.8 million in funding from a wide range of organizations, demonstrating the significance of the nation’s investment in NIAC’s advanced concepts. NIAC successfully matured 12 of the 42 Phase II advanced concepts (29 percent), as measured by receipt of post-NIAC funding; 9 of them (21 percent) received post-NIAC funding from NASA itself. In addition, 3 NIAC Phase II efforts (7 percent of the Phase II awards) appear to have impacted NASA’s long-term plans, and 2 of these efforts have either already been incorporated or are currently under consideration by the NRC Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey as future NASA missions. Finding 1.9: By design, the maturity of NIAC Phase II products was such that a substantial additional infusion of resources was needed before these advanced concepts could be deemed technically viable for implementation as part of a future NASA mission or flight program. This technology readiness immaturity created infusion difficulties for the NIAC program and innovators. Finding 1.10: NIAC produced studies that were of relevance to the aerospace sector at large, including other government agencies and aerospace industries, as evidenced by the fact that 19 percent of the Phase II advanced concepts received additional funding from other government agencies and industry. In addition, three new small business entities were created based on NIAC-spinoff technology. Finding 1.11: Partnerships and cost sharing were not required in NIAC’s statement of work. However, a number of projects were partially supported by the grantees’ organizations, thus leveraging the impact of the NIAC grant. 4

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Finding 2.1: The process for selecting NIAC grantees was well documented, was disciplined, met the charter of NIAC, and was generally commensurate with practices of other federal funding agencies. Finding 2.2: The process for selecting NIAC grantees led to a variety of involved organizations, principally from universities and small businesses. Finding 4.1: NASA is now an agency oriented toward flight-system development and operations. Priorities have thus diminished within NASA for long-range research and development efforts. At present, there is no NASA organization responsible for solicitation and evaluation of advanced concepts (defined as those at technology readiness level 1 or 2) and subsequent infusion of worthy candidates into NASA planning and development activities. Finding 4.2: Any expectations of a NIAC2 will depend on the management approach provided by the agency. Management with senior, NASA-wide perspectives and resources outside the near-term focus of the NASA mission directorates should, based on successful Innovative Partnership Program experiences, materially increase the probability for sustained value from a NIAC2 program. Recommendations Recommendation 3.1: NASA should reestablish a NIAC-like entity, referred to in this report as NIAC2, to seek out visionary, far-reaching, advanced concepts with the potential of significant benefit to accomplishing NASA’s charter and to begin the process of maturing these advanced concepts for infusion into NASA’s missions. Recommendation 3.2: NIAC2 should employ the streamlined, Internet-based, technical review and management processes developed by the original NIAC. These approaches met NASA-defined objectives, resulted in a cost-effective and timely implementation of advanced concept studies, afforded an opportunity for external input of new ideas to the agency, and provided broad exposure for NASA of advanced program concepts. Recommendation 3.3: A NIAC2 organization should be funded and administered separately from NASA development programs, mission directorates, and institutional constraints. Recommendation 3.4: NIAC2 proposal opportunities should be managed and peer-reviewed outside the agency. Recommendation 3.5: (a) The key selection requirement for NIAC2 proposal opportunities should be that the concept is scientifically and/or technically innovative and has the potential to provide major benefit to a future NASA mission. (b) Over the long term, the ultimate criterion for NIAC2 success is the number of funded projects that eventually make their way into the relevant NASA mission directorate decadal survey, strategic plan, or mission stream. Because most NIAC2 projects will bear fruit only over the long term, in addition to the annual performance and feedback reviews, a major review of NIAC2 grants should occur every 5 years to ensure continuous infusion opportunities into NASA missions and planning. (c) NIAC2 proposal opportunities should be open to principal investigators or teams both internal and external to NASA. (d) NIAC2 proposal opportunities should be defined as follows: Phase I, up to $100,000 each for 1 year; Phase II, up to $500,000 each for 2 years. (e) NIAC2 proposal opportunities should include the potential selection of a small number of Phase III “proof-of-concept” awards for up to $5 million each for 4 years to demonstrate and resolve 5

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fundamental feasibility issues, and such awards should be selected jointly by NIAC2 and NASA management. (f) NASA, through NIAC2, should allow awardees to retain rights to data and associated intellectual property developed under NIAC2 awards. NIAC2 should also be proactive in coaching the awardees in protection of intellectual property. (g) Efforts should be made to disseminate announcements and solicitations to the widest possible audience in order to reach the largest possible number of researchers, including those from small disadvantaged businesses and minority institutions. (h) Efforts should be made to encourage the widest possible demographics of reviewers, including gender, age, and ethnicity, while ensuring that breadth of experience and technical competence are paramount considerations in reviewer selection. Recommendation 4.1: To improve the manner in which advanced concepts are infused into its future systems, the committee recommends that NASA consider reestablishing an aeronautics and space systems technology development enterprise. Its purpose would be to provide maturation opportunities and agency expertise for visionary, far-reaching concepts and technologies. NASA’s consideration should include implications for the agency’s strategic plan, organizations, resource distributions, field center foci, and mission selection process. Recommendation 4.2: To allow for successful, sustained implementation of NIAC2 infusion objectives, NIAC2 should report directly to the Office of the Administrator, be outside mission directorates, and be chartered to address NASA-wide mission and technology needs. It is worth noting that this organizational structure was in place during the formation and initial operation of NIAC. To increase NIAC2’s relevance, NASA mission directorates should contribute thematic areas for consideration. The Innovative Partnership Program (IPP) offers characteristics compatible with effective and healthy, long- and short-term advanced concepts projects. The agency should consider adding a new element to the existing IPP to house the (internal management of) NIAC2, with its focus on technology readiness level 1 and 2 and higher concept studies. Recommendation 4.3: Identification of center technical champions and provision for technical participation of NASA field center personnel in NIAC2 efforts—participation that can be expected to increase as NIAC2 projects mature—is recommended. Increased participation of NASA field center personnel, beyond review and management functions, may significantly enhance advanced concept maturation and infusion into NASA mission planning. As appropriate, Phase II and Phase III NIAC2 projects should include realistic transition plans to the appropriate NASA enterprises. 6