rapid process for soliciting and reviewing the proposals, along with choosing a cadre of technically qualified reviewers.

A key starting point for a discussion of the degree of innovation and technical competence of the NIAC-sponsored studies is to focus on the definition of the term “advanced concept,” as given in NASA’s statement of work for NIAC:

The term “advanced concepts” has many meanings. Establishing the meaning and scope of the kind of “advanced concepts” to be solicited by the NIAC is fundamental in meeting the goals of this SOW. The following are a number of tests that the contractor shall apply to a specific concept to determine if it meets the requirements and intent of this SOW. Generally, the NIAC is seeking advanced concepts that could come into fruition in the 10-40 year timeframe.

  1. The concepts shall be revolutionary rather than evolutionary. Evolutionary means the next progressive step in development and/or a similar type of research to the research currently being conducted. Revolutionary often includes a new paradigm. It entails a leap ahead in technological advances and is generally a totally new way of doing something. The advanced concept may have been explored before, but in order for another exploration of the advanced concept to be revolutionary, it must be a new approach. This difference is illustrated in the following example: An improved rocket that would enhance human’s ability to explore space would be evolutionary. A totally different and new type of transportation into space would be revolutionary and might include a space tether, a space elevator, or a mini-magnetospheric plasma propulsion system, three concepts previously studied under past NIAC funded studies.

  2. The concepts shall be consistent with the National Space Policy and the NASA Strategic Plan (see http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/codez/new/policy/pddnstc8.htm and http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/codez/plans.html).

  3. The concepts shall have a “new” aspect. They shall not repeat or duplicate concepts previously studied or currently being studied by NASA unless they have a new approach as stated in 4.A. above.

  4. The concepts shall involve major systems and architectures and potentially have a major impact on how future Enterprise missions are accomplished. Systems include the physical embodiment of the overall plan to accomplish a goal and/or a suite of equipment, software and operations methods capable of accomplishing an operational objective. Architectures include an overall plan to accomplish a goal and/or a suite of physical embodiments of the overall plan and their operational methods of meeting an overall mission or program objective.

  5. The concepts shall not solely be a specific advanced technology or new design approach such as a new solar cell or a new spectrometer. The concepts must be put into a mission application context.

  6. The concepts shall expand the number of approaches or choices rather than increase the depth of analysis of known concepts.

  7. An advanced concept shall include both a technical description (the physics, chemistry and technology) as well as the quantification of potential benefits.1

This definition was used throughout the 9-year life of NIAC, and a total of 1,309 proposals for Phase I funding (which focused on a concept) were received. Thus, the NIAC definition of the term “advanced concepts” was successful in attracting a wide range of proposals. These proposals were submitted online and given a preliminary screening by the NIAC staff and then were passed along to an external review team. The reviewer pool consisted of nearly 200 skilled professionals. The proposals were examined and given a preliminary evaluation using an all-electronic approach to initial evaluation, which was unique at the time. The preliminary evaluation was followed by a meeting of senior reviewers who selected the final proposals for recommendation. NIAC award criteria are presented in Box 1-1.


Statement of work for the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, Attachment A of Contract NAS5-03110, Amendment of Solicitation/Modification No. 7, issued by NASA for the Universities Space Research Association, dated July 11, 2003, pp. 2-3; reprinted in Appendix D.

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