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Fostering Visions for the Future: A Review of the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts
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 thatNASA should reestablish a NIAC-like entity, referred to in this report as NIAC2, to seek outvisionary, far-reaching, advanced concepts with the potential of significant benefit to accomplishingNASA’s charter and to begin the process of maturing these advanced concepts for infusion intoNASA’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 committeerecommends that NIAC2 should report to the Office of the Administrator, be outside missiondirectorates, and be chartered to address NASA-wide mission and technology needs. To increaseNIAC2’s relevance, NASA mission directorates should contribute thematic areas for consideration.The committee also recommends that a NIAC2 organization should be funded and administeredseparately from NASA development programs, mission directorates, and institutional constraints.Future NIAC2 proposal opportunities should continue to be managed and peer-reviewed outsidethe 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 thatNIAC2 should expand its scope to include concepts that are scientifically and/or technicallyinnovative and have the potential to provide major benefit to a future NASA mission in 10 yearsand 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
The full text of the findings and recommendations discussed in this summary is provided in “List of Findings and Recommendations” below this summary.