aeronautics and space. By fostering the identification and development of innovative advanced concepts, and by its actions to advertise the results of its projects to the public at large, NIAC served NASA well in support of this inspirational role.

A NIAC-like entity could facilitate the introduction of valuable products—intellectual and material—into NASA. It could broaden the population that can contribute creative ideas and concepts to NASA, a breadth that has generated significant new ideas. These aspects of the success of the previous NIAC form a compelling set of reasons to reinstate an organization with this charter.


The committee discussed and evaluated current approaches of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA to develop advanced concepts or advanced technology development. The committee found no program similar to NIAC in fostering low technology-readiness-level (TRL 1-2) advanced concepts with such a long time horizon to fruition.

The most frequently referenced model of success for advanced concept development is DARPA. As the central research and development organization for the U.S. Department of Defense, DARPA’s mission is to maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military and prevent technological surprise from harming national security. DARPA is not tied to a particular operational mission. DARPA’s approach is to imagine what capabilities a future military commander might need and to accelerate those capabilities into being through technology demonstrations.

BOX 3-1

Key Features of DARPA

  • DARPA’s only charter is radical innovation.

  • DARPA is not tied to a particular operational mission

  • DARPA looks beyond today’s known needs and requirements.

  • DARPA budget typically accounts for about 25 percent of DOD’S S&T budget.

  • Projects range from fundamental scientific investigations to full scale prototypes

  • Long time horizon from an idea’s conception to its use by the U.S. military

  • Program managers hired for only 4 to 6 years

  • Very limited overhead and no laboratories or facilities prevent institutionalization.

  • Organizational flexibility and ability to change direction quickly

  • Multi-tier Technology Transition process with identified technology transition liaisons.

  • Ensure transition of prototypes by negotiating a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the Service adopting the system

NOTE: For additional information, see Appendix G.

DARPA’s charter, culture, and business model are unique, with some features that could benefit a NIAC2 organization (Box 3-1). Chief among these are the ability to rapidly award and terminate projects; funding of high-risk, high-reward research and development projects that span basic, fundamental scientific investigations to full-scale prototypes of military systems; the intentionally short tenures of expert, entrepreneurial program managers, which ensures the presence of transition champions for successful projects; limited overhead and the absence of laboratories and facilities to prevent institutionalization; and a multitiered technology transition strategy with identified technology transition liaisons. Appendix G provides a more comprehensive description of DARPA.

In discussing the termination of NIAC, NASA management explained that advanced concept development is continuing in programs within the mission directorates. However, these activities are prioritized at varying levels across the mission directorates. For instance, NASA is studying advanced concepts for lunar and Mars exploration in the Exploration Technology Development Program (ETDP) within the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD). The first human return to the Moon is planned for approximately 2020, while plans for human Mars exploration extend beyond 2030. However,

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