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Fostering Visions for the Future: A Review of the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts
the advanced concept. Initially funded by NIAC at a level of $7 million, 14 of the NIAC Phase I and Phase II advanced concepts garnered at least $23.8 million in additional support from NASA, other agencies, or the private sector, proving their value. 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. Three NIAC efforts (7 percent of the Phase II awards) appear to have had an impact on NASA’s long-term plans, and two of these efforts either have already been incorporated or are presently under consideration by the National Research Council’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey as future NASA missions. Given the 40-year planning horizon of NIAC activities, coupled with the 9-year existence of NIAC, the committee considers it likely that the number of NIAC Phase II projects considered for NASA missions will continue to increase over time.
A persistent challenge has been the lack of a NASA interface to facilitate transition of promising NIAC projects. The committee recommends identification of NASA field center technical champions and a provision for the technical participation of center personnel in NIAC2 efforts. The degree of participation of NASA personnel may be expected to increase as NIAC2 projects mature. In addition, the committee recommends that future NIAC proposal opportunities include the potential selection of a small number of Phase III proof-of-concept awards for up to $5 million/4 years to demonstrate support and resolve fundamental feasibility issues, and that their selection be made jointly by NIAC and NASA management.
The termination of NIAC in 2007 reflects a larger issue within NASA related to the demise of programs throughout the agency for advanced concepts and technology development. To effectively infuse advanced concepts into its future systems, NASA needs to become an organization that values and nurtures the creation and maturation of advanced aeronautics and space concepts. Working for NASA, NIAC helped for almost 10 years to serve NASA’s need for advanced concepts, and NIAC demonstrated its success in creating a community of innovators focused on advanced concepts that might impact future NASA missions. A NIAC2 can look out for advanced concepts beyond the current development programs. It can work on the edges where requirements are not yet known, focused on what program managers would want if they knew that they needed it. However, an independent organization that nurtures technology “push” must also be balanced by a meaningful program of technology “pull” from the mission directorates—running in parallel and focused on nearer-term phased activities. Toward this objective, 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 considerations should include implications for the agency’s strategic plan, organizations, resource distribution, field center foci, and mission selection process. The technology development approaches used by other federal agencies can serve as a benchmark in this examination.