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Fostering Visions for the Future: A Review of the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts
IMPORTANCE OF ADVANCED CONCEPT DEVELOPMENT
Historically, the first technical challenge to the space community was to launch a satellite into orbit, regardless of its mass or payload. Quickly the challenge became to use satellites for observation, and unexpected findings like the Van Allen belts emerged, one after another. The crewed space programs presented further challenges—meeting safety and reliability requirements and addressing life support issues. Grand adventures in space science, astronomy, Earth observations, and life and materials sciences followed as the United States, largely through NASA, achieved world leadership in space science and technology.
In the 1980s, under the pressure of limited budgets, NASA retreated from its exciting, risk-taking, high-technology culture. At present, its big programs, all very costly, relate either to continued low-Earth-orbit human spaceflight with little cutting-edge technology involved, or to the planned return of humans to the Moon in a manner that looks remarkably like the Apollo program with an infusion of existing 21st-century technology. Today, NASA’s investment in advanced concepts and long-term technological solutions to its strategic goals is minimal.
Through NASA, the United States would be well served by investing at least a small fraction of the agency’s budget in support of advanced concepts—concepts so difficult to achieve that their chance of individual success within a decade is less than 10 percent, yet projects so innovative that their success could serve as game-changers for entirely new aeronautics and space endeavors. The importance of high-value basic and applied research is now as great as ever. Major breakthroughs are needed to address society’s energy, health, transportation, and environmental challenges. While NASA investments alone will not solve these grand challenges, NASA does have a unique ability to motivate and attract many of the country’s best minds into educational programs and careers in engineering and science. If NASA does not support advanced concept activities, no other U.S. source of funding is likely to fill the gap—not the National Science Foundation, and not the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Although it is not possible to predict which advanced concepts will produce world-shaking results, it is certainly true that in the absence of research on such concepts, the United States will not make revolutionary technological advances in aeronautics and space. This line of thought led to the establishment of NIAC.
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE NASA INSTITUTE FOR ADVANCED CONCEPTS
Operation of NIAC began on February 10, 1998, when a contract was awarded to the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) by NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist. ANSER Corporation (an operating unit of Analytic Services, Inc.), through a subcontract from USRA/NIAC, provided program support, technical support, and information technology support for NIAC’s operation. Funded at $4 million per year—approximately 0.02 percent of NASA’s budget—NIAC was established 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 the NASA enterprises. NIAC’s purpose was to develop advanced concepts, visions, and architectures to inform technology development that NASA would invest in later. The concepts studied by NIAC in this role were more speculative than those funded by the better-known Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Research programs, which followed well-defined paths to technical maturity. NIAC selected the concepts for support, independent of NASA, through an external review process by respected technical experts.
Sponsorship for NIAC followed a difficult path over its 9-year existence, due to NASA’s history of frequent reorganization. NIAC was originally created within NASA’s Code R organization as a cross-cutting program that supported all the NASA directorates. In fact, the NIAC operating charter called for NASA review and concurrence on all concepts selected for funding, and NASA’s NIAC Concurrence Review Panel consisted of members from all the directorates.