NASA

A call for reviving NIAC

In 2007 a little-known organization, the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC), was quietly terminated by NASA. For nine years the organization spent about $4 million a year supporing the earliest stages of development of technologies that could, in decades’ time, have a “significant impact” on future NASA missions. NIAC died because it had been shifted over time into the agency’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, where many programs not closely aligned with the implementation of the Vision for Space Exploration were eliminated. However, a new report is calling on NASA to recreate NIAC.

The 2008 NASA appopriations bill included a provision directing NASA to request the National Research Council to undertake a study on the effectiveness of NIAC and make corresponding recommendations. The final report on that study, released today (and now available online), finds that the original NIAC met its goals in developing technologies that could benefit future NASA missions. It notes in particular three technologies or mission concepts originally supported by NIAC, a mini-magnetospheric plasma propulsion technology, an x-ray interferometry imaging mission concept, and a extrasolar planetary systems imager, that won additional support from NASA after their NIAC work was completed.

Concluding that the original NIAC was a success, the report calls on NASA to “reestablish a NIAC-like entity” to undertake the same cutting-edge research the original NIAC performed. This organization, which the report dubs “NIAC2″, would be located in the office of the NASA administrator, rather than one of the mission directorates (avoiding the problems with ESMD that led to the original NIAC’s demise). It would be similar to the original NIAC, although NIAC2 would be open to proposals from internal NASA teams (rather than exclusively fund outside proposals, as NIAC did) and include concepts that could “provide major benefit to a future NASA mission” in as little as 10 years.

12 comments to A call for reviving NIAC

  • common sense

    “This organization, which the report dubs “NIAC2″, would be located in the office of the NASA administrator, rather than one of the mission directorates (avoiding the problems with ESMD that led to the original NIAC’s demise). It would be similar to the original NIAC, although NIAC2 would be open to proposals from internal NASA teams (rather than exclusively fund outside proposals, as NIAC did) and include concepts that could “provide major benefit to a future NASA mission” in as little as 10 years.”

    Wow! Let’s hope! NIAC + NASC and maybe just maybe we’ll go somewhere in a hurry, slow starting though but with a good chance. Rather simplistically (with OSTP somewhere):

    WH -> NASC (policy) -> NASA <- NIAC (technology)

  • SpaceMan

    NIAC2 would be open to proposals from internal NASA teams (rather than exclusively fund outside proposals, as NIAC did)

    Very, very bad idea.

    If they want to have a method for internal folks to be able to circumvent the internal funding hocus pocus they should set one up & not force
    “outsiders” to compete for funds with “insiders”. 3M used to have a very successful program to do this sort of thing (resulting in PostItNotes in one instance) & NASA would do well to do something similar but keep the two programs isolated from each other.

    Just my $0.01

  • common sense

    They would not have to necessarily compete for the same pot of money. Would it be difficult to set it up? I mean the NASA employee is already being paid, the employee would be redirected to something else if the proposal is accepted, while outsider may have to receive enough funds for their wages. So in the end they may not compete for the same pot.

  • Doug Lassiter

    The NIAC issue is just the tip of a bigger iceberg, which is the total collapse of mission-enabling technology development efforts at the agency. As it is now, enabling technology research is now funded pretty much entirely by mission lines. So mission-enabling research doesn’t start until the mission that needs it has started, and that research is specifically focused on that mission. Not a good way to incentivize new and creative concepts. Those independent efforts were stopped, I believe by Griffin, in order to save money, but the effect is to basically eat seed corn. New mission concepts have nothing to build on.

    I’m not saying that the agency needs another Code R, which didn’t have much adult supervision in the funding choices it made, but the agency needs to make some serious renewed investment in low TRL technology. NIAC was a drop in the bucket compared to what is really needed. Code R in it’s heyday was what, $2B? $4M/year for a NIAC? C’mon.

  • Brent Kelsy

    One way to cut through the noise here is for someone to answer the simple question: “Identify the most significant idea, invention, outcome or result directly traceable to NIAC that has had the most impact on anything to do with space, inside NASA or not.”

    I suspect the answer may be about as crisp and significant as the answer to the question, “Identify the most significant idea, invention, outcome or result directly traceable to ISS that has had the most impact on anything to do with space, inside NASA or not.”

    Visions and clever ideas are a dime a dozen; it’s what’s done with them that counts. How many NIAC concepts have led to anything real?

  • Doug Lassiter

    There is little noise about NIAC, but some is starting to crop up here. The NRC made their case clear. What part of that didn’t you understand? The NIAC program provided value to NASA. There were a number of NIAC-funded concepts that fed directly into projects that are now being planned. You should understand that at the very low TRL level that NIAC was funding, nothing happens fast. Those innovative concepts would not be realistically expected to lead to actual space hardware in a decade. Sorry, but life just doesn’t work that way, and surely not at $4M/yr.

    I find the premise that “visions and clever ideas are a dime a dozen” to be striking. Actually, kind of bizarre. Visions and clever ideas that are affordable, technologically credible, and address accepted goals, are actually pretty valuable. Not sure what kind of visions and clever ideas you’ve been frustrated with in your career, but visions and clever ideas are what the agency, and certainly the science part of the agency, are built on. I’m familiar with the X-ray interferometer and occulter mask technologies pioneered in NIAC. These are hard to do, but are recognized in the space science community as tremendously exciting ideas. The occulter idea is now a prime concept for TPF. Real? Yes, in relatively near-term agency plans. Real as in something that could knock you on the head? Well, not quite.

    The criticism of ISS is also sort of strange. What high impact ideas have come out of ISS? Well, gee, how about the idea that we can actually build things in space? Big things that can hold people! Now, of course the Constellation program would throw all that away, but hey, some putative destiny for civilization in space, if not just Mars voyages, is someday going to require building big things in space, and the technologies that were developed to do so on ISS are going to be key for that.

    If you want to look at something that cultivates vision and clever ideas with a more reasonable budget (as per Code R, see above), one can point to a long list of achievements that are flying right now. Howzabout that. Vision and clever ideas actually get used. On MER, Herschel, Chandra, MRO, HST, Spitzer, and many others. Um, yeah, that’s something having to do with space. Maybe a bit too far away to knock you on the head, though. Still real?

  • sc220

    The idea of setting up an advanced technology program is a great idea. However, this could be one aspect of a larger ARPA-N that could itself embody a new mission directorate at NASA.

    Spaceman makes a good point about competition between NASA and external entities. This shouldn’t be a problem as long as the solicitations were kept separate and distinct. One type would feature external-led efforts, while the other would be open to government-led teams.

    I would also like to see separate projects established to focus on key technologies, such as propulsion, power/energy, life support, in-situ resource utilization and space environment mitigation.

  • Brent Kelsy

    Doug Lassiter: The section of the NRC NIAC report specifically addressing the impact of NIAC projects on NASA’s long-range programs and the space arena at large had two ‘litmus tests’ the NRC used to gauge success: a) whether the NIAC porjects succeeded is getting follow-on funding from other sources and b) whether ~10% of NIAC projects somehow made an impact on other NASA programs. (The latter was a founding NIAC criterion of success.)

    The NRC noted that ~1/3 of the 48 funded NIAC projects got other outside funding, and only a few made it into ‘mainstream’ NASA programs. When the bar is set low enough — 10% success is okay — then you can claim success. From this light, one could say that the NIAC effort yielded results similar to any typical collection of VC-funded ideas in the private sector: maybe 1 to 3 out of 10 ideas lead anywhere.

    So maybe NASA should have a VC-like program akin to NIAC, but if they do perhaps funding it at more than single-digit $ millions per year might lead to more significant results.

    My point about visions and clever ideas is that it’s much, much easier to generate those visions and clever ideas than it is to figure out how to develop, implement and use them. “The vision is the easy part,” as Bill Gates has been quoted. Those of us in the space biz have been in “brainstorming” meetings where dozens of good ideas can be generated in a few hours when the right people are in the room.

    My beef about ISS (and its sibling, the Space Shuttle) is that it’s simply not an affordable idea. We got Skylab up in space in the early 1970s with three crew onboard for far less money, and IMHO opinion those Skylab missions generated more real science and discovery than all of what’s been done on ISS so far. ISS did not pioneer how to host people in space, and from early on the technical rationale for assembling a football field-sized structure in space (vs. a series of coplanar, human-tended platforms like the Industrial Space Facility, say) were, well, pretty flimsy.

    ISS proves little except that if you want to placate various political allies and spread the work among many congressional districts, AND then throw enough money at it, you can get it done. Bigelow Aerospace may be on a path showing that there is a way to get an equivalent habitable volume in space for 1/100th the cost NASA (and allies) did it for.

  • Doug Lassiter

    “So maybe NASA should have a VC-like program akin to NIAC, but if they do perhaps funding it at more than single-digit $ millions per year might lead to more significant results.”

    I think that’s a fair lesson here. For $4M/year, I don’t really care if some of the ideas that come out are “blue sky” ones. You get what you pay for.

    “My point about visions and clever ideas is that it’s much, much easier to generate those visions and clever ideas than it is to figure out how to develop, implement and use them.”

    Yes, but that’s not saying anything substantial. So let’s stop having clever ideas, right? Or maybe, let’s print money so easily made clever ideas can be developed, with great effort, into hardware like they all really should, right? At least in the space science community, it’s the clever ideas that often set the bars. No one ever thought about doing astronomical X-ray interferometry before the MAXIM “clever idea” came about. No one ever thought one could do planet detection without a humungous telescope before the occulter “clever idea” came about.

    Ah, Bigelow. So they blow up a balloon in space and put cameras in it. Nice. Is that a clever idea for human habitation that is ever going to get real? I hope so.

    I never said that ISS pioneered how to host people in space. What it proved was that large space structures, of the scale that might be required for a Mars trip, are achievable. Skylab? No, that was very much not an exercise in in-space assembly, which ISS very much was. Re science and discovery on Skylab versus ISS, I’m not going to argue. It’s apples and oranges.

    The point that ISS isn’t “affordable” is a policy-neutral statement. It must have been affordable because we did it. Was it a smart idea? That’s less clear. I presume you’re trying to assess “value”, which is what really counts. Affordability is kind of meaningless. Re placating political allies and spreading work among congressional districts, yeah, that’s the pits, but that’s how big jobs get done in this country. Get used to it.

  • Al Fansome

    I am glad that NRC is recommending bringing back NIAC.

    I also think that the NRC got it exactly right when it recommended bringing the NIAC focus in a little nearer term. Many of the ideas were 40+ years out. Meanwhile, nobody at NASA was focused on the low TRL ideas that were in the 10-20 year range.

    I think the hit rate for NIAC will go up even further than what it already demonstrated.

    FWIW,

    - Al

  • Kevin Parkin

    Few activities need a DARPA more than the space program. Afterall, if experiments in any other field cost $20M a pop, that would severely retard commercial development to say the least.

    As with all goverment endeavors, success is not in the headline but in the implementation. As the report points out on page 44:

    “Offices of Aeronautics and Space Technology (OAST); Advanced Concepts and Technology (OACT), Space Access and Technology (OSAT); and Aerospace Technology (OAT). These dissolutions took place in 1992, 1994, 1996, and 2004, respectively.”

    And NIAC was added to the list in 2007. i.e. NASA is an agency that eats its young, or is very careless parent, or for whatever reason has to kill its young.

    How can a DARPA be given to such an agency? Is there really no alternative?

  • Terry S

    “Doug Lassiter said;

    Ah, Bigelow. So they blow up a balloon in space and put cameras in it. Nice. Is that a clever idea for human habitation that is ever going to get real? I hope so.”

    Well, we’ll find out – their Sundancer manned module is on SpaceX’s manifest for 2011 and Andrews Space has delivered aft avionics flight qualified hardware to Aerojet, who has the contract for that ends propulsion unit. Orion Propulsion has the fore end contract, and production of the flight hardware started July 1 2009.

    http://www.andrews-space.com/news.php?subsection=MzI1

    http://www.orionpropulsion.com/index.php?page=bigelow

    And it’s not a really a balloon, but an “expandable” structure using what was the TransHab tech developed by NASA before they canceled then licensed it to Bigelow.

    Wish Congress would get out of the way when good ideas like this come along….

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>