I’m both excited and humbled to announce that I’m joining the external council for NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program! NIAC nurtures visionary, sci-fi-esque ideas that could radically transform future NASA missions. Essentially, NIAC is one of the coolest of the many cool programs at NASA.
Just recently, NIAC announced funding for 12 projects including a submarine for Saturn’s moon, Titan, a comet hitchhiker, and an asteroid wrangler (pictured above, via Robert Hoyt). The previous round of funding saw projects researching everything from human stasis (suspended animation) for long duration space travel to 3D printing biomaterials on Mars. The whole catalog of awards from 2011 onwards is online.
If that isn’t exciting enough, the NIAC External Council (NEC) is an amazing group of individuals that I am honored to be joining. The council is chaired by Frank Martin who worked on the science operations of Apollo 16 and Apollo 17. The other members include Frank Drake, of the famous Drake Equation who pioneered the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and also created the Arecibo message; Penelope (Penny) Boston, who studies extremophiles and how they can inform us of potential life on Mars; David Brin, a notable science fiction author and science futurist; John G. Kramer, who is conducting experiments on quantum entanglement and authored two hard science fiction novels; Michael Yarymovych, a former VP at Boeing and Chief Scientist of the U.S. Air Force; and Larry Young, a professor of astronautics at MIT and has been involved in an extensive amount of biomedical research and engineering.
NIAC was originally formed in 1998 (at that time the “I” stood for “Institute). The program was then canceled in 2007, but a National Academy of Sciences report in 2009 urged Congress and NASA to reinstate the program:
The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) was formed in 1998 to provide an independent source of advanced aeronautical and space concepts that could dramatically impact how NASA develops and conducts its missions. Until August 2007, NIAC provided an independent open forum, a high-level point of entry to NASA for an external community of innovators, and an external capability for analysis and definition of advanced aeronautics and space concepts to complement the advanced concept activities conducted within NASA. Throughout its 9-year existence, NIAC inspired an atmosphere for innovation that stretched the imagination and encouraged creativity. Utilizing an open, Web-based environment to conduct solicitations, perform peer review, administer grant awards, and publicize its activities, this small program succeeded in fostering a community of external innovators to investigate advanced concepts that might have a significant impact on future NASA missions in a 10- to 40-year time frame.
Recommendation 3.1: NASA should reestablish a NIAC-like entity, referred to in this report as NIAC2, to seek out visionary, far-reaching, advanced concepts with the potential of significant benefit to accomplishing NASA’s charter and to begin the process of maturing these advanced concepts for infusion into NASA’s missions.
NIAC, now with the “I” standing for “Innovative”, has been back in the business of being awesome since 2010. You can follow some of the awesomeness surrounding NIAC and their funded projects on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NASAIAC.
Now for how you can help me: so much of NIAC’s success is thanks to the creative and brilliant people that propose ideas to investigate. In the comments, I welcome your suggestions on what organizations NIAC could consider reaching out to in order to further the diversity of breakthrough ideas submitted each year. I encourage you to think broadly: biohackerspaces, sci-fi conventions, Disney imagineers, or who knows… pretty much any places that foster (or have the attention of) bright people who have the capability to conduct intensive scientific research and/or prototyping of exciting, “out there” concepts that could move space exploration forward.