Committee to Review the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts Statement of Task, Objective 3—Make recommendations on whether NIAC or a successor entity should be funded by the federal government and, if so, what changes, if any, should be made to NIAC’s original mission, goals, operations, or other matters.
As discussed in Chapters 1 and 2, the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) was both effective and efficient in meeting the objectives established for it by NASA. A recommendation as to whether or not NIAC or a successor entity should be funded also depends on factors external to NIAC. These include:
NASA’s need to identify innovative concepts with significant benefits for advanced systems and missions,
Alternative methods used by NASA to establish and develop future mission concepts, and
Potential funding levels for a successor entity.
This chapter concludes with specific recommendations on changes that should be considered to maximize the effectiveness of a successor entity to NIAC, referred to in this report as NIAC2.
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.
This recommendation is based on a combination of factors identified by the committee:
NASA needs to have a viable, long-term plan for new missions and systems in order to meet its obligations to the public.
NASA needs appropriate, open methods to ensure that it has access to the best new mission and system concepts from any source, not only those developed within NASA.
NASA needs effective and efficient processes to assess new ideas for its future systems and missions and to develop the most promising of those ideas to a level suitable for its plans.
NASA needs to continue to develop and expand its reputation for international leadership in aeronautics and space research and to inspire the public with bold missions of exploration.
One of NASA’s roles is to inspire the public with a spirit of discovery and exploration, and NASA is at its best when it accomplishes this through significant scientific and technical achievement in
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3 A Successor to NIAC Committee to Review the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts Statement of Task, Objective 3⎯ Make recommendations on whether NIAC or a successor entity should be funded by the federal government and, if so, what changes, if any, should be made to NIAC’s original mission, goals, operations, or other matters. As discussed in Chapters 1 and 2, the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) was both effective and efficient in meeting the objectives established for it by NASA. A recommendation as to whether or not NIAC or a successor entity should be funded also depends on factors external to NIAC. These include: 1. NASA’s need to identify innovative concepts with significant benefits for advanced systems and missions, 2. Alternative methods used by NASA to establish and develop future mission concepts, and 3. Potential funding levels for a successor entity. This chapter concludes with specific recommendations on changes that should be considered to maximize the effectiveness of a successor entity to NIAC, referred to in this report as NIAC2. SHOULD THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT FUND A NIAC-LIKE ENTITY? 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. This recommendation is based on a combination of factors identified by the committee: • NASA needs to have a viable, long-term plan for new missions and systems in order to meet its obligations to the public. • NASA needs appropriate, open methods to ensure that it has access to the best new mission and system concepts from any source, not only those developed within NASA. • NASA needs effective and efficient processes to assess new ideas for its future systems and missions and to develop the most promising of those ideas to a level suitable for its plans. • NASA needs to continue to develop and expand its reputation for international leadership in aeronautics and space research and to inspire the public with bold missions of exploration. One of NASA’s roles is to inspire the public with a spirit of discovery and exploration, and NASA is at its best when it accomplishes this through significant scientific and technical achievement in 29
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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. ALTERNATIVES TO NIAC 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 BOX 3-1 Key Features of DARPA research and development organization for • DARPA’s only charter is radical innovation. the U.S. Department of Defense, DARPA’s • DARPA is not tied to a particular operational mission mission is to maintain the technological • DARPA looks beyond today’s known needs and superiority of the U.S. military and prevent requirements. technological surprise from harming national • DARPA budget typically accounts for about 25 security. DARPA is not tied to a particular percent of DOD’S S&T budget. • operational mission. DARPA’s approach is Projects range from fundamental scientific investigations to full scale prototypes to imagine what capabilities a future military • Long time horizon from an idea’s conception to its use commander might need and to accelerate by the U.S. military those capabilities into being through • Program managers hired for only 4 to 6 years technology demonstrations. • Very limited overhead and no laboratories or facilities DARPA’s charter, culture, and prevent institutionalization. • Organizational flexibility and ability to change direction business model are unique, with some quickly features that could benefit a NIAC2 • Multi-tier Technology Transition process with identified organization (Box 3-1). Chief among these technology transition liaisons. are the ability to rapidly award and terminate • Ensure transition of prototypes by negotiating a projects; funding of high-risk, high-reward memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the Service adopting the system research and development projects that span basic, fundamental scientific investigations to full-scale prototypes of military systems; the NOTE: For additional information, see Appendix G. 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, 30
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a recent National Research Council (NRC) study of the ETDP found a focus on high-TRL technology and a lack of advanced concept development and low-TRL research.1 The concept development approach used by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) was singled out by some presenters to the committee as a potential agency model because it regularly employs a number of established processes for identifying new mission and system concepts to be incorporated into its advanced plans. The scientific objectives of the SMD are developed to implement the priorities defined by the NRC in its decadal surveys and other reports, which represent the broad consensus of the scientific community. In addition, each area of the SMD engages the scientific community to develop a series of roadmaps of its future science program.2 The final roadmaps, together with the NASA Strategic Plan, the SMD Science Plan, and other planning documents, are used by NASA as guidance in soliciting and selecting proposals for concept and technology development. Thus, within SMD there is an established process that is regularly employed and that involves the scientific community in (1) setting research goals, (2) identifying future missions, and (3) supporting concept and technology development (primarily in the area of sensors) directed at those goals and missions. Other programs to solicit new mission concepts and technologies are established by NASA from time to time in response to its needs. Within SMD, these include the “Astrophysics Strategic Mission Concept Studies,” which are currently underway with a total of $12.7 million to fund 19 12-month investigations; and the “Vision Missions” advanced studies program of 2004 to 2006. While both of these ad hoc study projects and the roadmap process replicate some of the functions of NIAC, they lack the continuity, breadth, and focus on advanced missions that NIAC provided. RECOMMENDED ORGANIZATION AND IMPLEMENTATION FOR NIAC Recommendation 3.2: NIAC2 should employ the streamlined, Internet-based, technical review and management processes developed by the original NIAC. These approaches met NASA-defined objectives, resulted in a cost-effective and timely implementation of advanced concept studies, afforded an opportunity for external input of new ideas to the agency, and provided broad exposure for NASA of advanced program concepts. As noted in Chapters 1 and 2, the committee found that the processes used by NIAC to select proposals for funding were efficient and effective. The committee also found that the majority of NIAC- supported efforts were highly innovative and creative. The committee believes that the processes employed by NIAC to select proposals for award helped to ensure their success. These processes included the kind of technical peer review used by the scientific establishment for prior review of archival publications and used by NASA in the review of proposals for scientific investigations. The breadth of involvement of the larger technical community that results from the peer review process helps to ensure that the best ideas are identified from a wide range of possibilities. Also, these processes helped NIAC to avoid “stovepipes” and organizational inbreeding that can occur in a more restricted, less open organization. The above recommendation is not intended to exclude NASA employees from serving as peer reviewers; specifically, the NIAC2 recommended by the committee should not artificially restrict the pool of qualified peer reviewers according to whether or not they are employed by NASA. The committee was impressed at the efficiency and effectiveness of the proposal peer review process developed and deployed by the original NIAC, which took advantage of electronic documents and communications and achieved uniformity of results through a set of templates and related forms used by the reviewers. These Internet-based review and management processes led to significant efficiencies, 1 National Research Council, A Constrained Space Exploration Technology Program: A Review of NASA’s Exploration Technology Development Program, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2008. 2 For an example, see http://sec.gsfc.nasa.gov/sec_roadmap.htm. 31
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resulting in more than 75 percent of program funding going directly to grants. In addition to the costs associated with maintaining a staff of, typically, six personnel, the remaining funding went for activities called for in the NIAC statement of work to “sustain public interest in revolutionary concepts of alternative aerospace” and “provide a positive motivation to the nation’s youth to study technical subjects,”3 including workshops focused on emerging technical areas; participation by NIAC employees in national technical meetings; representation on technical committees and boards; and presentations of seminars at universities, K-12 schools, and other organizations. NIAC’s activities to foster a community of innovators were successful. NIAC’s public outreach was an important component of its value to NASA. These processes should be a baseline for NIAC2, subject to continued development and refinement as electronic communications capabilities increase. At approximately $4 million per year, the amount of funding allocated to NIAC for Phase I and Phase II grants was appropriate. Recommendation 3.3: A NIAC2 organization should be funded and administered separately from the NASA development programs, mission directorates, and institutional constraints. NASA is responsible for the management and execution of programs that represent a significant investment of public funds and that are of high importance and value to the reputation of the United States. The resulting management focus and attention on ensuring the success of these missions is essential, and has led to NASA’s reputation as an agency oriented toward flight-system development and operations. However, for NASA to remain at the forefront of aeronautics and space exploration and research, this focus on execution of the mission must not be such as to exclude appropriate long-term planning for future programs. NIAC was terminated after it had been transferred to the ESMD and at a time when the ESMD was focused on developing initial plans for the Vision for Space Exploration. In the context of this part of the NASA organization, and in the context of the focus required to develop the Vision for Space Exploration, the mission of NIAC seemed less relevant. Some of the most successful NIAC-funded projects, for example, the New Worlds Observer, could not be valued within the narrower context of the ESMD, especially while that organization was focused on developing a new human exploration transportation architecture. According to sources, NIAC was terminated because its focus was on far- term mission concepts that were not closely aligned with the lunar exploration architecture, and because NIAC had limited success in infusing advanced concepts into NASA’s strategic plans. Recognizing this relevance problem, the committee considered whether or not each NASA directorate should have its own NIAC-like entity. One potential advantage of such an arrangement is that each “sub-NIAC” could focus on the advanced system and mission needs of its associated directorate, which likely would help each such organization to be more relevant to the directorate and would facilitate the infusion of results obtained. In the opinion of the committee, the efficiencies resulting from having a single organization solicit and manage advanced concepts for NASA as a whole were more compelling. Improving NIAC’s relevance to NASA and facilitating the infusion of NIAC concepts needs to be addressed by other methods, as discussed below. Providing funding and administration for NIAC2 outside of the mission directorates will take advantage of the efficiencies of a single organization with common processes for soliciting and developing advanced concepts, while protecting it to work on concepts 10 years and beyond, despite the immediate management, financial, and technical pressures of the missions being executed in any individual directorate. Recommendation 3.4: NIAC2 proposal opportunities should be managed and peer-reviewed outside the agency. 3 Statement of work for the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, Attachment A of Contract NAS5-03110, Amendment of Solicitation/Modification No. 7, issued by NASA for the Universities Space Research Association, dated July 11, 2003, pp. 1-2; reprinted in Appendix D. 32
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As discussed previously, NIAC was formed to solicit advanced concepts from outside NASA. It was established as an organization outside NASA, with no direct NASA involvement in its operations, to reinforce the message that it was an independent source of new ideas to affect NASA’s long-range planning. The committee supports this purpose for NIAC and, therefore, recommends that NIAC’s managerial independence be maintained. The committee also recognizes that there were some negative consequences of this independence, and addresses them below. RECOMMENDED CHANGES TO IMPROVE THE EFFECTIVENESS OF NIAC In an effort to better align prospective NIAC2 advanced concept innovations with future NASA missions and improve success in infusing advanced concepts into future NASA missions, the committee recommends some changes to the recommended future NIAC2 entity. These changes address the following problems encountered by the original NIAC that limited its impact or detracted from its reputation: 1. NIAC’s focus only on truly “revolutionary” advanced concepts had the effect of distancing it from NASA’s future planning because it did not allow for significant “evolutionary” advanced concepts that might build on or improve mission concepts already identified in NASA’s future plans. 2. NIAC’s focus only on concepts that were 10 to 40 years in the future made it difficult to judge the success of the NIAC grants from year to year and added to this “distancing” problem. 3. The existence of NIAC may have helped to justify a reduction in internal NASA funding for advanced concepts even though NASA personnel were excluded from submitting proposals to NIAC. This led to a reduction in innovation opportunities within NASA and did not facilitate good relationships between NASA and NIAC innovators. 4. The 6-month period of performance for NIAC Phase I awards was not well coordinated with the annual academic or business year cycle, and the initial award amounts were not increased with inflation in the decade after the original NIAC was established. 5. Many NIAC projects have yet to demonstrate a significant impact on NASA’s future plans. Additionally, many NIAC investigators expressed frustration at a lack of access to NASA management to facilitate the infusion of their ideas. 6. The management of the intellectual property resulting from NIAC projects was a concern to some investigators. Each of these issues is discussed below in some detail and is addressed by the following specific recommendations. Recommendation 3.5(a): The key selection requirement for NIAC2 proposal opportunities should be that the concept is scientifically and/or technically innovative and has the potential to provide major benefit to a future NASA mission in 10 years and beyond. The emphasis of the original NIAC on funding only those concepts that are new and not already identified in NASA’s future mission planning should be maintained. However, the committee found that NIAC’s focus only on concepts that were revolutionary was too restrictive. There is a spectrum of advances, ranging from incremental or evolutionary improvements in individual components through innovative combinations of existing technologies to produce new results, to concepts that are truly revolutionary because they replace existing capabilities with something very different or enable new missions not previously possible. By emphasizing revolutionary concepts, the original NIAC contributed to a sense that it was often “too far out” to be relevant to NASA’s more immediate and pressing needs (for example, the lunar exploration architecture). The committee recommends that NIAC2 adopt a standard of “technically 33
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innovative” rather than “revolutionary” to help to address this issue. The committee further recommends that NIAC2 focus on concepts 10 years in the future and beyond. The committee strongly endorses the primary standard of the original NIAC, i.e., only those concepts that are new and not already identified in NASA’s future mission needs should be funded; however, to qualify for NIAC2 support, concepts should have the potential to provide a major benefit to a future NASA mission or system. Recommendation 3.5(b): Over the long term, the ultimate criterion for NIAC2 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. Because most NIAC2 projects will bear fruit only over the long term, in addition to the annual performance and feedback reviews, a major review of NIAC2 grants should occur every 5 years to ensure continuous infusion opportunities into NASA missions and planning. The annual reports produced by NIAC are an excellent source of information on its activities and on the progress and status of its projects. These types of reports should be maintained and continued in NIAC2, and NIAC2 should be accountable to the public for its performance every year through similar types of annual reports. However, the committee thinks that a substantive review of the success of NIAC2 grants, for the purpose of determining fit and potential infusion into NASA missions and planning, should be performed every 5 years. The prospective NIAC2 should provide a forum every 5 years for NIAC2 grantees, past and present, to present their concepts to NASA mission directors to facilitate infusion of worthy concepts into NASA missions and strategic planning. Such a forum would reinforce the intention of NASA to invest in the NIAC2 process for the long term and would enable the NIAC2 leadership to plan for a stable and durable institution. Such an approach also implies a long-term, stable funding commitment from NASA. Recommendation 3.5(c): NIAC2 proposal opportunities should be open to principal investigators or teams both internal and external to NASA. One of the problems suffered by NIAC was that its products were viewed by many at NASA as foreign to NASA’s mission directorates. This was an unintended consequence of the formation of NIAC as an external institution, and it was exacerbated by the fact that NASA employees were not allowed to submit proposals to it and were not invited to participate in its programs and forums. This connectivity weakness was cited by an NRC committee in 2003.4 While NIAC was formed specifically to solicit concepts from outside NASA, the committee found no compelling reason to maintain this restriction in NIAC2. Freedom to select the best proposals for funding, regardless of their source, should be assured. Recommendation 3.5(d): NIAC2 proposal opportunities should be defined as follows: Phase I, up to $100,000 each for 1 year; Phase II, up to $500,000 each for 2 years. The committee heard from a variety of investigators funded by NIAC. The committee’s recommendation to increase the maximum duration of a Phase I award from 6 months to 1 year was made in response to the comments of a number of successful NIAC investigators that the original 6-month duration was too short. A 1-year period would also better align NIAC2 activities with annual government, business, and academic cycles. The recommended $100,000 maximum Phase I award amount represents a $25,000 increase over NIAC’s 1998 guideline that was set over a decade ago. This does not represent a real increase in buying power. For Phase II awards, the committee does not recommend any change in the 2-year duration for Phase II awards and recommends a modest increase in the maximum award from $400,000 to $500,000 for the same reasons given for the Phase I awards. 4 National Research Council, Review of NASA’s Aerospace Technology Enterprise: An Assessment of NASA’s Pioneering Revolutionary Technology Program, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2003. 34
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Recommendation 3.5(e): NIAC2 proposal opportunities should include the potential selection of a small number of Phase III “proof-of-concept” awards for up to $5 million each for 4 years to demonstrate and resolve fundamental feasibility issues, and such awards should be selected jointly by NIAC2 and NASA management. This recommendation is intended to address the difficulty of technology infusion into NASA’s long-term plans that has been identified by NIAC-funded investigators. It establishes an obligation on the part of NASA to review the successful Phase II projects for their applicability and relevance to NASA’s long-term mission and system plans; a specific mechanism to support further development and refinement of the most promising concepts to a “proof of concept” level; and a mechanism for the transfer of these projects from NIAC2 to a NASA mission directorate. The committee recommends that NASA provide NIAC2 with the funding to implement Phase III awards as an initial step in transferring the NIAC2 product into a NASA mission directorate. As Phase II projects mature, NIAC2 would assess them. As one aspect of its responsibility to infuse the results of its activities into NASA’s long-range plans, NIAC2 would identify an appropriate NASA organization to adopt the project and would work with representatives of that organization to establish and fund the Phase III activity. The transition of the project from NIAC2 to NASA would occur as part of the Phase III development, and NASA would be responsible for assessing the final Phase III performance. Recommendation 3.5(f): NASA, through NIAC2, should allow awardees to retain rights to data and associated intellectual property developed under NIAC2 awards. NIAC2 should also be proactive in coaching the awardees in protection of intellectual property. The committee heard from some NIAC awardees, particularly small businesses, that were uncomfortable with what they understood to be their rights to intellectual property developed under a NIAC award. NIAC awardees expressed uncertainties about the status of intellectual property for proposals submitted to NIAC and the status of intellectual property rights for work developed under NIAC support. The committee recommends that NIAC2 develop and document a policy allowing awardees rights to data and associated intellectual property to address these issues before soliciting any proposals. As an organization with a focus on the development of new concepts and technologies, NIAC was in an ideal position to foster an innovative program of intellectual property management and train its innovators in how to manage intellectual property and their rights in compliance with the law and government policy. Recommendation 3.5(g): Efforts should be made to disseminate announcements and solicitations to the widest possible audience in order to reach the largest possible number of researchers, including those from small disadvantaged businesses and minority institutions. NIAC2 should ensure that its calls for proposals are widely distributed to ensure that all organizations, including minority-serving academic institutions and small disadvantaged businesses, are aware of the opportunity to submit proposals. Recommendation 3.5(h): Efforts should be made to encourage the widest possible demographics of reviewers, including gender, age, and ethnicity, while ensuring that breadth of experience and technical competence are paramount considerations in reviewer selection. NIAC2 should select technically qualified reviewers that encompass the range of disciplines required by the advanced concept proposals received. When possible, NIAC2 should also strive to include a broad range of reviewers with consideration given to years of experience, gender, and ethnicity. 35
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