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Fostering Visions for the Future: A Review of the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts Background and Significance NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Mission Statement: NIAC was formed for the explicit purpose of being an independent source of revolutionary aeronautical and space concepts that could dramatically impact how NASA develops and conducts its mission…. NIAC provides an independent, open forum for the external analysis and definition of space and aeronautics advanced concepts to complement the advanced concepts activities conducted within NASA. The NIAC has advanced concepts as its sole focus. It focuses on revolutionary concepts—specifically systems and architectures—that can have a major impact on missions of the NASA Enterprises in the time frame of 10 to 40 years in the future. It generates ideas for how the current NASA Agenda can be done better; it expands our vision of future possibilities.1 “The NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts (NIAC) was established in 1998 to inspire and explore innovative aerospace systems and architectures.”2 This virtual institute, using a peer review process, sought out aerospace and space science concepts, specifically systems or architectures aimed 10 to 40 years in the future that could have a major impact on future missions of the NASA enterprises. NASA funding for NIAC ended in 2007. In 2008, Congress directed the National Research Council to review the performance of NIAC. Operating under the auspices of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, the Committee to Review the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts was asked to evaluate how well NIAC had developed revolutionary aeronautical and space concepts that could dramatically impact how NASA develops and conducts its mission (see Appendix A for the full statement of task). The committee’s review is intended to guide NASA by assessing NIAC’s processes and results and to shape future efforts in this area. Committee Objectives Evaluate NIAC’s effectiveness in meeting its mission, including a review of the grants made by the Institute, their results, and the likelihood that they will contribute to the Institute’s stated goals. Evaluate the method by which grantees were selected and recommend changes, if needed. 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. Make recommendations as to how the federal government in general and NASA in particular should solicit and infuse advanced concepts into its future systems. 1 See http://www.niac.usra.edu/institute/mission.html. 2 NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts, Long-Term Success of NIAC-Funded Concepts, Short Report, Atlanta Ga., June 8, 2007, p.1.
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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.
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Fostering Visions for the Future: A Review of the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts NIAC was transferred in 2004 to the new Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD)—a mission-specific organization focused largely on developing the transportation elements to achieve the Vision for Space Exploration.3 From 2005 to its termination in 2007, NIAC received $4.3 million per year through the Exploration Technology Development Program (ETDP). In fiscal year 2007, NIAC was terminated as part of a general elimination of a majority of ESMD elements that were not directly aligned with the near-term objectives of the Vision for Space Exploration. Over the course of its 9-year existence, NIAC received a total of $36.2 million and funded 126 Phase I (6 months, up to $75,000) and 42 Phase II (2 years, up to $500,000) studies, for a total of $27.3 million for a wide range of universities and businesses. How effectively NIAC met its mission of identifying and nurturing such concepts, and how the federal government can foster continuing and future innovation through the development of advanced concepts, are discussed in the chapters that follow. NIAC’s Programmatic History February 1998—NIAC created in Office of Aerospace Technology (Code R); intended to inform strategic visions for all NASA enterprises. October 2001—NIAC funded by Enabling Concepts Technologies Program (Code R) as a low-technology-readiness-level (TRL) crosscutting technology program. January 2004—NIAC funded by Exploration Systems Research and Technology Program (ESR&T) (ESMD); broadly competed technology program focused on exploration. November 2005—Exploration Systems Architecture Study; ESR&T restructured to form the Exploration Technology Development Program (ETDP). December 2005—NIAC funded by ETDP (ESMD); mission-focused mid-TRL technology program. August 2007—NIAC contract terminated. 3 Executive Office of the President, A Renewed Spirit of Discovery, the President’ s Vision for U.S. Space Exploration, Washington, D.C., January 2004.
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