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Institute for Advanced Concepts Scrapped

I’ve been waiting for something official re the reported closing of NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts, but now that New Scientist is confirming the story that Keith Cowing at NASAWatch broke earlier this morning, I think it’s time to comment on this grim development. NASA will save $4 million in its annual budget by closing NIAC. That means closing a program that regularly sought ideas from people outside the agency, funded them in a first round to see if they held promise, and offered more substantial second round funding to advance the best of them still further.

Institute director Robert Cassanova has championed innovative ideas in propulsion, robotics, spacesuit design and more. In fact, NIAC-funded studies are so rich that browsing through this material could give science fiction authors ideas for years. I’ll add that Cassanova’s enthusiasm for the work was communicable. He was a great help when I was gathering NIAC material for Centauri Dreams (the book), and although he was planning retirement in any case, this loss has to be a bitter blow.

Let me quote something Dr. Cassanova told me in an interview for the book:

“Genius is in the generalities, not in the details. Look at Einstein. The generalities of his theories were where his genius was. The details developed out of much analysis by many other scientists. Einstein was known not to be a good mathematician. His genius was being able to visualize an explanation of something in nature, in recognizing some general theory that would explain something. We want people to think about the possibility of doing things in a different way.”

So much for that. We can grant the extent of NASA’s budgetary problems and empathize with its dilemmas in dealing with Congress amid continuing public apathy. But extinguishing its Institute for Advanced Concepts (especially in the context of the earlier loss of the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics program) cuts off potentially revolutionary ideas at the knees. We can fund a hazardous, aging Space Shuttle with an uncertain mission but not the kind of essential research that should embody what this agency is all about. This extraordinarily short-sighted decision leaves those committed to a human future in space shaking their heads.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • grey eminence March 20, 2007, 20:02

    Too bad, I have unique propulsion technology never thought of
    before. Now I can’t approach.

    I’ve had a couple of physicist bless the technology as totally unique
    and the possibility for new direction in space travel.

  • Marc March 20, 2007, 20:50

    Terrible news! So, since we lost the NIAC, who else out there can we rely on for further development?

  • Darnell Clayton March 20, 2007, 21:23

    Although it is great to whine/mourn about the loss of this program, it would be more effective pursuing ways to have the private sector take over funding of this program, or even have corporations donate funds in order that this great organization can reward developing technologies.

    Any takers? (ie does anybody have Bill Gates cell number?)

  • Brian Wang March 20, 2007, 22:48

    Better candidates would be Paul Allen (who funded spaceship one), Richard Branson (virgin galactic), Jeff Bezos ( Blue Origin), Robert Bigelow (bigelow aerospace), Elon Musk (spaceX – they just had a good launch today), space tourists (Dennis Tito, Greg Olson, Mark Shuttleworth, Anousheh Ansari ), John Carmack (Armidillo Aerospace).

  • X March 21, 2007, 4:28

    It’d be nice if NASA could receive its fair share of the budget. The primary research investigated by NIAC is what NASA should be all about since corporations usually aren’t too keen to pour money into speculative ideas that could take decades to develop even if they are viable. I’d honestly rather see NASA sacrifice it’s dubious human Moon and Mars missions and pour more of that money into primary research and unmanned space vehicles. Chemical rockets stand no chance of opening up space to people in any real meaningful way.

  • eric wood March 21, 2007, 5:53

    I agree; forget NASA and secure private funding. This reminds me too much of SETI 15 years ago …and The Late Great Senator William Proxmire.

  • grey eminence March 21, 2007, 9:47

    I agree loss of funding by NASA will hurt alot of promising new technology
    like ours and others.

    Something needs to be done to get NASA the funds they need !

  • Brian Wang March 21, 2007, 14:08

    Paul Allen again is the one who saved SETI with funding.

    The NIAC site is ranked 58000 on Alexa. They could probably generate a few thousand per month in web advertising.
    Space.com is ranked about 3000 on Alexa. With probably 10 times the traffic.

    The Planetary Society has about 100,000 members at $30/year. $3 million/year.

    So member support and advertising and sponsorship revenue could make it work. Donations to help transition and keep it going and for admin, then build up membership support and advertising.

    The private group could generate some video and computer simulations for showing on discovery channel or PBS etc… or sell DVDs or MP3 over the web.

  • Dennis March 21, 2007, 17:51

    Maybe we should do something about this? Raise media campain?

  • Joseph Mahaney March 22, 2007, 8:08

    Often I don’t really pipe up but on this issue I will.

    NIAC and BPP programs were very thought provoking producing some very interesting work. This work is worthwhile pursuing.

    Private non-profit organization. Wrap NIAC and BPP underneath an umbrella organization that can strike deals with the other space advocacy groups to give it clout and money to pursue projects. This same organization could pursue large donors. The work of these groups could use the same kind of grant and peer review process as the two previous organizations. If overhead stays low then the money could be effectively used.

    At the same time, the non-profit could work with other non-profits (X-Prize foundation) and rather than give extremely large grants, hand out a few prizes for a few key areas in throretical and experiemental work.

    I think the SETI model shows that it can be possible to move ideas from government into the private sector.

    In addition, I imagine a large part of the non-profit’s role would be geared toward inclusion of students participating in the research.

    I could see it working out quite well…Hell, I would even run it for ya! :)


  • Administrator March 22, 2007, 8:15

    Similar in many ways to what the Tau Zero Foundation aims at:


    Your ideas are certainly sound, Joseph, and I hope you’ll keep them coming. It’s clear that getting involvement from the commercial and educational sectors — with philanthropy as a major driver — will be needed to pursue this work.

  • ljk March 22, 2007, 10:02

    Inner space is being budget cut, too…

    A quiet death for bold project to map the mind

    Star-Ledger March 15, 2007


    DARPA has killed the BICA
    (Biologically Inspired Cognitive
    Architectures) project to
    reverse-engineer the human brain.
    The brain effort linked experts from
    neuroscience, cognitive psychology,
    robotics and artificial
    intelligence, who wanted to
    replicate how different parts of the
    brain interact. “In some ways, it
    was like a Manhattan project…


  • Brian Wang March 22, 2007, 11:58

    1.2 million members of the space exploration alliance is the umbrella organization for space

    Obtain some matching grants from major sponsors and donors
    $3 from 50% of members
    Space.com and other space sites should promote a save the NIAC campaign.

    Mike Beavin
    American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

    Tony DeTora
    Space Frontier Foundation

    Janice Dunn
    National Coalition for SpacePort States

    Louis Friedman
    The Planetary Society

    Tim Huddleston
    Aerospace States Association
    256-782-5061 or 202-546-8074

    James Kirkpatrick
    American Astronautical Society

    Bruce Mahone
    Aerospace Industries Association

    Marc Schlather

    Henry Vanderbilt
    Space Access Society

    Winston Scott
    Florida Space Authority

    Andrea Seastrand
    California Space Authority

    George Whitesides
    National Space Society
    202-429-1600 x125

    Robert Zubrin
    The Mars Society

  • Joseph Mahaney March 23, 2007, 7:24


    I have not heard much from the Space Exploration Alliance. The website you listed has not been updated in some time. Seems like there might be many competing interests despite their desire to work together on space issues.

    Now, access to their individual membership would be excellent. An umbrella organization might want to watch out for those individuals who are members in two or more of the organizations listed. The new non-profit wouldn’t want to be a spammer! :)

    I think such a private non-profit organization should approach both long term and relatively short-term technological, economic and societal implications of the technologies explored by such a non-profit. The Tau Zero Foundation, as far as I can tell, focus is technologies to move to being an interstellar species while NIAC explores many differing concepts and supports efforts to build harware. I see Tau Zero being just part of a whole thus my call for a separate non-profit.


  • Joseph Mahaney March 23, 2007, 7:29

    What is happening with the Tau Zero Foundation?


  • Administrator March 23, 2007, 7:38

    Joseph, you are exactly right about NIAC and Tau Zero. NIAC had a relatively broad focus and worked on many different aspects of space exploration including near-Earth applications. Tau Zero, as the putative successor to the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics program (and headed by the same scientist, Marc Millis) will take a tighter focus, with propulsion issues as the starting point but moving beyond this to related issues involved in our movement into deep space.

    At present, Tau Zero isn’t open to general memberships, but the network of practitioners is in place (see the background documents here on the site for more information on who they are and what the method will be) and the Web site is being constructed. Getting philanthropy going in support of advanced propulsion and interstellar concepts is a primary goal. The recent turmoil at NASA underlines how important it will be to get private funding for many of these studies, and either Marc or I will keep readers here posted as things develop. We are still very much in construction mode. Here’s Marc Millis’ backgrounder:


  • george scaglione March 23, 2007, 8:45

    i absolutely applaud everyone above and i’m putting this section of our site on my favorite places so i can look again more carefully later! YES SOMETHING HAS TO BE DONE!! this business of trying to get rid of breakthrough propulsion physics AND niac is worse than crazy and maybe a little bit stupid.i know alot of people on line with whom i frequently discuss space and that is the “gong” i have been banging with ALL of them! plus for reasons other than the above i don’t feel so well today i promise to do the subject more justice when i get a “second wind”! sincerely to all your friend george scaglione

  • george scaglione March 23, 2007, 13:38

    well,i just can’t stay away i have come back to review the comments and make some of my own.forgive me if i seem at any time to overlook anyones excellent comments. so here goes – grey: what was your idea? sounded facinating? hope you will share it with your friends of similar mind here. marc : what we really can rely on is history itself and the changes it will bring.people will not always be soooooo shortsighted ! tragically if we just wait for that though we may all be a long time dead first! darnell : your ideas seem to me to be very close to the truth.hope something like that will be workable! brian : yes that was a good idea too! x : you have hit on it better than i,only 4 million seems nothing in light of all else! truly they (nasa) are “penny wise and pound foolish!” what did each shuttle launch cost? something like FOUR BILLION!!!?? DENNIS : media campaign!? to appeal to who? jamokes as they say who really don’t give a sh…… well you know what is is that they don’t give!!!!! i am really turned off and not just a little bit po”d about this lack of vision. as i said in my first comment above where i promised to get back with some comments we HAVE to do something even it is only keeping the flame alive!! paul : i assume that that is just what tau zero hopes to do when it gets better up and running! i hope in a BIG way! you know everybody how strongly i feel on this… i do not feel well today but choose to be here talking to all of you rather than in bed sleeping! thank you one and all and i hope ALOT more will be said on this topic. very respectfully your friend george udt109@aol.com

  • Joseph Mahaney March 25, 2007, 13:46

    Thank you for the links. Rather informative.

    Then there lies another question, how can we transition NIAC from a government funded entity to a private non-profit organization? I think the first place to start would be study the SETI transition and set discussions with Marc and those currently involved with NIAC. I, unfortunately, do not have access to that information/persons directly and I haven’t finish Googling yet. :) OPf course, it is the right mix of individuals that could make something of this nature work and taking advantage of the universities. Also, NIAC could be truncated to Institute of Advanced Concepts.

    Although being a biased physicist/engineer toward the direction of tackling more near term endeavors (in regards to propulsion and human spaceflight), I fully support and endorse the mantra of the Tau Zero Foundation. Sorting through the numerous theories via small scale testing is philosphy I prescribe to any project. My philosophy – build a little, test a little. Would even be more fantastic to take these ideas into suborbit/orbit and test them there! :) Hence we build upon current technology new ideas. For instance, taking advantage of the CubeSat envelope in which to do testing in orbit. I do see much overlap between a private NIAC (IAC, if you will) and the Tau Zero Foundation
    especially in an operational sense.


  • Administrator March 25, 2007, 15:37

    These are good thoughts, Joseph, though I do need to clarify that Marc Millis is not involved with NIAC. The latter operates out of Atlanta and has been in the hands, for the last nine years, of Bob Cassanova, who is now retiring. Marc’s BPP work was a separate enterprise, just as Tau Zero is developing partially as a response to BPP’s demise. The difference in focus does mean that NIAC has a more near-term outlook, though as you say, there is certainly synergy. And I hope the good ideas keep coming here both from yourself and others!

  • Joseph Mahaney March 25, 2007, 18:16

    I guess I was speaking from the point of view of using Marc’s background on how to set up an organization such as BPP and Tau Zero, to include ideas from SETI, to form a private NIAC. Perhaps both Mr. Cassanova and Marc could provide contacts in which to accomplish such an endeavor. I feel as though I am an outsider looking in from afar and wonder how I could make my mark. Perhaps I can e-mail Mr. Cassanova and see what can be done.

    Open discussion and ideas are very welcome indeed. I certainly encourage feedback, advice and your experience.


  • george scaglione March 27, 2007, 13:47

    you know paul and joseph,those two postings above make incredible sense…exactly what i myself would have liked to have said ! your friend george one more small point….joseph – if you have reason to believe that you can email anyone and wind up helping the cause …then god speed!!! thanks again g

  • Eric James March 27, 2007, 23:38

    Are they going to preserve the website?

  • Joseph Mahaney March 28, 2007, 0:32


    It was my hope to begin a dialog to understand the present situation in order to plan for a possible reorganization and move toward being a privately funded, non-profit institute. That is, to understand the context in which the organization runs internally in order to preserve that which is unique to NIAC yet slim the organization to reduce the overhead of the organization. I would like to note that NIAC is under the purvue of the USRA (Universities Space Research Association) which is a private entity itself spanning across a number of different universities and projects. I am presently read more on this umbrella organization to understand it’s mission and purpose.


  • Joseph Mahaney March 28, 2007, 0:34


    I certainly hope that, at least, they allow continued open access to the final report database so that information will not be locked in some library, vault, or harddrive.

    In a private non-profit, I wonder how intellectual right would be handled. Perhaps they would be waived upon acceptance of a grant and allow open access to all. I am sure in some cases, ITAR may reign supreme.


  • Administrator March 28, 2007, 9:15

    Eric, I have no word yet on the NIAC site, but I’ll pass along anything I find out.

  • Eric James March 28, 2007, 23:17

    Thanks Paul. I look forward to your findings.

  • george scaglione March 29, 2007, 7:58

    paul and joseph was very good to read the above. i will check in on a regular basis to see any updates and ask questions or make comments. thank everyone, your friend george