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.