The decision to close NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) in 2007 was a blow to the research community, especially given the fact that the agency’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project had been shelved some years previously. These twin haymakers to the study of futuristic technologies emphasized the lack of support for spending money on anything beyond the near-term, and reminded us that forty years after the fact, we still can’t manage even a return to the Moon.

NIAC seemed to offer better. Established in 1998, the Atlanta-based program offered non-NASA scientists a chance to delve into revolutionary space and aeronautics concepts, with a multi-tiered funding strategy and the potential for the best ideas to receive further study within the agency (or in a number of cases, from sources outside it). NIAC was hardly a budget-breaker, totalling $36.2 million spread across the nine years of its existence.

A New Report Looks at Invigorating Research

Now we have a new report on NIAC’s effectiveness and possible future iterations, one commissioned by the NASA administrator and performed by the National Research Council. Fostering Visions for the Future: A Review of the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts is available online, either readable there or (the better choice) via a quick download. The report takes a critical look at the current situation:

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.

What to do? Getting research on longer-term technologies back into the NASA playbook is critical. NIAC not only sparked ideas, but led to solid results. The program supported 126 phase I studies and 42 Phase II studies in the course of its brief existence, and about 29 percent of the Phase II efforts went on to secure additional funding from NASA and other sources. The NIAC Web site, still available, offers the corpus of this work. And the report highlights three projects that appear to have had an impact on NASA’s long-term plans.

Mini-Magnetosphere Plasma Propulsion

We’ve looked at M2P2 several times on this site, fascinated with Robert Winglee’s work on using energy from space plasmas to accelerate payloads. Winglee’s team at the University of Washington used Phase II funding to perform laboratory tests on their proposed magnetic-inflation process and to confirm the effect, work that led to further evaluation at Marshall Space Flight Center. Here’s a quick precis from the report:

These experiments were able to quantify the performance of the prototype through comparative studies of the laboratory test results with the simulation results and provided strong evidence that the high thrust levels (1-3 N) reported in the original description should be achievable for low energy input (~500 kW) and low propellant consumption… Further testing to measure the thrust levels attainable by the prototype, however, did not confirm measurable thrust. In the 2001 to 2002 time frame, the M2P2 concept was considered a viable, emerging technology by the NASA Decadal Planning Team and the NASA Exploration Team. Through peer review, the M2P2 effort was deemed highly innovative and technically competent. In 2002, a review panel that included plasma experts concluded there were additional unresolved technical issues that centered around magnet field strengths, mass, and power requirements. While partially addressed by the M2P2 team, this work came to a stop due to changing priorities within the agency.

Micro-Arcsecond X-ray Imaging Mission

This is Webster Cash’s work at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Phase I work validated the idea of using an array of x-ray mirrors on free-flying spacecraft that would be coordinated to focus the x-rays on a set of beam-combining and detector spacecraft. Additional work at MSFC was promising and the x-ray interferometry proposal went into Phase II funding, being incorporated in 2000 into NASA strategic plans. From the report:

Dubbed MAXIM, the concept appeared in the NRC decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics released in 2000, which identified x-ray interferometry for $60 million in funding over the following 10 years. Cash has selected as a long-range goal to image the event horizon of a black hole. While the technical implementation remains extremely challenging, the fact that the laboratory demonstration of this capability was published in Nature testifies to the significance of this accomplishment.

Indeed. The concept seems more than workable, and went on to further study:

NASA has continued support to further define and develop high-resolution x-ray imaging missions, and Cash’s interferometry concept has remained among the leading contenders. The MAXIM Pathfinder mission was the subject of a NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) Integrated Mission Design Center study in 2002. In 2004 MAXIM received a $1 million 3-year grant from NASA’s Astronomy and Physics Research and Analysis Program to further develop the optics for this concept. Today, the technology of x-ray interferometry that was the subject of the initial NIAC study is the first of three competing methods that NASA is pursuing under its Black Hole Imager mission.

New Worlds Observer

This again is a Webster Cash proposal, and one we’ve examined under various names (all incorporating ‘New Worlds’) on this site (a search will pull these up). Now we’re into Terrestrial Planet Finder territory, with a project that was refined through NIAC funding to study pinhole camera and occulting mask designs for direct imaging of planetary systems around other stars. This one also went into Phase II and the results were strong:

During Phase II, Cash and his collaborators demonstrated suppression performance (reduction of starlight intensity) <10-7 in a laboratory test of a miniature occulter. Both a publication in Nature in July 2006 and the laboratory demonstration testify to the significance and technical competence of the basic concept and the research supported by NIAC.

In fact, the various New Worlds designs Cash has studied make it clear that former NASA administrator Dan Goldin’s dream of imaging and even mapping an extraterrestrial world is not out of the question in coming decades. NASA liked this one a lot:

With the completion of the NIAC Phase II study, NASA provided significant additional support for Cash’s occulter concept, and it is now one of the competitive concepts for the Terrestrial Planet Finder program. In addition, both Ball Aerospace Corporation and Northrop Grumman Corporation have made internal investments to further develop the concept in conjunction with Cash and his team. In February 2008, NASA announced that a team led by Cash was awarded $1 million for the New Worlds Observer as one of its Astrophysics Strategic Missions Concept Studies (ASMCS). That study has been completed and the results will be used to prepare the New Worlds Observer mission concept for the NRC’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, Astro2010.

Solid Results, and a Problem

While these three projects in particular stand out, it’s interesting to see that fourteen Phase I and Phase II projects received an additional $23.8 million in funding from a wide range of organizations, demonstrating (in the language of the report) “…the significance of the nation’s investment in NIAC’s advanced concepts.” The report also identifies a key problem:

One of the weaknesses of the NIAC program was the lack of sufficient funding to mature the selected concepts to the point that a NASA program could take substantial interest. By design, NIAC concepts completing Phase II were certainly not at a technology readiness level that allowed adoption by a NASA flight program. This technology-readiness disconnect between the external innovators and NASA program personnel made infusion of NIAC concepts into future agency missions or strategic plans exceedingly difficult.

The NRC report recommends that NASA reestablish an entity something like NIAC, recognizing that the agency needs open methods to secure access to new mission and system concepts from any source, and not just those developed within NASA. The agency also needs to develop effective processes for evaluating new ideas for future missions and bringing these ideas to fruition. A new program, the report calls it NIAC2, would be a key to this.

Recognize this: At present, there is no NASA organization responsible for soliciting, evaluating and developing advanced concepts and infusing them into NASA planning.

A new NIAC would help, but would it look like the old one? More on this tomorrow.