Back in 2003, I went to Glenn Research Center in Cleveland for a meeting with Marc Millis. The Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project that Millis headed had recently been shut down, but I had the sense that this might be temporary and was eager to talk to him about what BPP had thus far accomplished. My feeling about its reinstatement proved to be inaccurate, and just four years later, NASA also shut down its Institute for Advanced Concepts in Atlanta, leaving a conceptual void at the agency’s core.

Two Takes on Futuristic Studies

NIAC and BPP were working opposite sides of the street even when both were fully funded. Whereas NIAC took a more short-term perspective, funding research projects with implications for space in the not distant future, BPP plunged into far more theoretical terrain, looking at everything from engineering the vacuum to wormhole physics and the potential for warp drive. You could trace some of this impulse back to the Vision-21 gathering in 1990 at what was then Lewis Research Center, a conclave that charged presenters with examining technologies that might emerge not within decades but over the course of the next thousand years.

NIAC had a different slant, serving (in the words of the recent National Research Council report on the institute), as an “open forum for the external analysis and definition of space and aeronautics advanced concepts to complement the advanced concepts activities conducted within NASA.” NIAC opened the doors to non-NASA researchers, receiving more than 1300 proposals and awarding a total of 168 grants in the nine years of its existence. The topics evaluated emphasized known physics and, in most cases, practicality, stopping well short of the highly theoretical and determinedly visionary studies of BPP, which targeted breakthroughs.

NIAC and Its Limitations

I mention all this because the findings of the NRC report, discussed in these pages yesterday, are cheering in one sense, sobering in another, and in both senses deeply instructive. The committee recommends that NASA establish a new organization (NIAC2), one tasked with seeking 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.” There is much in the report about the new agency’s placement within NASA (I refer you to the document on this — all the suggestions about internal organization seem sound to me).

Then we run into this:

NIAC’s focus on revolutionary advanced concepts with a time horizon of 10 to 40 years in the future often put its projects too far out of alignment with the nearer-term horizons of the NASA mission directorates, thereby diminishing the potential for infusion into NASA mission plans. The committee recommends that NIAC2 should expand its scope to include concepts that are scientifically and/or technically innovative and have the potential to provide major benefit to a future NASA mission in 10 years and beyond.

We’re talking about a practical problem of working in conjunction with the rest of NASA, and it’s an understandable one. As funding for long-term ideas began to dry up and resources were funneled to flight-system development and operations, there was a natural disconnect that occurred between NIAC and the agency it was established to serve. One way of getting around this, the committee believes, is to open the future NIAC2 proposals to teams within NASA as well as external to the agency.

The committee is advocating a NIAC with a much more limited range. Consider:

…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.

Taking ‘Revolutionary’ Off the Table

And the report goes on to spell out the problem. Revolutionary concepts are often considered too ‘far out’ to be relevant to NASA’s immediate needs — in other words, designing an optimum Titan rover doesn’t help when you’ve been tasked with a return to the Moon, and interstellar laser sail design isn’t even on the map. The new phrase being pushed for NIAC2 is ‘technically innovative’ rather than ‘revolutionary,’ with a restriction that concepts, to be funded, should have the potential to provide a major benefit to a future NASA mission or system.

This report is a trenchant document, one that acknowledges the funding issues that have crippled advanced studies at the agency. In making these recommendations (and many others), the NRC committee is also highlighting the fact that without funding dedicated to the task, NASA cannot develop any organization — call it NIAC2 or whatever you choose — that examines the kind of long-term, possibly far-future technologies once considered by the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project. In that sense, this is sobering reading, a call for a new NIAC but a less visionary one.

New Paradigms Emerging

Advanced studies are clearly moving off the NASA campus, much to the dismay of many who would like to devote their talents to these areas. Given all this, organizations like the Tau Zero Foundation hope to offload the spirit of investigation that motivated Breakthrough Propulsion Physics to a philanthropic and non-governmental environment. Just as we’re seeing a growing move toward commercial space activities, so private funding for futuristic research is increasingly necessary.

Our horizons are shrinking at the government space agency level. Long-term — and this is the only context we can put this in — the human determination to push ideas and explore new places will win out. If that involves surviving funding shortfalls, weathering recessions, shifting to new models of revenue and changing focus from the near future to a far murkier outcome measured in centuries, even millennia, so be it.

“The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting,” said the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in a book (his Meditations) that I return to often. “The impediment to action advances action.” Acquire that spirit and good things must of necessity follow, no matter how challenging the research picture currently looks.