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Advancing Action at NASA (and Beyond)

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.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • James M. Essig October 29, 2009, 10:39

    Hi Folks;

    It seems that in the event that a NIAC2 like NASA program is developed which does not include funding for revolutionary research, it will indeed be up to private enterprize, non for profit organizations like Tau Zero, and Tau Zero Centauri Dreams, and academia to promote the cause of manned interstellar travel.

    All of this could change if we discover an extrasolar planet with atmospheric signatures of life, even more so if multiple planets as such are discovered.

    We can take some good solace knowing that the Aerospace Giants of Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Airbus, BAE systems, and the like would jump right in on the bandwagon if some anomaly in physics related to potentials for interstellar travel was irrefutably discovered.

    The existence of many small startups like Begalow Aerospace, Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites, and the like are pushing the boundaries with space tourism agendas.

    My thought on the matter is that Tau Zero and Tau Zero Centauri Dreams are going to go down in history as one of the major pioneering organizations that led the cause and the efforts for manned interstellar flight. All of us, even those of us non-affiliated with either Tau Zero or Centauri Dreams who blog here at Centauri Dreams must keep the candle lit. There is an old saying that “A prophet is never excepted in his (or her) own time”.

    However, there are glimmers of signs of NASA being open to advanced propulsion systems. The fact that the VASIMR rocket folks at Ad Astra Rocket Company are vetting NASA to test their revolutionary new engine on the ISS, the fact that NASA is developing an improved version of their ion rocket that puts out several more times the thrust and the like are hopefull signs that things can change for NASA.

    Ad Astra Incrementis!

  • David October 29, 2009, 16:07

    It doent make sense at all to me to take laser sails off especially since some of the manned proposal call for flights to the Mars Moons and Asteroids
    These are the sort of precursor mission we would need to put a laser array in the solar system.
    I can see leaving BPp out but to leave promising near term outer solar system and interstellar and Interstellar precursor out it is crazy
    Is this a final document?
    There needs to be a Congressional review and that review needs somone from Tau Zero to explain the different types of research

  • ljk October 29, 2009, 17:11

    NASA can’t even get funding from Congress for manned Moon and Mars
    missions/colonies and you think they want to ask these same politicians
    for starship drives?

    The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) was killed in 1993 not because it
    was bad science but because the politicians in charge of the purse strings
    did not understand particle physics, or care, among other things.

  • Carl October 29, 2009, 19:18

    Paul, thanks for introducing me to ‘Meditations’. http://www.archive.org/details/meditations_0708_librivox has free audio files for both Windows and Linux.

  • Administrator October 30, 2009, 8:17

    David asks if this is a final document. The NRC report is indeed final, but it is also a set of recommendations, only some of which may be adopted. In other words, right now we don’t know what will come of all this. Here’s the overview description of the report from NRC:

    As requested by Congress, this volume reviews the effectiveness of NIAC and makes recommendations concerning the importance of such a program to NASA and to the nation as a whole, including the proper role of NASA and the federal government in fostering scientific innovation and creativity and in developing advanced concepts for future systems. Key findings and recommendations include that in order to achieve its mission, NASA must have, and is currently lacking, a mechanism to investigate visionary, far-reaching advanced concepts. Therefore, a NIAC-like entity should be reestablished to fill this gap.

    My take on it is that the concepts the report calls visionary and advanced are actually defined within the document in a much more narrow way.

  • Administrator October 30, 2009, 8:20

    Carl, I’m delighted if I can turn anyone on to Marcus Aurelius, a man whose work has carried me through many a rough patch!

  • philw1776 October 30, 2009, 10:48

    No, the REAL reason the SSC was killed was to keep the Hive Universe from invading and killing us all. Physicist John Cramer describes this horrific scenario in “Einstein’s Bridge”.

    Note that Ad Astra is not part of NASA. It’s a private company that developed the VASIMIR engine, not NASA.

  • James M. Essig October 30, 2009, 11:35

    Hi Paul and All Other Folks;

    I am much more encouraged after reading the quote in the report that you including in your above comments.

    We as the civilization of humanity are faced with numerous challenges in the present state of our civilization. The pace of political news events, scientific discoveries, and of the rate of change in social-economic, political, and the cultural aspects of the global community as well as climatic degradation pose great peril while at the same time provide a motivation for we humans to try to build a better civilization based on the respect for human life, economic and resource -wise prosperity for all, and an era of peace.

    I view NASA and the Federal Government as being presented with a great opportuinity to take mankind in a whole new direction with the re-institution of a NIAC like program that is as broad as financially feasible.

    Many of we humans, in fact probably all of us are hurting in some way due to personal economic hardships, terrorism, the threat of wars and pandemics, lack of resources, tensions that seem to boil over in families and among colleagues at work, and the like.

    Humanity as a whole and in each individual needs a bold new vision, in short nothing less than the vistas of the promise of a bold new era of reaching out into the eternal depths of space and time, the wide varieties of matter and energy, and perhaps in each person’s own way, the thought of one day meeting any of our kindred souls such as any ETI persons and their civilizations that just might populate the cosmos in various forms.

    In these hard time where many are hurting, many are also lonely and searching for something higher in the midst of the dangers that seem ever to loom around the next evening TV news broadcasts. This loneliness can likely in at least some of its aspects only be mitigated by developing a civilization of love and peace where human life is ubiquitously respected and where we can dream of the possibilities of finding our kindred souls perhaps in the forms of ETI persons.

    The opportunities presented by the cosmos are just too large to be squandered. It is my opinion that if the universe or the multiverse is indeed infinite like many of the philosophically speculative cosmological models seem to indicate, it is likely that humanity, and indeed any and all of our ETI brothers and sisters, or what ever other forms ETI may take, will never comprehensively know or understand this vast cosmos simply because such would take an infinite mind, and if brain based or based in the physical body, a body and brain of literally infinite size commensurate with the ability to store an infinite amount of data that would be required to have a comprehensive understanding of a cosmos with infinite size and variation.

    The dreams of walking down an eternal road where every stepping stone presents new and marvolous wonderment is too valuable of an opportuinity to pass up. The road as such that many of we humans envision is the road of manned and robotic space exploration, an endeavor that will ever require more capable and advanced propulsion technologies.

    My deepest and strongest felt opinion is that NASA should re-institute a NIAC program of broad research agendas as soon as possible.

  • Frank Smith October 30, 2009, 15:36

    I have the sinking feeling that the next decade for NASA and space science is going to be the most dismal since the start of the space age.

    The Ares rocket and the proposed Moon and/or Mars missions are going to be canceled or defunded until their horizon approaches the next century. Unmanned science missions are, I fear, going to do little better.

    I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.

  • David October 30, 2009, 16:10

    I hope you are too Frank!
    Thanks for clearing things up Paul
    Did anyone see that Russia approved nuclear powered ships for interplanetary travel and put the cost at a billion dollars. It was from AP on Yahoo science news

  • ljk October 31, 2009, 0:14

    To Philw1776 – SHHHHHH!

    For those who might say to you, knowing that you are interested in
    the Universe and support a vigorous space program, that our current
    economy does not allow us the “luxury” of spending money on rockets
    to the Moon and Mars, tell them that during the Great Depression –
    which was far worse than anything we are experiencing now – a number
    of rocket societies around the world got their start.

    Think about that: Rocket societies in the 1930s when most people
    thought of them as either for fireworks or Buck Rogers science fiction.

    And when the 200-inch mirror for the Hale Telescope on Mount
    Palomar was being made in the same era, throngs of people came
    to see the “Giant Eye” as it made its way across the United States
    by train to its permanent home in California.

    One senator at the time speaking to a crowd who tried to claim that
    the money for the telescope could be better spent elsewhere was
    quickly booed down by the gathering.

    Can we get that attitude back with the public and make them realize
    that these problems are only temporary? That they need to invest
    in the future of their children.

  • ljk October 31, 2009, 1:46

    When Others Discover What We Have Forgotten


    “Why is it that poor countries like Nigeria and more prosperous, but still poverty-straddled nations like India, Malaysia, and China (to some extent) all seem to think that putting one of their citizens into space is such a big deal?”

  • Carl October 31, 2009, 8:49

    To James Essig:

    (The dreams of walking down an eternal road where every stepping stone presents new and marvolous wonderment is too valuable of an opportuinity to pass up.)

    Well-written letter, James. The movement into the cosmos is nothing less than spiritual. The venture feeds our curiosity, our urge to be fully human. The 1960s was marvellous because we had a pioneer spirit, with the moon as our next frontier. Many people were continually amazed and pleased, while period movies such as 2001 brought reactions of a particular anticipation of the near future.

    Our wonder and awe have been dramatically fed by our probes and orbital telescopes, adaptive optics and powerful computers, and the relatively recent discovery of exoplanets. The list is far longer than the site index to the right. Distant the stars are, but not impossibly distant. Centauri dreams precede Centauri voyages…

  • ljk November 2, 2009, 1:54

    Launching anything is good: How Governments Could Promote Development of Outer Space

    Sun, 11/01/2009 – 17:38 – Paul Almond

    Government organizations have failed to develop space technology to the point where economies of scale apply and space activity becomes self-supporting. Private businesses may have the problem that in the early stages, before space is economically developed, there will be a limited market for space travel.

    When space is developed there could be significant economic returns, but development of the technology to achieve that could be hindered by the limited market in the early stages.

    This article suggests that a government can help with this by providing a guaranteed market for space travel and development.

    By Paul Almond

    Full article here:


  • James M. Essig November 2, 2009, 13:23

    Hi Carl;

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I am glad to personally hear first hand on an individual basis from the many folks like yourself who look forward to a bold new dream and vision for humanity of Ad Astra Incrementis.

    One a personal note, I will be away from Tau Zero for a few more days as I handle some dailly activities on my agenda.

    I look forward to being back at Tau Zero.

    Kind Regards;