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NASA: The Hunt for Good Ideas

Is NASA going to start pushing back into the realm of truly innovative ideas? Maybe so, to judge from what Robert Braun continues to say. Braun, who joined the agency in February, is now NASA chief technologist, a recently revived office that coordinates mission-specific technologies at the ten NASA centers. This story in IEEE Spectrum notes that Braun is soliciting ‘disruptive technologies’ through a series of ‘grand challenges.’ Most of these relate to short-term space activities such as Earth observation missions, but enhancing robotics and pushing new ideas in space propulsion has obvious implications for deep space operations.

From Susan Karlin’s story at the IEEE Spectrum site:

The grand challenges address three areas: accessing space more routinely, managing space as a natural resource, and future quests. Achieving these goals mostly boils down to improvements in spacecraft propulsion, energy use, and safety; advances in astronaut health, communication technology, and artificial intelligence; a better understanding of near-Earth environments, such as meteors, solar wind, and cosmic rays; observations of climate change and predicting natural disasters; and searching for extraterrestrial life and Earth-like worlds.

That’s a pretty wide range, but what I find encouraging is Braun’s dogged emphasis on open competition. Recall that NASA’s now defunct Institute for Advanced Concepts purposely encouraged work from outside the agency to avoid the ‘not invented here’ syndrome. Braun’s office now says the agency is looking for ideas from anywhere in the world, and that includes academia, private spaceflight and aeronautics firms, and individual inventors. All ideas will be sent through the technical peer review process and ultimately chosen by Braun and team, with grant and prize money up to $1 million per project to assist in the development of the technology.

The article quotes Braun on the process:

“I’m talking about an open competition model from an open community of innovators,” says Braun. “Not where we say, ’Here’s a solicitation, and if you work for the government or a university, you can compete for this award.’ I’m talking about strategically defining the technologies needed over the next 10 or 20 years, putting those capabilities on the street in a competitive bid, and then having the community—folks in government, academia, industry, and citizen innovators working in their garages—form ad hoc teams on their own.”

The open model served NIAC well, and if it is true that the new mandate will also involve resurrecting NIAC itself, so much the better. Have a look some time at the still available NIAC site under NIAC Funded Studies to see the range of work Robert Cassanova and team studied at the Institute, everything from antimatter collection to redesigning living organisms for non-terrestrial environments. Getting the Institute back in operation would be a solid win for those advocating a return to the study of futuristic concepts as part of NASA’s mission.

When Deborah Gage interviewed Braun in August about NIAC, he had this to say:

Looking longer term, there’s the NIAC [NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts], and we’re proud to be bringing NIAC back—it’s one of the 10 programs in Space Technology. It’s modest dollar value, but it was a great way in my opinion for NASA to engage external innovators in small and larger businesses and academia to get their visions of the future.

One problem NIAC had previously was that it was so revolutionary, with 40-years-and-out system concepts, that there were no technology programs to carry along the innovators idea. So the innovator would win funding and study the concept for a year and there would be no place for that idea to go.

Now we have a way to transition a NIAC idea from concept to flight, and we’ve worked hard on that.

All this developing out of a National Research Council report a year ago that called for NIAC’s return, a report headed up by Braun while he was still at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Among the things the report noted: Over a nine year period, NASA invested $36.2 million in NIAC, covering 168 grants in that period. Some of these grants received a total of $23.8 million from outside organizations, indicating their viability at attracting partners, and 28% of 42 Phase II grant projects lived on after NIAC funding was terminated.

NIAC’s innovative ideas, in other words, have proven significant, and if NASA is going to return to a culture of innovation, an organization within the agency has to spearhead the effort. We’ll see how all this develops in the context of Braun’s ‘grand challenges’ and the mandate for finding good ideas whatever their source. More on the grand challenges will appear soon on the Office of Chief Technologist’s Web site, while the Centennial Challenges prize program for ‘citizen inventors’ is already online. Braun recommends studying the National Academies’ decadal surveys to ponder what technologies are most likely to need a new perspective.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Greg October 15, 2010, 10:37

    I never really understood the elimination of NIAC. I understand from a fiscal view to cut costs, but from a technology stand point and ROI, it was an excellent program. I’m certainly hoping that it does get revived.

  • Istvan October 15, 2010, 14:35

    Best news I’ve seen in a while. Thanks for this essay and sharing Braun’s quotes.

  • Denver October 15, 2010, 16:30

    NASA should spend our dimes on single stage to orbit until they get it right.

  • Tarmen October 15, 2010, 20:07

    Thanks God(S) for this Robert Braun . And all like him. NASA has got to make use of all the new technologies. Our peoples want to establish a new frontier. America(s) ; and Europe; and Canada; and Japan. We absolutely must expand out of our cradle, our beloved home world – our mother Earth. A thousand virgin planets.

  • Michael Spencer October 16, 2010, 6:36

    Denver: At first your comment was troubling, but after some thought perhaps you are right. Nothing will happen until we learn to get to orbit easily and cheaply.

    But please do remember that there’s some kind of diminishing returns when you keep throwing people–and money– at a problem. No doubt someone here will remind me of a recent book or paper now tickling my brain on this subject.

    Put another way, the SSTO project is fundamental. On the other hand, even is unimaginable resources were devoted singly to the task, still there are many many more people and dollars available.

    And indeed the forward thinking, the outlandish ideas, the lateral notions are where we will find our next step, after SSTO. These ideas are the power of the future and we have no idea what they are.

  • Istvan October 18, 2010, 14:25

    @Denver & Michael Spencer – I agree fundamentally that SSTO or similar cheap-launch strategies are critical for overall forward progress. However, based on the last 35 years, I am becoming convinced that NASA is not the place to look for solving that problem.

    I have gradually come to think that NASA is still a good place for R&D, and longer-term projects (if not NASA or other government space agencies such as ESA/JAXA, then where?), but for rapid iteration on inexpensive launch technology applications, the commercial space companies seem to hold more hope for innovation and solving the cost-to-orbit problem.

    In the context of this thinking, I find the possibility that Braun is taking the NASA technology office in the direction of longer-term research and advanced concepts, very hopeful and encouraging.

  • Pete October 18, 2010, 22:16

    For true SSTO you’ll need nuclear rockets to reach mach 27 orbital escape velocity. There are probably no physics, engineering or economic barriers, but there are political ones regarding nukes in high altitudes and/or space. Those barriers will be more easily overcome by government (NASA) not commercial aerospace. There’s also the cost-benefit thing. Boeing or Lockheed could probably come up with a true SSTO craft within a few years, but they won’t do it because they’re in it for their shareholders and the bottom line not pushing boundaries.

  • Duncan Ivry October 19, 2010, 17:18

    Those companies like Boeing and others, and in Europe EADS (European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company), already have a lot of technical and organizational problems with their new passenger aircrafts, Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A380. It is rather questionable whether they “could probably come up with” (insert your favorite craft here) “within a few years”.

  • Pete October 22, 2010, 11:29

    I would submit that a true ssto space plane would be easier to build than a 787 Dreamliner or Airbus A380. It’s not necessarily more difficult to push engineering boundaries than it is to transport hundreds of civilians vast distances cheaply, safely, and profitably. The engineering goes back to project nerva in the 70’s and the theory and experimentation has progressed considerably since then with things like Triton http://www.engineeringatboeing.com/dataresources/AIAA-2004-3863.pdf
    and Black Horse
    If someone’s willing to invest a few billion, the payoff might not happen in 3 years but it would be big.

  • Duncan Ivry October 22, 2010, 21:14


    There’s some truth in what you say. But, please, reconsider “cheaply” and “safely”.

    There have been so many projects controlled by state agencies in America and in Europe with exploding costs. Do *you* have any hope, they will get it next time? And above that: We just had a severe economic decline. Money won’t come back to space exploration for many years.

    Regarding “safely”, what will happen after the next Challenger-wise desaster? Projects will stall for years, because the public and the politicians can’t stand the pain (many deads on the streets each and every day: yes; a small number of deads in space exploration: no). So safety is equally important here.

  • Pete October 23, 2010, 15:17

    Regarding safely and cheaply: consider computing power that wasn’t available even five years ago. An engineering startup could do virtually anything that a big organization like NASA or the ESA could do using engineering simulations- to virtually design, build, and even ‘fly’ prototype vehicles in three and four dimensional simulated atmospheric environments- to do proof of concept and save billions on failed prototypes and human lives- before even setting foot in the shop (a.k.a. nuclear engine test facility). If something goes wrong during a virtual test flight, rather than spending billions more on a new prototype (and/or funeral), one need only make minor adjustments to the virtual design…It is quite forseeable that for the cost of a fancy SUV, someone with the engineering expertise could build a personal supercomputer and run the sims that could possibly convince those with the funds to invest in something worthwhile like genuine ssto.

  • Duncan Ivry October 24, 2010, 16:07

    @ Pete

    The science and the technology involved in the development and production of flying vehicles is still not able to do what you describe. Just out of the reasons you gave, companies in this business already use simulations as intensively as possible. Without a certain amount of *real* test flights risk is much too high, and because of this, regulations are rather restricting, and controlling bodies are very critical. For real test flights a startup company would need investors with deep pockets.

    A relevant example of the problems and of the state of the art:
    Earlier in 2010 (if I remember correctly) for the first time a research group published results about exact measurements of the forces involved in those micro-cracks, which appear in material, e.g. when things are attached to each other with a pin or a screw, and how the cracks proceed (by the way, the forces are remarkably and surprisingly strong). These are *only* measurements! Nobody has a sound theory explaining enough of these phenomena to be applied in engineering. A sound theory is a necessary precondition for useful simulation. Without that computing power is useless. I hope, you see how important this is just for our topic. And this is only *one* example.