One of the rare bright spots at NASA is the revival of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, designed to develop future technology that would enhance future aerospace endeavors. The original program lasted from 1998 to 2007.
Thus far NASA has selected 30 proposals for further study, each getting a $100,000 grant, according to NASA Space Flight. A request for a second round of proposals has been made.
What were some of the concepts chosen?
According to NASA, the concepts range from a specialized space suit that would use flywheels to stabilize the astronaut, replicating the sensation of gravity while in o-g to a fusion powered propulsion system. Other concepts deal with power generation, dealing with orbital debris and near Earth object, and technology to explore “skylights, lava tubes and caves” on sub planetary worlds.
The list of approved proposals are heavily weighted toward developing propulsion technology. One of the more innovative propulsion proposals is the Ambient Plasma Wave Propulsion that uses plasma and electromagnetic fields that exist around planets and the sun rather than onboard propellant. Others include using metallic hydrogen as fuel, a fission fragment rocket engine, and fusion based propulsion technology.
What is the history of studying advanced concepts?
Because of its constrained budget, NASA has had some difficulty accommodating current programs while at the same time studying technologies that would be useful for future endeavors. The original NIAC program was initiated at a time when the International Space Station was just beginning to be constructed in an era of flat NASA budgets. Nevertheless it studied a number of interesting technologies, including space elevators, a number of space telescope concepts, and other advanced ideas.
When President George W. Bush started the Constellation program that was designed to take astronauts explorers beyond low Earth orbit, that budget constraint became even more apparent. The original NIAC program was terminated in 2007 for budget reasons.
President Barack Obama canceled the Constellation program in 2010. Part of the new policy entailed developing “game changing technologies” that would enhance space exploration down the road. Though Congress balked at terminating all current space exploration development, enough money is now available for a revival of the NIAC, which was reauthorized in 2011.
What is the future of the new NIAC Program?
The funding for NIAC is relatively small, thus far, about $3 million. However to bring even some of the technological concepts being funded to full fruition, a great deal more money would have to be spent. The options for doing this are either increasing NASA’s budget or else cancelling programs, particularly the current effort to build the Space Launch System and the Orion space craft, which uses primarily current technology.
Absent an improvement in the current fiscal situation and a presidential commitment, an increase in NASA’s budget is unlikely. Congress is not likely to defund the SLS and Orion; this conversation has already been had with the Obama administration and the conclusion that some kind of space exploration program must exist is not likely to change.
A NASA report on the original NIAC examines the problem of how such efforts can create value in the short term. The report admits that for many of the concepts being studied, the technology is not available and even the science is not well understood. Nevertheless the concepts being funded might prove useful-one day. In the more immediate term, NASA justifies the program with the familiar arguments of technological spin-offs, creating jobs, and education.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.