NASA: The Hunt for Good Ideas
Paul Gilster, Centauri Dreams, October 15, 2010
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.