Supporting the Revolution – NIAC Program begins 2013 campaign

by Chris Bergin

NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program announced the kick-off of its 2013 drive on Tuesday, calling for proposals involving revolutionary concepts with the potential to transform future aerospace missions. With up to $100,000 on offer per project, NIAC is at the forefront of potentially finding the next big space flight breakthrough.


Returning in 2011 after a break of four years, NIAC enables early investment and partnership with creative scientists, engineers and citizen inventors to help maintain America’s leadership in the global technology economy, potentially providing the financial and intellectual tools to realize the next major step forward in space.

Under the leadership of NASA’s Space Technology Program, NIAC studies “visionary aerospace architecture, system or mission concepts that are exciting and unexplored, yet credible and executable,” submitted by United States citizens and researchers working in the US, including NASA civil servants.

The concepts in NIAC’s arena are usually early in development – generally 10 years or more from operation. They are chosen based on peer review of the potential impact, technical strength and benefits of the proposed study.

“While Goddard or Tsiolkovsky envisioned rockets taking humans to space, the rest of the world focused on the industrial revolution and challenges of the early 20th century,” said Michael Gazarik, director of NASA’s Space Technology Program at the agency’s headquarters in Washington.

NIAC“These visionaries had radical ideas of space travel and exploration that would take dozens to hundreds of years for maturation, but were worth waiting for. NASA’s NIAC seeks proposals from today’s visionaries who have futuristic concepts that may transform how we live, work and explore the high frontier.”

Based on their return in 2011, NIAC’s current portfolio includes multiple technology areas contributing to innovations in revolutionary construction, human systems, sensing or imaging, autonomous exploration, and aerospace transportation.

These include revolutions in propulsion – one of the shackles that is restricting human space flight from looking any further than Mars in our short to medium term future.

Interesting ideas proposed in Group 1 from the 2011 NIAC effort included “Metallic Hydrogen: A Game Changing Rocket Propellant” – a concept which “would revolutionize rocketry”, as introduced by Isaac Silvera of Harvard University.

NIAC Concept Drawing for MSNW, LCC ProposalJohn Slough of MSNW LLC, also focused on deep space exploration via his “Nuclear Propulsion Through Direct Conversion of Fusion Energy” concept that was also part of the Group 1 proposals.

On the nuclear fission side of the NIAC supported concepts, Robert Werka – of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) – approached NIAC with his “Concept Assessment of a Fission Fragment Rocket Engine (FFRE) Propelled Spacecraft, which has a safety bonus of enabling the reactor to be charged after arrival in LEO.”

These past NIAC Phase I proposals have included a broad range of imaginative and creative ideas, including: using electromagnets to protect spacecraft from radiation; the application of terrestrial ocean exploring concepts for extremely low-power exploration of under-ice oceans believed to be on Europa; and printing entire spacecraft on sheets of paper.

The latest NIAC Phase I solicitations will incorporate a two-step process, with NIAC accepting short proposals, limited to three pages, until February 14. After review, NASA will invite those whose proposal concepts are of interest to the agency to submit a full proposal of no more than eight pages. Full proposals will be due April 18.

NASA expects to fund about 15 proposals in this year’s Phase I process. Those selected may receive up to $100,000 for nine months of study to advance the innovative space technology concept and help NASA meet current operational and future mission requirements. Selection announcements are expected this summer.

Images via NASA/NIAC.

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