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NRC: Fostering Visions for the Future: A Review of the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts

Status Report From: National Research Council
Posted: Tuesday, August 11, 2009

image The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) was formed in 1998 to provide an independent source of advanced aeronautical and space concepts that could dramatically impact how NASA develops and conducts its missions. Until August 2007, NIAC provided an independent open forum, a high-level point of entry to NASA for an external community of innovators, and an external capability for analysis and definition of advanced aeronautics and space concepts to complement the advanced concept activities conducted within NASA. Throughout its 9-year existence, NIAC inspired an atmosphere for innovation that stretched the imagination and encouraged creativity.

Utilizing an open, Web-based environment to conduct solicitations, perform peer review, administer grant awards, and publicize its activities, this small program succeeded in fostering a community of external innovators to investigate advanced concepts that might have a significant impact on future NASA missions in a 10 to 40-year time frame. Funded at approximately $4 million per year, NIAC received a total of $36.2 million in NASA funding, more than 75 percent of which was used directly for grants. NIAC received more than 1300 proposals and awarded 168 grants, for a total of $27.3 million. There were 126 Phase I grants awarded for 6 months of initial study. Upon successful completion of Phase I and based on the continued promise of the advanced concept, 42 Phase II grants were awarded by NIAC for 2 years of additional concept maturation.

Many NIAC grantees went on to receive additional funding for continued development of their concept from NASA, other government agencies, or private industry. In addition to developing revolutionary advanced concepts, NIAC increased public interest in science and engineering and provided motivation to the nation's youth to study technical subjects.

NIAC was featured in more than 40 general-interest publications, attracting mainstream media coverage for the agency and receiving more than 226,000 Google hits to its website. Originally conceived as reporting to the agency's chief technologist so that infusion across all NASA enterprises could be assured, NIAC operated in an environment of frequent NASA organizational changes. In 2004, NASA management of NIAC was transferred to the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, where it was not well aligned with its sponsor's near-term mission objectives. NIAC was terminated in 2007.

In 2008, Congress directed the National Research Council (NRC) to conduct a review of the effectiveness of NIAC and to make 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. This report of the NRC Committee to Review NIAC is organized according to the four objectives set in the statement of task (see Box S-1 and Appendix A). The findings in response to Objective 1 and 2 form the basis for the recommendations made by the committee in response to Objective 3 and 4. The complete findings and recommendations of this study are listed in the second section of this summary, and several key findings and recommendations are discussed immediately below.

Full report

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