NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program

If you think NASA is a “cool” organization, then NIAC program is the stuff dreams are made of. You might not have heard of this program, but you’ve definitely heard about some of the daring, visionary, and really “out-there” ideas coming out of the NIAC program. Before we talk about the edge-of-science ideas that comes out of the NIAC program, we should give the ultimate credit to the folks who submit these ideas. These ideas start with passion mixed with great imagination followed by hard work and patience to put down on paper. So, kudos to all those who have submitted a proposal to the NIAC program and congratulations to all those who made it to Phase I, II, or III (after which is when the proposal gets funded).

Talking about gratitude, we should not forget folks at NASA who run this program. Actually, that’s how I found out about the existence of the NIAC program. I heard NIAC program executive Jason Derleth on episode 50 of the NASA’s Small Step Giant Leaps podcast (I’ll have a list of top space-related podcasts on a separate blogpost). This 56-minute-long episode hosted by Deana Nunley was a treat and if you haven’t, you should go listen to it.

Now let’s talk about a couple of the most interesting proposals submitted to the NIAC program. The top proposal ever has to be by Dr. Phil Lubin, which made it to Phase I in 2015 and Phase II in 2016. It proposes a feasible way for interstellar travel. Essentially, it’ll allow us to send nanocrafts to our closest star system (which has its own planets), Alpha Centauri, and get information back within our lifetime. The idea is to deploy dozens of nanocrafts that will be powered by laser from earth-based stations. These nanocrafts will reach 10-20% the speed of light and will be capable of sending images and other data back. Advancements have been made on this idea since the NIAC proposal through Breakthrough Starshot with the backing of billionaire Yuri Milner. For the latest, visit the website https://breakthroughinitiatives.org/initiative/3. While we are yet to fully explore our own solar system, it’ll be wonderful to catch a glimpse of our neighbor’s backyard. And we’ll have NIAC to thank for!

My next favorite proposal deals with asteroid mining. In general, I stop doing everything and start listening whenever I hear anyone talking about asteroid mining even though I might not understand all the details. Joel Sercel, founder of Trans Astronautica Corporation, is the most prolific of all NIAC awardee whose work is focused on developing the technology that will one day make asteroid mining possible. His idea to wrap up an asteroid in a bag and mine it using “optical mining” technology is mind-bending but entirely feasible (Phase II in 2017). Asteroid mining will be essential for human adventure in space and “optical mining” might be the most crucial piece to make it happen.

So, go ahead and visit the NIAC’s website https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/niac/index.html and look up all the different proposals. It’s truly inspiring to see such examples of limitless human ingenuity.

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