August 7, 2009
NASA used to have a research institute—a tiny one—that funded scientists and engineers to develop far-out ideas, stuff that was still 40 years in the future, or well beyond the horizon of the current space station or even the proposed moonbase. The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts was among the coolest things going at the space agency, and it cost a measly $4 million a year, or less than what the Marshall Space Flight Center will spend next year to replace the asbestos siding on a single building. Nevertheless, the Institute was shut down in 2007, presumably to save money.
The National Research Council wants it back. In a report released today, the NRC suggests that a “NIAC 2″ be created based on the old institute, which, it turns out, did a pretty good job of incubating ideas like antimatter propulsion, biologically-inspired robots, and other visionary proposals (see the full list of funded studies here).
This time around, the NRC recommends that the institute foster near-term projects as well as the longer-range ideas, to better connect with NASA’s immediate needs. I’d be surprised if Congress (which requested the report) doesn’t order the NIAC to be reinstated, and well it should. A space agency has got to dream.