NASA think-tank should reopen, says NRC

Washington, DC – NASA should return to the good old days of visionary thinking, according to a report from the National Research Council (NRC).

The report calls for the reinstatement of the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC), which worked on innovations from skin-tight space suits to a space elevator before it was closed down in 2007. The then boss of NASA, Mike Griffin, decided to focus funds on manned moon flights instead.

“The majority of the NIAC-supported efforts were highly innovative. Many pushed the limits of applied physics. Overall, the efforts supported produced results commensurate with the risks involved,” says the report. “Today, NASA’s investment in advanced concepts and long-term technological solutions to its strategic goals is minimal.”

The NRC envisages a new but very similar agency which would report directly to NASA administrator Charles Bolden. It would dish out grants of up to $100,000 for one-year initial programs, or up to $500,000 for really innovative research. The NRC says, however, that a new agency should focus more closely on projects that have more chance of bearing fruit within ten years.

The NIAC accounted for a measly 0.02 percent of NASA’s budget, at $4 million per year, and attracted investment from outside organisations. Many of its 100-odd projects were seen as highly succcessful, with three well on their way to becoming official NASA missions – a plasma rocket, an X-ray interferometer for observing black holes and a ‘star shade’ to help in the search for extrasolar planets.