It’s Not Sci-Fi—NASA Is Funding These Mind-Blowing Projects

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Mike LaPointe has the envious job of figuring out how to get space exploration to the science fiction future.

He and his colleagues fund high-risk, high-reward projects as part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC, which last week announced grants to 14 teams exploring fantastical ideas. Many of them won’t pan out. But some—perhaps the lunar oxygen pipeline or the space telescope mirror that’s actually built in space—could become game changers.

“We’re looking at anything from back-of-the-napkin kind of concepts to things that are conceptualized but not developed yet,” LaPointe says. “These are things looking 20 to 30 years down the road to see how we could drastically improve or enable new types of NASA missions.” For example, while efforts to slightly boost a chemical rocket engine’s efficiency would be laudable, that’s not far out enough for the program. A proposal for a completely new system that could replace chemical rockets would fit right in.

NASA awards these grants annually, mostly to academic researchers in the United States. This new batch of awards is for Phase 1 projects, which each receive $175,000 to conduct a nine-month study that researchers will use to lay out their plans in more detail, run tests, and design prototypes. A promising few will make it to Phase 2 and get $600,000 for a two-year study. After that, NASA will award $2 million to a single exceptional project to fund a two-year Phase 3 study. 

Some of the competitors may ultimately find a home at NASA or with a commercial partner; others may have an indirect effect on space exploration by paving the way to spin-off technologies. For example, the startup Freefall Aerospace’s inflatable space antenna began as an NIAC project. A NIAC proposal for a rotorcraft on the Red Planet inspired the Martian helicopter Ingenuity.


Fluidic Telescope (FLUTE).Courtesy of Edward Balaban/NASA



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