Sciency Words: NIAC

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


Every once in a while, you’ll hear that NASA is working on some crazy Sci-Fi technology.  Space elevators, warp drive… stuff like that.  How seriously should you take this?  Well, I’m not sure, but NASA does have this special program called NIAC.

When NIAC was first created in 1998, the acronym stood for “NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts.”  The program was canceled for budgetary reasons in 2007, but then it was revived in 2011.  The acronym now stands for “NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts.”

As explained in a recent article from Scientific American, “The program functions as NASA’a venture capital arm, in that it supports technologies that might pan out, big-time.”  Basically, if you have a proposal for some highly speculative new space technology—something that sounds a little bit crazy, but not too crazy—NASA might give you grant money for your research.

NIAC funding has gone toward space elevators and robotic space bees.  A mission to Proxima Centauri using tiny “chip” sized space probes?  That got NIAC funding.  The almost magical sounding Mach effect thruster—a propulsion system that uses zero propellant?  That got NIAC funding.

Some of these ideas have been ridiculed by the scientific community and in the popular press.  And I have to agree: this stuff really does sound crazy.  But remember, The New York Times once ridiculed Robert Goddard for his crazy idea that rockets could get us to the Moon.  The New York Times was really harsh in their criticism.

But as we now know, Goddard was right, and The New York Times famously published an apology in 1969, just days before Apollo 11 landed on the Moon.

Most NIAC-funded projects probably won’t work out; but imagine what would happen if a few of them did!  So the next time you hear that NASA is working on some crazy sounding Sci-Fi tech, that probably just means somebody won a NIAC grant. I’m still not sure how seriously you or I should take these NIAC-funded projects, but maybe it’s okay to take them just a little bit seriously.

11 thoughts on “Sciency Words: NIAC

    1. I’m really glad NASA does this. A lot of this stuff won’t pay off, but some of it probably will, and that could be huge.

      What annoys me are news articles that conflate a project that got NIAC funding with something like the SLS or the James Webb Telescope.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s the issue. NASA’s name lends credibility to those concepts. The articles on things like the Mach drive imply that since NASA’s looking into it, there must be something valid about it. I suspect NIAC accepts some projects for political reasons.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. It’s always good to speculate, and occasionally try something only a few people think MIGHT work. Even if they don’t, they might provide useful data that will guide things that DO work.

    There will always be those who want to jump on something new and ridicule it. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved the correction in the New York Times when I first read it. (After I returned from my first airplane trip the week of the moon landings. My parents saved the NYT with the super-large-type headline for me.)
    I didn’t know about Goddard’s wife taking the NYT to task for ‘disinter[ing] this item’.
    I copied the letter into my blog at:

    Liked by 1 person

  3. NASA collaborated with Gene Roddenberry, once Matt Jeffrey was aboard designing the starship USS Enterprise NCC 1701.They took a keen interest in the sickbay beds and materials used to cover them because making it into space is serious business and as real as it gets. The fact NASA studied the USS Enterprise says a lot for Star Trek science.


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