Hello, friends! Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z! For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space. If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more. In today’s post, N is for…
So far this month, we’ve talked about some pretty wild ideas for future missions in space. We’ve talked about building an elevator to space. We’ve talked about putting a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon. We’ve talked about sending astronauts to Callisto, one of the moons of Jupiter, and exploring the hydrocarbon lakes on Titan (a moon of Saturn) using a robotic submarine. As crazy as these ideas may seem, they’ve all received some amount of funding from NASA through a program called NIAC.
NIAC stands for NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (yes, it’s an acronym that contains another acronym inside it). NIAC is basically a program that awards grant money to researchers who are testing the limits of what we can do in space using current technology or who are developing new technologies that might one day revolutionize space exploration. If you ever hear on the news that NASA is funding some project that sounds a little too Sci-Fi to be true, it probably just means that NASA gave somebody some NIAC funding for their research.
I once heard NIAC described as a high-risk/high-reward program. Many NIAC projects probably won’t work out. Some of these things really are too Sci-Fi to be true. But what if a few NIAC projects do work? What if some crazy idea that sounds like pure science fiction actually works!?! Even if only a few NIAC funded projects do come to fruition, they could change everything for NASA. More than that, they could change everything for human civilization.
I’m no expert on finances. I’m certainly no expert on how the U.S. federal budget works. I do know that space exploration is expensive. Very expensive.
I also know that NASA does what it does within a very strict and rather inflexible budget. I’m actually really impressed that NASA manages to do so much cool science stuff on such a tight budget. This may seem weird, but I often ask myself “What would NASA do?” when I have to make difficult spending decisions.
Most NIAC projects are definitely not ready to fly and probably won’t be ready to fly for quite a few years to come. But it makes sense to start planning for the future now. It makes sense to do some of the research now that could help make a more Sci-Fi future become a reality. That’s really what NIAC is all about.
Want to Learn More?
Wikipedia has a pretty thorough list of all the research projects that have received NIAC funding over the years, up to 2020.