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NIAC’s Jay Falker: On the Hunt for What’s Possible in Space
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Image Credit: NIAC Fellow Robert Staehle, NASA/JPL
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To set your sights on visionary changes that could transform space exploration, look no further than NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts - or NIAC for short.

In early August, NASA’s NIAC announced a select set of proposals for study, with each idea receiving approximately $100,000 for one year.

The objective: To help transform the space agency’s future space missions, enable new capabilities or significantly alter current approaches to launching, building, and operating space systems.

The first round of chosen proposals – culled from over 700 proposals submitted to NIAC – included a broad range of imaginative and creative ideas, from propulsion and power concepts, radiation shielding, a novel spacesuit design, interplanetary cubesats to dealing with hazardous orbital debris and practical satellite-generated solar power for transmission to Earth.

“We had overwhelming response,” says Jay Falker, program executive, NIAC, Office of the Chief Technologist. “The number of proposals we received was more than twice as many as the high-side of my expectations. It was pretty awesome.”

A thorough review of the hundreds of submitted proposals yielded a field of 30 Phase I solicitations for 2011. “Our NIAC portfolio consists of concepts from NASA researchers, academia, businesses and laboratories,” Falker explains.

Some four months later, the 30 NIAC Fellows are now heavily engaged in sharpening their proposal ideas. A November 16-17 Fellows Orientation Meeting focused on the on-going initiatives.

Transformative Capabilities

Heartened by the NIAC work now underway, Falker points out that the selected concepts fit well with NASA’s breakthrough aspirations. The NIAC-supported work now in full-swing has the potential to mature into the transformative capabilities that are apart of NASA’s future, he explains.

“We’re interested in promise,” Falker says, “and NIAC is pushing the edge closer to science fiction, as long as the proposal is credible. We wanted creativity. We wanted things out of the norm. We want to change what is possible in space.”

Falker is the first to point out that NIAC-spurred ideas incur risk. On one hand some NIAC proposals may not work out. On the other hand, they might involve great change, he says.

“There should always be a NIAC,” Falker observes, “a place for the revolutionary ideas to get a chance. And now may be the best time for ground-breaking thoughts for space.”

Thanks to NASA’s NIAC and the Office of Chief Technologist, the space agency’s joint venture with creative scientists, engineers and citizen inventors from across the nation is a return-on-investment, one that can pay huge technological dividends and help maintain America's leadership in the global technology economy.

In surveying the Phase 1 NIAC proposals, Falker concludes: “I keep emphasizing that, if we get a single breakthrough out of NIAC, it will all be worth it.”

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