NASA challenge-grant program brings up 13 promising ideas

Thirteen academic and corporate thinkers have received awards from NASA in order to develop ideas for transforming future missions. It is part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program. For details, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the program’s Deputy Executive John Nelson and the program’s Acting Executive Mike LaPointe.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And the program itself, I guess you call it NIAC. The basic program, NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program. That is not new, you’ve been doing this for a number of years.

Mike LaPointe Oh that’s correct. Actually, it was reconstituted in 2011 as a NASA program. And so it’s has been around for a while. John and I have been, involved with it for the last couple of years. Kind of came on as the acting PE a couple years back. And John came on about a year ago last October.

Tom Temin All right. And looks like a challenge grant type of program where you give small amounts of money to a lot of people to develop ideas. Is that basically how it works?

Mike LaPointe It is. It’s actually a three phase program. And I’ll let John talk about it in more detail. But basically, phase one is projects that we’ll talk about today, is our initial, basically a feasibility study. It’s a nine month, 175K, technology development effort. Basically, I studied, to tell NASA why your idea is a good idea that we should pursue. And then after that, we have, phase two, which is a two year, 600K, more of a viability study to put more meat on the bones of the concept. And then phase three, which is very rare, we do basic one of those years, a $2 million, two year effort to really advance the technology. So John, anything you’d like to say about it.

John Nelson Yeah, I’ll just add that while we do have three phases and, you know, phase three does involve some actual technology development. You have to remember, put this in context, this is all very early stage stuff. So unlike a lot of technology development programs, we’re not looking at a mission that’s five years out or up and even ten years out. We’re looking at capabilities that don’t currently exist. Visionary, truly transformative ideas that may not come to fruition for 20 years or more, and some cases a lot more than 20 years. So that’s why we start with that small phase one feasibility concept. We don’t expect all these ideas to work. We’re exploring whether or not the idea has any feasibility at all and is worth further development.

Tom Temin And when you launch a round, just for example, like the one you just awarded, do you focus on a particular area, for example, going to Mars or sustaining human life, or looking back down at the Earth or just anything that might be useful to NASA?

Mike LaPointe That’s exactly right. It’s a wide open call. We are actually open to anyone in the US, any organization, academia, other government agencies, individuals that are registered with SAM.Gov. But it’s a wide open call, any technology area that’s of interest for future missions to NASA that could help us do our job better we’re interested in hearing about.

Tom Temin And how do you spread the word so that the right people will know about it?

Mike LaPointe So that’s a good question. We have, a very good network of folks out there that are very applied. And they spread the word a lot for us. We also do a solicitation every year, which is also posted in Fed Biz Ops. The synopsis, comes out in Fed Biz Ops. A lot of press that we get each time we do a phase one call, phase two call. And that helps us spread the word for us as well. And Kathy, a while ago, I believe is still on board is our, strategic outreach and communications manager. And she does an outstanding job of spreading the word for us.

Tom Temin Yeah. Because you don’t want to just be in fed biz ops, because then you’ll get the usual contractors. Fair to say?

Mike LaPointe Absolutely. We have a really good presence on the NASA website. And I should mention to you that we do have a website that lists all of our prior studies, as well as all the key dates and a lot of information about the program. So your listeners are more than welcome to visit the site.

Tom Temin Any particular exciting technologies that have come to fruition and were deployed by NASA that you can point to in the past.

Mike LaPointe We have, John, you want to take a first shot and I’ll follow up.

John Nelson Sure. So again, we’re focused on really long term stuff. But that isn’t to say that potentially near-term applications are spin offs. We’ve actually got one that’s getting ready to fly in, hopefully in March scheduled for March. So the idea was originally a large inflatable reflector balloon that could be used as a telescope. This was from Chris Walker, University of Arizona and freefall space. Well, he and his students took that idea and shrunk it down to basically a large aperture, antenna for CubeSats. And they’re actually testing that in space. Again, hopefully in March. So that’s one example, but we’ve had many others as well.

Mike LaPointe So that’s the one that’s going to help us. And we’ve had a phase three program project called from Trends Astra to look at optical mining of asteroids, where they would go out and actually capture an asteroid and use intensely focused, solar energy to mine the volatiles off an steroid, which of course is very far term. But as a spin off of that, that asteroid capture process can be used and they’re looking at it now through an SBIR to, for orbital debris remediation to go out and actually capture a debris and bring it back into the atmosphere. So, things like that. And one of the things we also point to, as we all know, ingenuity flew it’s last flight on Mars, just recently. But that actually was inspired by a NIAC program, the original NIAC, or NIAC concept, original NIAC program. So we like to take credit for that as well, where one of our prior PI’s did a study on rotorcraft on Mars and on Titan. And, the PI for ingenuity having to attend the talk that he was given and realized that, hey, we could do a rotorcraft on a helicopter on Mars, which led to the ingenuity project.

Tom Temin Yeah, that was kind of famous. That little tiny helicopter, I think it just finally gave up the ghost recently.

Mike LaPointe It did just the other day. The last flight, 72 flights. It was pretty impressive.

Tom Temin All right. We’re speaking with Mike LaPointe, is the acting program executive, and John Nelson is deputy executive for the NASA Innovative Concepts Program. And this latest round, you’ve given 13 awards. What are some of the highlights.

Mike LaPointe Telling you to lead us off.

John Nelson I tell you what. Since we were talking about ingenuity, let’s talk about, flight on Mars. So we just funded a project called [Mars Aerial and Ground Global Intelligent Explorer (Maggie)]. This is for basically a fixed wing, solar powered plane. Vertical takeoff and landing, capable of going, I think it’s something like 180km per flight. That could make it all the way around Mars and give us global access for scientific study. So basically, taking the idea of ingenuity, and just running with it in terms of access to the planet. And there have been, studies on fixed wing aircraft on Mars in the past. It’s extremely difficult because of the very thin atmosphere. And most of this concepts were really huge and had a lot of challenges. And though we certainly a lot of challenges with this, but the design they proposed has promise and we hope that it shows feasibility.

Tom Temin Yeah. What did the engineers say? If you apply enough thrust and control the angle of attack, you can fly a barn door, but maybe not so much on Mars. So that’s a good one. A couple of others we can hear about?

Mike LaPointe Well, closer to home. We’re funding something called a lightweight, fiber based, radio frequency antenna. These are used for Earth science applications. In this particular case would be used for, looking at, soil moisture. And the reason for that is, once you’re ground get saturated, additional runoff causes floods and such as well as on the opposite side of that, you can have a very low soil moisture content with drought. So this is a way to map soil moisture content around the Earth. And the idea here is of a very long, extensive fiber based array, which is new. It’s very difficult to get long extensions in space from, a confined payload. But this is a way to actually use a fiber with an embedded antenna to roll out and get a really long baseline that you can do extremely accurate measurements, for soil moisture, as well as things like sea salinity and other aspects of it. So earth science application there. Going the other extreme, we have funded a concept to fly out to Alpha Centauri or Proxima Centauri, with a swarm of very small satellites, ground based satellites. This has been looked at through project, Starshot. We use, like, gigawatt class lasers to fly these very, very, very small payloads out, to the nearest star. The challenge there is you don’t get much communication back, right? You’re at a very far distance, and these things are very, very limited. But if you fly a swarm, you can actually do a coherent signal back. And so the idea here is you fly a bunch of them, you get out there, you assemble on the way a nice coherent swarm of these little tiny satellites. And when they get there, they do their sensing, and then they actually put an optical, signal back to Earth that you can pick up with an Earth based telescope.

Tom Temin Well, that one, just to delve in a little bit, Proxima Centauri, that’s the nearest star or something. How long would that take?

Mike LaPointe So light takes about 4.2 years to get out there and about 4.2 years to get back. So they’re going to fly these at about 20% the speed of light. So it’ll take about 20 years to get out there. And then it’ll take about four years to get their signal back.

Tom Temin 20% of the speed of light. That’s pretty fast.

Mike LaPointe Well, you need a 100 gigawatt laser.

John Nelson This is not one that’s 5 or 10 or even 20.

Mike LaPointe Yes. This is a little further out.

Tom Temin Well, at least you can reasonably assume to live to see the results as opposed to going to somewhere much further away. And then one of the awards went to someone from NASA’s Glenn Research Center, Jeff Landis. Something that can survive Venus, which is pretty hot.

Mike LaPointe That’s a really interesting mission. It’s, basically a balloon floating in the atmosphere and an airplane that will go down, pick up a sample, a surface sample, not just an atmospheric sample. Bring it back up to the balloon, which has a rocket attached. Transfer the sample to the to the rocket canister and then fire the rocket back so we can actually get a sample return from Venus. It’s a really interesting way to do this. It’s complex, which makes it very NIAC. It’ll be the first time we can actually get a sample back from the surface of Venus.

Tom Temin And I guess a final question on all of these. How many would you get for around that you would narrow down to 13? And what are your criteria for thinking, well, this one could possibly work.

John Nelson So every year we get around 300 ideas for phase one. It’s a two step process. So those 300 what we call step eight proposals. It’s typically just a summary chart and four pages of description. And based on that we look at whether or not it’s in scope for NIAC. Because as I’m sure you’ve gathered, NIAC is different from a lot of other science technology programs and programs within NASA. We’re looking for things that are framed in a mission context, and we’re not looking for incremental development. So, we take those 300 and we get it down to about 100 that we invite for proposal. For proposal, for step A is about eight pages. So it’s still pretty short proposal. We try to make it as easy as possible to propose to the program. We’re all about, open eligibility. And those 100 proposals for step B go through scientific technical review panels with subject matter experts that we bring in from around the country. And then we take those results, integrate them and consider a programmatic balance and other considerations and bring forward to our selection official.

Tom Temin Do you have a a group of the regular nut that supply things that never have a chance of getting it, but they just know about it and try anyway.

John Nelson So we have lots of people that propose each time, and many of those, after many tries, actually get funded. We’re also thrilled to see, at least the last couple of years, that about half of those proposers of those 300 proposals are coming in from new proposals to NIAC. So we are continuing to grab more people in the community and expanding the community, which we’re very happy.

Tom Temin And one final question I had is just something that’s personally intriguing, and that is the sustainment of human life for the eventual Mars mission, which is months and months, I guess one way, because you can’t go even 20% of the speed of light to get to Mars, or some fraction thereof. So people have to live and thrive for that period of time. What is it, I think a year and a half or something, I forget the exact time. But it’s definitely not a few hours like it is to get to the moon a couple of days. Do you get ideas on that issue?

Mike LaPointe We do actually, part of the way to solve that issue is to go fast. So NASA’s looking at nuclear thermal propulsion now. And one of the concepts we had was an augmented nuclear thermal rocket, which could actually increase your exhaust velocity, your specific impulse to get you there, in about half the time that it would take now, which is still a long time, but not quite as bad as a year and a half. And we’re also just currently funded a study called, well, it’s basically a torpor study using small animals. And the idea here is to evaluate how torpor going into hibernation affects metabolism, radiation resistance, things like that. And their goal is to, basically develop a facility that could eventually fly on something like the space station. We could do long duration testing of small animals to evaluate how torpor affects, metabolism, radiation resistance, things like that, on a long duration mission that could then be applied to human missions.

Tom Temin So it wouldn’t be like Sigourney Weaver waking up with this monster on board or something like that.

Mike LaPointe Exactly.

John Nelson We often like to say that we’re science fiction and science fact. So, we’re taking those early steps in cases like that towards eventual, hopefully, capabilities like you see in the movies.


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