Fast Company

NASA Finds Cash to Fund Fast, Clever, Unusual Tech For Future Space, Air Missions

NASA is seeking funding plans/requests for information for three projects that give us insight into some of its future plans: The watchwords are innovative, fast, and new. Is NASA trying to shed its lumbering institutional ways?

NASA concepts

In the early 1990s NASA's then chief Dan Goldin spearheaded a (ultimately controversial) campaign to radically shake up the heavily institutionalized industry. Instead of super-long-lead programs, endlessly reinventing the wheel, and pursuing dead-end science or engineering experiments, Goldin wanted NASA to think "Faster, Better, Cheaper." This was meant to promote radical thinking and increased risk-taking, with the understanding that you can plan to mitigate against a million low-percentage accidents that could befall a spacecraft, but there are millions more still out there that are unknown. There was even a "Badge of Courage" program to reward employees who adopted the thinking.

This was nearly 20 years ago, but NASA's just released three "Requests for Information" from the Office of the Chief Technologist that seem to indicate that some of that "faster, better, cheaper" is being injected into future NASA projects, with even more mature thinking than Goldin's plans had. There's even plenty of room for the new commercial space industry.

Game Changing Development Program

This is the big program, the one that pushes boundaries. The GCDP is designed to "develop novel aerospace capabilities that have more technical risk yet higher potential payoff" than the sort of tech being developed for NASA's mainstream missions. The program is even focused on "developing radically new approaches to NASA's future space missions and the nation's significant aerospace" needs. 

NASA's asking for input from NASA centers, university sources, federal-funded R&D centers, "private or public companies" or even government research labs.

What's all this for? It's to come up with fairly mature bits of science, engineering, or even mathematical solutions that could be quickly co-opted into cutting-edge NASA programs, giving the agency all sorts of new capabilities that it otherwise may never have. By looking outside the organization, and placing the emphasis on risk-taking, NASA's hoping to unearth some of the really clever, off-the-wall ideas that may never surface inside the daily churn of its main labs.

Who's going to apply? It's not likely to be you or me, but it could be an existing industry player like Lockheed or Boeing. It could also be one of the upstart new commercial space businesses like Elon Musk's SpaceX or Jeff Bezo's Blue Origin--these companies are pursuing their own solutions to the problems of traveling into space, and could easily have novel approaches that NASA could benefit learning from.

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program

This program is a little different, looking to develop "visionary concepts that could dramatically improve aerospace missions 10 or more years in the future." The aim is to discover "revolutionary" thinking about tech that can "greatly improve" NASA's aerospace missions, ideas that'll "result in beneficial changes to NASA's long-term plans" or "cross-cutting technologies that contribute new technological approaches for aerospace applications" as well as "communications, power, energy storage, propulsion, safety and security."

It's the kind of program that could result in those radical, conceptual, and alien-looking "aircraft of the future" flying in our skies inside a couple of decades. Boeing and companies like it may well be the target here, along with those already experienced in alternative approaches to aircraft design--firms like Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites, which is busy building the carrier aircraft and spacecraft to make Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic Space company work.

Space Technology Research Grants Program

Like the NIAC, the STGR is looking for low Technology Readiness Level (i.e. still very much in the concept phase) ideas to push the boundaries of future space systems and space tech. It's not directed at any particular missions, either underway or planned, and there's a specific mention of "commercial space" endeavors in the document--showing NASA really is thinking differently about its future space missions.

Academic institutions and the commercial space sector are the likely candidates for this money. And possibly even sources inside NASA, like the group of "rebellious" engineers and scientists who always opposed the canceled Constellation program and favored an alternative and potentially swifter solution.

The good news from all this is that NASA's not content to lumber along as a big linear-thinking engine, and wants to challenge the status quo to come up with really novel solutions to future problems. Given the mess, partly of a political origin, that the agency is currently in the middle of concerning its heavy lift/Lunar rocket program, this can only be a good thing.

To keep up with this news, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.

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