NASA has always had it share of dreamers. Years before Leonard Nimoy put on pointy ears or Neil Armstrong made his giant leap the space agency’s big thinkers were sketching out Enterprise-esque ion propulsion engines and colonies on other worlds.
But there are some ideas too mad even for NASA’s mad scientists — especially in these budget-challenged times. Enter NIAC, the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts. This five-person, independently-funded center, hands out about $3 million per year to scientists proposing the wildest of wild ideas: weather control; robotic fleets defending the earth from asteroid attack; shape-shifting space suits. After the six to twenty-four month studies are done, NIAC then shops the proposals to NASA proper, where the real funding can begin.
Like NIAC’s best-known graduate — the 62,000-mile “Space Elevator” for hauling cargo into orbit the ideas are decades away from the possible. But sometimes, even the nuttiest dreams come true. As NIAC director Bob Cassanova counsels, “Don’t let your preoccupation with reality stifle your imagination.”
I take a quick look at four NIAC projects in this month’s Wired magazine — a follow-up, of sorts, to an article I wrote last May for Wired News. Here are two programs that’s didn’t make it into the magazine piece (they overlapped with some other Wired stories), but are still pretty cool, nonetheless.
ANTI-MISSION. Getting to other stars or even to the edge of our own system will take a whole lot of speed. Los Alamos physicist Steve Howe thinks he has the turbo-charger: anti-matter. Pound for pound, the unstable particles are tens of millions of times more powerful than chemical or nuclear propellants. By trapping molecules of anti-hydrogen in tiny electrostatic traps and then dribbling those molecules against a uranium-coated sail Howe believes he can get a spacecraft to the solar system’s edge, 23 billion miles away, in just ten years. It took the Cassini probe to Saturn seven years to go just a billion miles. Under a NIAC contract, Howe thumbnailed an anti-matter-powered mission to the Kupier Belt, the band of icy bodies beyond Neptune. For the trip to happen, it’ll take a “miracle of some magnitude” ramping up anti-matter production by 200 million percent. But the Kupier jaunt is just a warm up for the big adventure, a four-decade excursion to Alpha Centauri.
MARS NEEDS CAVES. To live on Mars, people may have to go back to being cavemen. The Red Planet’s atmosphere is too thin to shield astronauts from deadly radiation. So most NASA Mars base schemes have called for tons of rock to cover a habitat there. But New Mexico Tech’s Penny Boston has a better way. Just under Mars’ surface are lava tubes that stretch for tens, even hundreds, of miles. Explorers could live in these big, horizontal caves, free from the fear of getting zapped. And because the tubes are easy to seal off, they’d be great breeding grounds for breathable air. There’s even a half-decent chance of finding water close by. Boston has mapped out Martian cave life for NIAC. Next up: living, two weeks at a time, in plastic-sealed lava tubes in New Mexico’s Mars-like desert.