T Nation

NASA Funds Sci-Fi Technology

For 25 years, Ross Hoffman has had a vision: to use tiny changes in the environment to alter the paths of hurricanes, slow down snow storms and turn dark days bright.

For most of those years, Hoffman kept his ideas largely to himself. His adviser at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told him weather control was too outlandish for his Ph.D. thesis. The chances of a buttoned-down foundation or government agency funding such research were so slim, Hoffman didn’t even bother to ask.

But, in 2001, all that changed. Hoffman stumbled upon a tiny, obscure cranny of the American space program – the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, or NIAC. In this $4 million-a-year agency, Hoffman found a place where the wildest of ideas were not only tolerated, they were welcome.

Shape-shifting space suits? Step right up. Antimatter-powered probes to Alpha Centauri? No problem. Robotic armada to destroy incoming asteroids? Pal, just sign on the dotted line. Weather control seemed downright down to earth in comparison.

Hoffman is now wrapping up his half-million-dollar study for NIAC. But the agency is continuing to bankroll concepts for a future decades away.

Some space analysts wonder how long it can last, however. With NASA in turmoil, and a presidential directive to return to the moon, will a science fiction-oriented agency like NIAC survive?

“They’re interested in taking some risks, unlike most other government organizations these days,” said Hoffman, a vice president at Atmospheric and Environmental Research in Lexington, Massachusetts. “At NIAC, if it’s not risky, it’s not going to get funded.”

Over the last six years, NIAC has backed 118 studies into the chanciest of propositions: interplanetary rapid transit, aircraft without moving parts, and radio signals bounced off of meteors’ trails.

The idea, according to NIAC director Robert Cassanova, is to give concepts 10 to 40 years out a chance to grow, and then to pass those models on to NASA proper for further development.

The agency’s best-known baby is the so-called space elevator – a 62,000-mile twine of carbon nanotubes that would transport cargo into orbit.

Technically, NIAC isn’t part of the space agency, Cassanova said. It’s a wing of the Universities Space Research Association – a collection of colleges that work together on final-frontier studies. Through the group, NASA gives Cassanova a few million a year to hand out to way-out researchers. NIAC hands out two types of grants. Six-month Phase I investigations receive $75,000 each. Phase II grants go up to $400,000, for 18 to 24 months of study.

With his award, Hoffman tweaked a weather-prediction program to show that moving a hurricane was possible – at least in theory. Here’s how: You need a ring of satellites in orbit, channeling the sun’s energy, stretching around the Earth. The machines would beam power to the planet, using microwaves. But, tuned to 183 GHz, they could also heat up small regions of the atmosphere by a degree or two. Those small changes could have enormous impact, Hoffman’s simulation showed. A deadly hurricane, headed for the Hawaiian island of Kauai, drifted off into the Pacific, harmlessly.

“One of the great things about NIAC is that they never say, ‘That’s crazy, you can never build a fleet of solar-powered space stations,’” Hoffman said.

Such a system is decades off – if it ever happens at all. But analysts like Brian Chase, vice president of the Space Foundation, see research like Hoffman’s as critically important.

“It’s impossible to make breakthroughs if all you’re funding is immediate, near-term applications,” he said.

Chase is concerned, however, that NASA may be pressured to drop its far-out studies.

“These are tight times,” he said. “It’s tricky balancing how much can be obtained for the moon and Mars versus how much can be obtained for the longer-term stuff. Often, it’s one of the first areas to get cut.”

NIAC isn’t the only arm of the space agency engaged in projects that border on the fantastic. The Marshall Space Flight Center, for example, is looking at propelling spaceships with electrodynamic tethers (PDF). But Marshall can be pretty darn practical, compared to the NIAC folks.

Marshall research asks, “How long can I store antimatter?” said Gerry Jackson, president of Hbar Technologies in West Chicago, Illinois. NIAC studies wonder, “How do I integrate it into spacecraft? How does this affect mission priorities? And how many kilograms can I get to Alpha Centauri in a certain number of years?”

Jackson said Marshall scientists are trapping antimatter a fraction of a billionth of a gram at a time. By his NIAC-funded calculations, a trip to Alpha Centauri will require 17 grams. He figures it would take 20 or 30 years to ramp up to harvesting tens of milligrams per year. And after that, it will only be another decade or so until there’s enough antimatter for an Alpha Centauri trip.

So we had better start planning now.

Pretty cool.

Sometimes i wonder what spurs what. Do science fiction writers give ideas to guys like that to develop or do guys like that give science fiction writers something to write about? I think a little of both.

Definitely both.

While I originally told people that I studied muscle wasting, I guess that I can finally reveal my TRUE work for NASA.

I was working on warp technology using inverse tachyon fields. The lab down the hall was focussed on Photon torpedoes, and yet another worked on something called a “Death Star” (but I don’t know what that was all about).

[quote]David Barr wrote:
While I originally told people that I studied muscle wasting, I guess that I can finally reveal my TRUE work for NASA.

I was working on warp technology using inverse tachyon fields. The lab down the hall was focussed on Photon torpedoes, and yet another worked on something called a “Death Star” (but I don’t know what that was all about).[/quote]

From your avatar, I thought it was an anti-gravity handle that you could use to fly through the air.

Traveling to another world is certainly glamorous. Yet, I wonder how practical it all is. We get to another planet and then what? We walked on the moon in 1969, 36 years later and I don’t see any significant change take place because of it.

I read somewhere that NASA has a 40 billion dollar per year budget (someone correct me if I’m wrong). I can’t help but think that that money would be better spent on work fare programs for the poor. Low interest loans for entrepreneuers. Research on a cure for cancer etc.

Anyone with me on this?

Not me Zeb, not me.

Look at the world around you. Computers, telecom equipment, the engineering in your vehicle, in planes, synthetic fabrics, miniaturization, you name it – where do you think that stuff comes from? It sure as hell doesn’t come from work-fare programs. World War 2 got the ball rolling, since then you can probably thank the Cold War for spurring development of half the tech we have today, and the space race for the other half.

Zeb, if this is not obvious to you then i can understand your stance of legalizing MJ.

[quote]ZEB wrote:
Traveling to another world is certainly glamorous. Yet, I wonder how practical it all is. We get to another planet and then what? We walked on the moon in 1969, 36 years later and I don’t see any significant change take place because of it.[/quote]

The practical aspects are all the technological advances than need to be made for the solar system’s exploration to actually happen.

Those technologicals advances often have more mundane, civilian applications.

A lot of medical technology has trickled out of the space program. Computer advances; energy storage and generation, etc.

If the exploration got sufficiently advanced, we would also be able to get resources from other planets, moons and asteroids.

Mentioning those, it would also be a good idea to be prepared to do something should a big one find itself on a collision course with earth.

Being able to modify the course of an asteroid means that you’re eventually also able to “aim it” at a spot on earth, giving you one hell of a space weapon; for those that are into weapon technology.

Studying Venus, for example, might give us insights on the greenhouse effect; as Venus is a boiling inferno underneath her permanent cloud cover.

As for the moon, building a permanent base there (as opposed to the ISS) would eventually allow us to launch space missions from the moon. Escaping the moon’s weak gravity is a lot easier than pulling ourselves out of Earth’s deep gravity well.

So basically, you get a better understanding of our world and universe, which leads to better technology which eventually improves our lives.

I believe it’s 14 billions, not 40.

One does not preclude the others. You’d get even more bang for your buck going after the gigantic defense budget compared to which the NASA budget is a drop in the bucket.

[quote]ZEB wrote:
Anyone with me on this?[/quote]

Not me!

I think you should quadruple NASA’s budget. Then take the Military budget, and use that for welfare, education, healthcare, etc.

Budgets for 2005:

NASA: $16.2 billion
Military: $420.7 billion

(Note: The second largest militray budget in the world is that of China, at $51 billion.)

[quote]pookie wrote:
ZEB wrote:

The practical aspects are all the technological advances than need to be made for the solar system’s exploration to actually happen.[/quote]

Please explain how we have benefitted from these “advances.” Please be specific as I honestly don’t know what we have practically gained.

Like what? If you actually know of any let me know as I would like to be a believer.

Again name them specifically. It could be that you assume many things have come from space exploration.

What sort of resources?

You mean colonize another planet? Hmm

Dream on.

Can we not “study Venus” without attempting to travel to distant planets?

And to what end does this serve? We get to travel to more planets for what purpose?

Please name even ten things that we would probably not have had if there were no NASA that are important.

14 billion is not a drop in the bucket!

Please name even one program we spend 14 billion on and see just about zero results?

Hey I like Star Wars as much as the next guy but I think we have to be a bit more practical with our money in times such as these.

Zeb -

I can see where you’re coming from. There aren’t a lot of results that will lead us to living on Mars in the next 10 years or anything.

However, everything from high technology computer/algorithm development to “space-age” materials has been spurred by NASA.

Zeb, here’s a link to check out:

http://techtran.msfc.nasa.gov/at_home.html

It’s a NASA site for the public, so they put a positive (cheesy) spin on things, but IMO what they present is a drop in the bucket to what was actually done.

It takes money to make money, and the tech industry is no exception. Fund less tech, profit less from tech advancements.

[quote]towner24 wrote:
Zeb, here’s a link to check out:

http://techtran.msfc.nasa.gov/at_home.html

It’s a NASA site for the public, so they put a positive (cheesy) spin on things, but IMO what they present is a drop in the bucket to what was actually done.

It takes money to make money, and the tech industry is no exception. Fund less tech, profit less from tech advancements.[/quote]

I thank you for that link. Naturally I would want to follow it up to make sure that the specific things stated were in fact directly taken from NASA. However, if they in fact are then I can see the value!

Thank you

Zeb

ZEB said:
“Please name even ten things that we would probably not have had if there were no NASA that are important.”

This is not an attack, but a timely analogy: You have seen first hand what thinking small has done to the implementation and execution of Gulf Coast relief effort plans and strategies.

Back to your quote, first and foremost humans are by nature travellers. I know you can appreciate the benefits culled from early man’s fanning out over the Earth.

Just a few timely IMPORTANT examples of NASA’s benefits:
All of the space-faring know-how necessary to build, send, and operate weather satellites that tell you to get the fuck out of the way of a hurricane coming right at you, as well as GPS technology that helps rescue workers find flood victims via emmiters in the victim’s cell phone. As well, MRE’s for victims that are stuck on rooftops or other inaccessible places.

In fact, a large pecentage of all types of technology that you use everyday have their develpment roots in NASA labs, including the development of transitors. Without them, there would be no desktop computer for me to send this reply nor for you to read it.

[quote]ZEB wrote:
Anyone with me on this?[/quote]

Nope.

We’ve seen an amazing array of real-world benefits to cutting-edge scientific space research.

Zeb, I’ll approach it from a different angle. As someone who works as a developer in the computer industry, the theme constantly repeats itself that you don’t always know what questions to ask until you try something.

Real progress isn’t made until you try to achieve something. The act of putting forth the effort leads to all sorts of problems, and subsequently solutions, that you might have never thought of had you not started down that road in the first place.

My point is that you can’t NOT find some fundamentally amazing solutions to complex problems when you try to do something as hard and ambitious as space research.

Perhaps the last three posters missed this:

[quote]ZEB wrote:
towner24 wrote:
Zeb, here’s a link to check out:

http://techtran.msfc.nasa.gov/at_home.html

It’s a NASA site for the public, so they put a positive (cheesy) spin on things, but IMO what they present is a drop in the bucket to what was actually done.

It takes money to make money, and the tech industry is no exception. Fund less tech, profit less from tech advancements.[/quote]

I thank you for that link. Naturally I would want to follow it up to make sure that the specific things stated were in fact directly taken from NASA. However, if they in fact are then I can see the value!

Thank you

Zeb