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.