It's not often that one gets a chance to see the future. Oh, we can make projections and forecasts, but honest "this is what tomorrow will hold" moments are few and far between. Looking through the list of funded projects at the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts feels a bit like getting a peek at the next decade; some of the myriad proposals will turn out to be plausible and readily implemented. The trick is figuring out which ones.
NIAC gives a relatively small amount of money (in two phases) to a wide assortment of research projects trying to push the edges of the possible. As a result, the project list feels like mashup of worldchanging ideas, scientific "what if.." games, and back issues of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. NIAC looks for "revolutionary ideas," defined thusly:
In the context of a focus on advanced concepts, NIAC defines "Revolutionary" as possessing one or more of the following six attributes:
1. The genius is in the generalities, and not the details. 2. The new idea illuminates a pathway toward an expansion of knowledge and may address a significant roadblock. 3. It inspires others to produce useful science and further elaboration of the fundamental idea. 4. It contributes to a major change in the framework of aerospace possibilities, 5. It triggers a transformation of intuition. 6. Revolutionary paradigm shifts are simple, elegant, majestic, beautiful and characterized by order and symmetry.
We get these kinds of ideas all the time.
For someone who loves to see the ways that the seemingly impossible -- or, at least, highly unlikely -- might be tackled, it's easy to get lost and spend more hours than one should looking through the documents at NIAC. Quite a few have direct worldchanging applications, if they work. Just for instance: Planetary Exploration Using Biomimetics; Controlling the Global Weather (talk about terraforming Earth...); Bio-Nano-Machines for Space Applications; or how about Large-Product General-Purpose Design and Manufacturing Using Nanoscale Modules by CRN's Chris Phoenix? Such projects are mixed in with ones like A Realistic Interstellar Explorer and Development of Self-Sustaining Mars Colonies Utilizing the North Polar Cap and the Martian Atmosphere.
It's NASA, so many of the projects have distinct space applications. But not all of them; some, like the nanotechnology projects, have an even greater utility on Earth.
I stumbled across NIAC while looking for something else, and got hooked. I expect that I won't be the only one.
(Note that the NIAC site did not work properly under Safari, including an inability to access the document links. The site worked fine under Firefox.)
FWIW, link to Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine