ESC Empowers Part 6: Turning Science Fiction into Science Fact


Feature contains elements from NASA videos

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — Not too many people outside of the space industry know about the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts, or “NIAC”; those that criticize the space agency would do well to review the work conducted under this initiative. Put simply, this is the branch of NASA that develops the technology of tomorrow. NIAC is the answer to those who feel that the space agency is too reliant on the technologies and concepts of the past, that NASA is unwilling to research new ways and means to build a better future.

NIAC has existed before its current version. Known at the time as the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, the program ran from 1998 through 2007. Many within the aerospace and scientific communities lamented the closing of this initiative and it was reborn under its new designation in 2010.


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The program’s purpose is to develop new ideas that could possibly lead to technology which could benefit NASA’s various directives. In short, the NIAC is in the business of building the future.

To accomplish this, NASA is partnering with scientists, businesses, and others in hopes of empowering them to develop advanced concepts and technologies. NIAC researches cutting-edge yet technically-credible concepts which could one day change what is possible in terms of space matters.

This image shows Mars “Hoppers.” These craft would be capable of self-refueling themselves using resources found on the surface of the Red Planet. Image Credit: NASA / NIAC

The concepts that are being worked on at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for NIAC by the Engineering Services Contract could revolutionize the manner in which space exploration is conducted. Unmanned spacecraft that fuel themselves, automated probes that move dangerous objects away from Earth—all of these are being developed by the ESC for NIAC.

Imagine a swarm of small spacecraft attaching themselves to a comet that is plunging toward Earth; these vehicles would then push the offending comet away from Earth, and in doing so save the human race. What if NASA could send robotic explorers to Mars that would refuel themselves using resources found on the Red Planet? These are just some of the concepts that Dr. Laurent Sibille is developing for NIAC under the ESC (one of NIAC’s partners).

One of the more fascinating concepts that the ESC is working on for the NIAC is the use of in-situ resources found on other worlds to develop heat shields for spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA / NIAC

Talking with Sibille, we realized that the ESC covers an extremely diverse array of fields and needs at the Kennedy Space Center. It was apt, then, that this segment of the tour detailed the concepts that, for now, reside in the realm of science fiction novels. The work done by the ESC comprises the most basic needs NASA has, the nuts and bolts of what makes space exploration possible. The ESC also deals with the most esoteric of research conducted by the space agency. In short? The ESC provides whatever NASA needs, no matter how simple or complex.

In our final segment we will close with the second half of the interview with Mark Nappi and Pat Simpkins. Stay tuned for their thoughts about what the ESC does and what its future role might be.

One Comment

  1. It’s very interesting to hear about some of the internal works of NASA. Maybe more of the public will become less skeptical and be more supportive.

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