NASA 360 Presents – From Science Fiction to Science Fact


DR. JAY FALKER: NIAC changes the possible because it takes
something we cannot do and it says let’s figure out if we could. The purpose of NIAC
is early studies of visionary concepts. They have to be innovative yet credible. And so
we are really looking for revolutionary ideas. Going to the moon the way we did with Apollo
in 60s was crazy and yet the whole world has been proud of us ever since we did it. And
that’s the kind of thing that can be enabled if you’re willing to take risks and think
boldly. Good ideas can come from anywhere. Let’s not try to guess who has them. Let’s
just say pretty much anyone who wants to can propose. Those proposers could be NASA researchers
or at universities, or businesses, or garage inventors. It’s an open call for proposals
every time. NIAC’s job is to say what could happen, would it be great if it could be enabled,
and then what technologies are needed to get there so that we can invest in the next few
years. Being visionary means sometimes it’s going to take a long time to get it to fly.
Our job is to give it a chance. NIAC funds aerospace architecture system and mission
concepts for anything related to aerospace. And so that includes: propulsion, power, human
exploration, science, aeronautics, pretty much anything that relates to NASA goals or
potential aerospace missions. We studied one last year which was taking the idea from the
pages of science fiction of suspended animation. Astronauts go to sleep or get frozen, they
go some long distance away (it takes a long time), they wake up and do some exploration.
NIAC has funded several 3D printing related studies. One of them had to do with 3D printing
whole buildings on the moon or Mars. We send a small robot and it converts the dirt into
cement and 3D prints buildings before astronauts ever get there. One concept is the V2 Suit
which is to be worn inside the spacecraft. It helps you preserve your attitude and orientation
in microgravity – almost make you feel like you’re on Earth and just sitting here working
normally. So we’ve also studied microbial fuel cells and the question of whether we
might one day be able to send these batteries basically with bacteria in them and then run
small robots all without any of the traditional power sources. NIAC has studied several things:
from an entirely new structure in space people could live in and how it could grow and it
could enable mankind in space to innovative systems in life-support and radiation shielding.
Every year we get some cool proposals for new ways to send robots where we cannot today.
We had a really cool one that went to Europa (a frozen moon), slowly melted through the
kilometers of ice, and then deployed a super-efficient sub to swim around and look for whatever is
in the ocean under the ice on Europa. Another one actually used the tensegrity structure
to build a super ball bot so that it basically lands stretches bounces – no parachute, no
retro rockets – just a cool way to get down and go explore. NIAC is the most inspiring
program in anything related to aerospace – not just NASA. To take something that is impossible
today and say: ‘wait a minute. There’s a way we might be able to achieve it.’ Is
something you almost never get to do, and when you talk about it, other people – students,
coworkers, normal people on the street who don’t normally think about space get excited
and they say, ‘Wow! That’s neat. I hope somebody can make that work someday.’

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