Once upon a time, in the land of Georgia, there existed a tiny little program called the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, or “NIAC.” NIAC was not directly concerned with shuttles or satellites or space-stations. NIAC was about the future, and by “future” I mean the far future. I mean “Antimatter Driven Sails for Deep-Space Missions.” I mean “Redesigning Living Organisms to Live on Mars.” I mean “Controlling the Global Weather.”
Now, that all sounds very science-fiction-y (and it is no coincidence that the Chair of the NIAC Science Council was Dr. Donna Shirley, the founding Director of the Science Fiction Museum), but NIAC was actually quite selective about the work it funded, or, in their own words:
Most important, while NIAC sought advanced concept proposals that stretch the imagination, these concepts were based on sound scientific principles and attainable within a 10 to 40-year time frame.
NIAC followed a model similar to the Federal SBIR/STTR program, in which innovative (and sometimes quite unusual) concepts competed for fairly meager “Phase I” grants that would fund one year of feasibility studies. Only a few of those projects succeeded, and the best were invited to compete for a much larger “Phase II” grant that would support another two years of more intensive research.
During its brief life NIAC funded just shy of two hundred revolutionary projects, including force fields and chameleon space suits. The most prominent success was probably the University of Colorado’s New World Imager. That all came to an end, though, on August 31, 2007 when NASA pulled the plug on NIAC due to the budgetary changes necessary to implement the 2004 “Vision for Space Exploration“, which had refocused NASA on manned exploration of the Moon and Mars.
UPDATE: The deadline has been extended to May 16, 2011 because of the April 27 super-outbreak of tornadoes throughout the southern United States.