If NASA wants to move into the future, it should start by resurrecting an idea from its (very recent) past, according to a US National Research Council committee. Namely, harnessing the very best minds that they haven't already harnessed.
The committee are suggesting that NASA bring back NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC, for short), a short-lived think tank that existed between 1998 and 2007 to consider innovative ideas for spaceflight from outside the NASA community. The group, which cost the agency around 0.02% of its annual budget, was behind more than 100 projects during its existence, three of which are en route to becoming official NASA missions - a success rate that the NRC committee feels warrants a revisit. Committee co-chair (and professor of space technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology) Robert Braun explains:
They were definitely living up to their contract at the time they were terminated... By and large, the topics that they invested in were pushing the state of the art, were very advanced in terms of far-out thinking, and I'd say a decent percentage of them had the possibility of turning into something.
Former NIAC committee member John Cramer, of the University of Washington, agrees:
NIAC was efficiently run, there was no waste of money... NASA got an amazing amount of bang for the buck.
The committee has recommended that a new NIAC be formed with a slightly different remit, focusing on more timely and more practical projects. But whatever the outcome, Braun feels as if NIAC is simply a good idea whose time has come again:
I think any organisation, whether it's NASA or Google, needs to spend some small amount of its resources looking to the future... It's always a good time for something like this.
Expert panel urges NASA to revive futuristic think tank [New Scientist]