NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program Executive Jason Derleth discusses visionary concepts that could transform future space missions.
The NIAC Program seeks innovations from diverse and non-traditional sources that could create breakthroughs and “change the possible” in aerospace. NIAC, which is part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, has over 200 studies based on technically credible, advanced concepts on the edge of science fiction.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- Visionary concepts for breakthrough space technologies
- Looking at futuristic concepts through a realistic engineering lens
- NIAC partnerships with diverse and non-traditional innovators
Jason Derleth is the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program Executive in the Space Technology Mission Directorate. Derleth is an aerospace engineer and technology analyst with experience at NASA Headquarters, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and private industry. He is also an author and craftsman. Derleth began his NASA career at JPL and transferred to the NASA Civil Service in 2008, joined NIAC as Program Manager in 2011, and became Program Executive in 2015. He has a bachelor’s in philosophy from St. John’s College, where he won the Baird Prize for Excellence in the Arts or Sciences for a hand-built cello, and a master’s in aero astro engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Jason Derleth: I like to think of NIAC as NASA’s venture capitalists. You come to us with an idea that could change everything.
It tries to go all the way up to that edge of science fiction while still remaining feasible.
It’s real, possible stuff that might change the world.
Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome to Episode 50 of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
This is our final episode this year, and on behalf of the APPEL Knowledge Services team, I want to thank you for listening and being part of the success of the podcast. Whether you’ve subscribed or given us a like or a comment or suggestions for interview topics, we appreciate you taking time to engage with the podcast.
We’ve explored amazing NASA missions and technologies and spoken with a lot of fascinating people in 2020, haven’t we? And today we’re highlighting concepts and ideas that could ‘change the possible’ in aerospace.
The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program – or NIAC — nurtures visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions with the creation of breakthroughs. NIAC partners with America’s innovators and entrepreneurs across government, industry and academia on innovative, technically credible, advanced concepts.
Jason Derleth is the Program Executive for NIAC and joins us now. Jason, thank you so much for taking time to talk with us.
Derleth: Oh, thank you for having me, Deana. I really appreciate it.
Host: Let’s dive right in. What are some of the visionary concepts NIAC is considering that could transform the future of space missions?
Derleth: There are over 200 total studies that we’ve done. Some of those are as far-reaching as possibly changing everything about space flight, if they are successful. One of those is an asteroid mining concept by Dr. Joel Sercel and his TransAstra Corporation. That study is looking at how you might mine asteroids using nothing but sunlight. Concentrated sunlight fractures the surface of the rock. So if you get a large enough collecting area and put some mirrors in the right way and focus that down to a four-centimeter circle, it heats the rock so rapidly that it fractures the surface.
And as the rock blasts off of the asteroid, the light scrubs it clean of any volatiles. And you can capture the volatiles in a bag that has a second surface mirror on it, a tricky surface coating that allows it to reject almost all of the heat that the sun gives out. And so the water vapor would go into those bags and bounce around. And every time it bounced against the surface of the bag, the bag is very cold, and it would slow down, and eventually freeze as ice around the outside of that bag.
You could then drop that bag off in orbit around the Moon. Or you could drop it off in orbit around Mars. And you could have any spacecraft rendezvous and pick up that bag of frozen ice and use it for water for crew members, or use it for propulsion. You can either crack it into hydrogen and oxygen and use those as hydrolox for an engine. Or you can actually just use concentrated sunlight again, and use a solar thermal rocket, which will accelerate the water by expanding it into steam and expand that steam out the nozzle. It’s not as efficient as cracking it into hydrogen and oxygen, but it does get you where you want to go.
And if he’s successful, if he’s fully successful, he fully plans to drop these bags off wherever people want them and sell them, as propellant, or water for crew, or any other of a number of uses. You could even use the water as radiation shielding. It’s one of the most effective radiation shields because there’s so much hydrogen in it. It’s a very interesting concept.
Another one that we had was Dr. Phil Lubin. Dr. Lubin is out of University of California, Santa Barbara. And he studied how you could get a spacecraft all the way to Alpha Centauri. This is not going to change everything about space, but it is really exciting to think that we could take a chipsat, something maybe smaller than the size of your phone, and put a solar sail around it. Then shine a large number of medium to high-powered lasers at it. Whether the lasers are in orbit or on the Earth is a question. There are benefits to both and difficulties for both. You can take something and shine enough laser light at it, if it has a one meter solar sail on it, to get it up to two-tenths the speed of light in about 10 minutes of thrusting. It would pass Mars in three days. Really exciting stuff.
Now, all of that’s highly speculative, but it is within the realm of possibility that something like that could occur. There are certain geopolitical concerns to having a large number of lasers in orbit. They could be used as a weapon. And so, Breakthrough Starshot, which was modeled after Dr. Lubin’s NIAC Phase I study and is founded by a billionaire who’s trying to help humanity expand into space with his money — he put a hundred million dollars down on Breakthrough Starshot to start looking at the tall tent pole technology development problems that are involved in getting a chipsat to Alpha Centauri.
The team initially came up with 20 of them. And there have been a number of university grants from Breakthrough Starshot to start looking at those 20 tent pole technology problems. Really exciting to have a $100,000 study find a $100 million follow-on. That doesn’t happen too often.
We just got one this last year that I thought was really exciting. As you know, we’ve had a couple of interstellar visitors fly through our solar system. Likely asteroids or comets from another star that got ejected, and then they’ve been carried through the sun’s gravity well. Well, it would be really nice if we could get a spacecraft close to one of them. And somebody had a really interesting idea. You could take a spacecraft, a small one, probably a six or 12-U CubeSat, and put a solar sail on it, and use the solar sail to cancel its orbital momentum.
So, you would launch it from the Earth and it would slowly come to a stop in heliocentric space, and just hover there while the planets turned around the sun underneath it. And like a hawk, it would sit and wait for its prey. And as soon as we have identified another visitor, that hawk would fold its wings and fall in towards the sun. It would close its sail or angle its sail for the correct acceleration to do a hyperbolic trajectory around the sun and catch up with the interstellar visitor. Truly, an exciting scientific study to be able to look at and possibly even touch an interstellar asteroid or small body, whatever it is. Very exciting.
We had a study from an architect. I consider this one of our garage inventors because he’s completely out of the realm of aerospace engineering. Anthony Longman is his name. And he had the idea that you could make a very large space station, like a Stanford Torus from the 70s. Stanford Torus is basically a large tire that you rotate for artificial gravity on the inside of the tire. You can hold pressure by making it a full donut. And by rotating it fast enough, your astronauts could have full Earth gravity. You would probably dock in the center at the hub of the bicycle tire or the wheel, and then have an elevator that reached out to the rim where there was full gravity.
Well, the problem with these is they are very, very large. And because they are very, very large, they are very, very, very, very heavy, right? And so, Anthony Longman was looking through these things and dreaming, and he thought, ‘This looks like a clever application of tensegrity would be very helpful.’ Tensegrity is a not-very-used technique of building things in architecture. It’s so not well understood — it’s really not very well understood at all — that it ends up being used for art more often than it’s used for architecture.
If you’re ever at the National Mall, on the south side there’s a museum that has a tensegrity sculpture outside of it that goes up about 40 feet. Tensegrity is the art and the science of combining essentially rubber bands and sticks until they are holding their own shape. All of the rubber bands are in tension and all of the sticks are in compression.
Now what’s interesting about this is the rubber bands are always in tension, and the sticks are always in compression. And so you can optimize the structure of those components so that they do their job really well while being really liked. And since these things are generally not contiguous, you have sticks being held together by tension rubber bands in a funny way, you can build a structure that is approximately 90 percent less massive than an equivalent solid structure and have it have the same strength.
And so, Anthony Longman thought, ‘What if we could make a tensegrity habitat for humans?’ We could put a membrane on the inside that could hold the pressure that’s needed. And we could put material on the outside for radiation protection. And if we designed it in a clever way, and this is really the gem of Anthony’s idea, you could make it so that it could expand in size, later, while maintaining pressure on the inside — literally make it larger while it is in use.
And so, you could launch a small one of these that would start at maybe Moon gravity, one-sixth gravity. Because it’s too small, you would have to rotate it too fast to get full gravity. And the Coriolis effects make astronauts very dizzy and disoriented when they have too much Coriolis. We’ve tested this up at centrifuges at MIT for years and years. Then as you expand the habitat’s size, you could essentially increase the rotation speed as you go until you reach one full gravity or even heavier. There are some studies, medical studies, that have shown benefits for people at higher than one Earth gravity, at least theoretically so, because it makes your bones stronger.
So, he came up with this idea and proposed it and he failed. He did not succeed in his proposal. It was thrown out. So, he called up the program and said, ‘Hey, I’d like some feedback on this. I’m not an aerospace engineer, I don’t know the lingo, so to speak. And so, I’d really like to learn more about how to apply.’ And so, we worked with him outside of the open competition, of course, because then it would be illegal to work with him during the open competition.
And he tried again, and he failed again. And he called us up and worked with us a little bit more and tried again. And he won on the third try. He got the chance to do a study. And he did a great job. I thought he was working then with a tensegrity expert, Dr. Robert Skelton, out of Texas A&M. And they together made three-dimensional model of the habitat and figured out how the expansion could work while it’s still in use and everything in it. It was a great little study. And then they switched PIs and tried again. And with Dr. Skeleton as the PI and Anthony Longman the Co-I, and they failed, and they failed a second time. And then they got a Phase II study the third try.
So, this is now been six or seven years since they had started thinking about this. And they got the chance to think about it for two more years as a Phase II. And what they’ve done is really remarkable. Neither of them are true aerospace engineers. Dr. Robert Skelton is an engineer that’s spent his life looking at tensegrity, and Anthony Longman is an architect. And they were able to do three-dimensional models of the system and figure out the growth path from one-sixth G up to one-full G, and how you would be able to bring sunlight into it during the expansion, and how you would dock with it, and how you might even make it have a thrust structure in the center so that you could move it.
You could conceivably use this large habitat that would eventually hold a thousand people or more as a transit device, sort of an Aldrin cycler, between Earth and Mars. So it would be a cruise ship sort of experience. You’d go up and dock with it, have a few months on board this wonderful rotating habitat that has trees and areas to grow your food and a cabin with a window out to space and all of these things, and then you would take your shore excursion to Mars and pick up the ride when it came back.
So that’s their eventual concept, one of the ways that you could use it anyway. They are, of course, now that they’re done with the NIAC, it’s going to be very difficult for them to find funding. So one of their ideas for continuing development is to sell flats on their eventual spacecraft. Which I thought was a really brilliant idea. Find people that were willing to speculate and buy an apartment on a spacecraft that doesn’t exist yet. Very interesting idea. I wish them the best of success because their vision is truly in the line with NIAC.
Host: If someone has a visionary idea, what’s required to submit a proposal to NIAC?
Derleth: The requirements are that you be in the U.S. legally and that you have a company to receive money from the government. And that requires a company to register in the SAM system and get a DUNS number. These things take about two to three weeks if you’re really on the ball. It can take a little longer than that if not. The real necessary thing, though, is to have an idea, something that could be done differently in the future, that would improve it a great deal.
I like to think of NIAC as NASA’s venture capitalists. You come to us with an idea that could change everything. And when I say could change everything, usually, the idea should be at least an order of magnitude improvement over the current state of the art. Now, that could be something as simple as a new battery showing us that you get to 10 times the energy density of a new battery. But wait, that’s not good enough, actually. Because NIAC doesn’t know where the next really brilliant idea is going to come from, we are traditionally open to all fields of aerospace research. So all of the different technology areas can propose at the same time.
And so, we actually have an extra requirement. If you have a battery that’s going to be 10 times more energy dense, that’s great. That might be the best new thing since sliced bread. It really could be awesome, but you have to explain to us what impact that’s going to have on a future mission. Because we can’t compare 10 times energy density for a battery to, let’s just say, 10 times better cabin scrubbing of carbon dioxide for a human capsule. Or 10 times better flexibility in an astronaut’s suit. Or maybe 10 times more sensitivity for a telescope that’s looking at other stars and trying to resolve other planets.
And so, what we ask is that these ideas be placed into an overarching concept, and then you do a little bit of math showing what impact that might have. I’ll give you a good example. Maybe you have had the idea for a fusion reactor that has an exhaust on it, and you say, ‘Well, that’s interesting. We have to be exhausting all of the nuclear byproducts.’ That sounds like a rocket engine, what if we did this in space, right? I’m an energy person, but what if we did it in space?
Well, that’s great. Maybe you have the best in-space thruster that’s ever existed. But then again, maybe you don’t because you might be creating an awful lot of heat with that fusion reactor. And that heat’s going to have to be dissipated in the vacuum of space. Which means you’re going to need radiators, lots of them. In fact, it’s conceivable that you would need so much mass of radiators that your system wouldn’t work even as well as the current state of the art, much less give us a tenfold increase. Because there’s so much mass to push you have to make your engines larger. And then when your engines are larger, you have even more radiators needed. And that makes more mass, which then you have to push, et cetera, et cetera.
So we ask that each proposer, whether they are from a small company that’s been registered with the government, or a university which has already registered with the government, or a NASA civil servant, or other civil servant from another government agency, in which case we don’t, we already know how to pay you, so you don’t need to have a company. We ask that you place your concept into a mission architecture. So, let’s just say you have a new way of scrubbing the cabin of carbon dioxide in a human cabin that’s 10 times more energy efficient. Well, by golly, it’s a little old now, but Mars DRA 5.0 is out there.
So, take the Mars DRA 5.0 and show us how you would make a difference on it. By having less mass for the carbon dioxide scrubber, you would have a large effect, especially on the return trip, but on the entire stack, leaving the planet, right? Because when you launch something that’s lighter and requires less energy to work, that means you don’t need to produce as much energy, you don’t have to carry the energy production method all the way to Mars and back, and maybe to the surface.
So, you can take something like the Mars DRA 5.0, which is, I should explain. That’s the design reference architecture that Johnson has put together, actually experts all around the agency put together, to give a benchmark for what going to Mars with humans would look like. So if you have something like a benchmark study, then you can compare to that benchmark study pretty easily, or use that study to make a comparison.
If you’re doing something like a new mirror, maybe you have an idea for CubeSats that could unfold and dock together, and then make the largest mirror that’s ever been. Well, compare that maybe to JWST and see how large your mirror is, how much it masses, how you would launch it. You can put together a mission architecture for that mirror. For the batteries, when you have a high-power density of batteries, well, that changes your whole spacecraft. So, you can take a look at how that might change your spacecraft, whether it’s an Earth-orbiting system or something else. You can show the difference in the system.
Now, we actually did have a fusion engine in our program one time. And Stephanie Thomas from Princeton Satellite Systems was the person who proposed this and very smartly said, ‘Well, this engine doesn’t need a large radiator because it doesn’t produce a lot of heat, but it does produce some energy as its byproduct, and it’s really efficient when it’s in space and thrusting. So, I’m going to choose my mission to be going out to Pluto and orbiting it because I can do that really easily. In fact, I could even send a lander down to Pluto, and since we’re power rich, I could do power beaming down to that lander. And that lander could do some really amazing science because it’s power-rich even out at Pluto.’
And so, her study that she chose this mission, she created a mission. So this is an interesting point. You don’t have to do something that’s on the books for NASA because we’re looking at 20 or 30 or 40 years out sometimes for these missions. And so you can make up your own mission to demonstrate the benefits of your technology. And that’s exactly what Ms. Thomas did. And it was great study, a Phase I and a Phase II. And they’ve received follow-on funding from ARPA-E for an Earth-based power generator based on the system that they were looking at for NASA. So it’s truly exciting stuff.
Host: Oh, it all sounds so exciting. I’m curious about the distribution of the NIAC awards. Do a lot of the awards go to innovators within NASA?
Derleth: Surprisingly, yes. Well, maybe it’s not surprising. I mean, people come to NASA for various reasons. I came to NASA because I wanted to fly spacecraft, and I got the chance to work on one spacecraft that flew. One third of the money that we spend generally ends up going to NASA folks. One third of it goes to universities, and about one third goes to mostly small businesses. I think the largest business we’ve had win an award is Raytheon, which is a large business. Most of them are smaller than that, though.
We don’t actually have anything in mind when we do our awards. What we do is we try and find the absolute best impact studies that we can find, and we award them based on what we believe the impact will be, as best as we possibly can. For Phase I, we receive about 300 proposals. We award only about 16. So, that’s a very low win rate. Since it’s such a low win rate, we ask for less work upfront by the proposers. So whoever you are, whether you’re in NASA or a university or a small business, give us a three-page description of what your concept is, why it’s cool.
Give us a back-of-the-envelope equation in those three pages, showing that you’ve thought about it enough to figure out a relevant equation. And when you did the relevant equation, it showed up pretty good. Tell us what the mission architecture would be in those three pages. And then send that in. So three pages to propose to NIAC. The program office personnel go through those three pages and eliminate any that are not appropriate to NIAC. That’s about 150, usually, that are most likely re-proposals from another program, whether it’s DARPA or something else, that just don’t fit in our program.
And then we take the remaining about 150, and we try and assess how much of an impact they’ll have. And about the top 100 or so, we invite to propose to us with a step B. The three-page white paper isn’t enough information for us to fund people. So, we ask for the remaining five pages of a normal eight-page proposal or so. Which would be, who’s your team? How much money are you going to spend? What does your work plan look like? And what interim deliverables can you get to? Tell us what information you expect to find and what the success criteria look like, that sort of thing.
Then we take those eight-page proposals, about 100 to 110 of those, and we have a full technical panel review, with appropriate experts from appropriate fields. The technical panels, we have to run four for that many, about 28 concepts per panel, about eight to 10 panelists per panel. Each one responsible for being primary on three, and secondary reviewer on six, and to read all of them. And they get around the table and discuss for two-and-a-half days and write up results for half a day, something like that.
And then we provide those results back to the full-panel feedback. We edit it to remove any names or frustrated words. We don’t let them cuss or anything like that. And then we send that full-panel review back to every proposal so that the proposer can learn how to do better next time. And so that’s how we select our 16 or so. We take the resulting, maybe bring 30 to the source selection official, who then looks through all of them and select the top, anywhere between 14 and 18, depending on how many we can afford that year.
And so, those 16 or so that the source selection official chooses, we’ve really ranked them all based on the impact we think that they could have. We eliminate the ones we think can’t work from the get-go. And so in the end, what the source selection official does is, for the first time, usually, when we sit down at the source selection meeting, we look at what institutions those people are from. And we show the source selection official person that maybe there’s three JPL studies, five NASA studies, eight university studies. That’s 16, so maybe there were only two proposals from industry.
And so, the source selection official is the one who might look at that and say, ‘Well, we might have too many university people this time. What if we drop the weakest university person and bring in the strongest industry person that’s below the cut line right now?’ And so, they’re the ones that look at that. And I have to say, one change, maybe every other year, is made for portfolio balance like that at that stage. And of course with 300 proposals, we usually have 30 or even more excellent proposals that we could fund. And so dipping down below the cut line is not really that much of a sacrifice at that point.
But the program office has absolutely no desires for an even balance of proposals. We want the strongest proposals we can get. The fact that we’ve ended up being almost exactly on -third of our money split between university, government and small businesses is just a happy happenstance.
Host: How does NIAC develop partnerships with diverse and non-traditional sources for innovation?
Derleth: Mostly, we develop our partnerships through the fellows, but we have had a couple of really exciting partnerships over the years happen and continue to happen. One of our program office staff, Kathy Reilly, was located — when she started — in Chicago. Kathy is our Strategic Partnerships Manager, but she also sits on one of the boards for the Museum of Science and Industry up in Chicago. It’s the largest science museum in the entire hemisphere. It’s a really exciting place to go.
And so, she asked the managers of the museum, ‘Hey, would you be interested in having a couple of our NIAC fellows come and talk about their experiences? How did they grow up? What drew them to science? How did they become a NASA researcher? What did they research? How did it go?’ The museum was really interested. And we called two fellows, one of whom was researching bacteria for NIAC and how, if you give the bacteria sugar, it actually produces electricity that can be captured. Now, it’s not a lot, you need a large vat of bacteria, but things tend to get smaller as you develop them. So it was an interesting thing because sugar is very power dense, as my waistline knows so well.
The second researcher was from Advanced Research Laboratory up in Pennsylvania. ARL is an FFRDC to the Navy for, I think, Penn State University. And he thought that these torpedoes burn lithium inside of their shells to produce energy. And the reason that they do that is, when you burn lithium, the remainder of the lithium plus the gases created from burning actually occupy a smaller volume than the original lithium did. And so they have no exhaust at all. And so there’s no way to trace the exhaust of a torpedo. Very important.
But what if you burned this lithium, he thought, on Venus? You can use the atmosphere on the surface of Venus as the oxidizer and you can contain the remainder of the lithium and all of the gases within a single container, that you could use the original lithium canister because the result of burning it and the gases from burning it are smaller than the original lithium, so you could keep it in the container and you wouldn’t contaminate your environment. And it actually burns so hot that even though Venus is something on the order of 560C — I forget exactly how much it is. It’s very, very hot on the surface of Venus. Even though it’s hot, the lithium burns so hot that you could then run a power inverter based on the temperature difference and cool your electronics box on the other side of the lander.
And so, these two guys got together at the Museum of Science and Industry, and they were NASA researchers from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, and 500 people showed up to watch them talk about their experiences. And I kid you not, at the end of their talks, which, admittedly, the first fellow got up and he said, ‘So I research how to feed bugs sugar and have them poop.’ OK, so that’s going to get the kids, right? But I kid you not, at the end of this hour-long talk half, an hour each, there were kids lined up 12 deep to each microphone in the aisles to ask questions with these guys.
It was great. It was really fun. And so, the Museum of Science and Industry said, ‘Hey, let’s do that again next year.’ And over the years, the number of attendees has dwindled, but only down to about 300. I mean, it’s not that bad. And of course this year, we’re doing it virtually. But what’s really fascinating is this sort of partnership that Kathy managed ended up creating another one. I had no idea that the World Book incorporated, these are the people that used to, and still do, make the World Book Encyclopedia, have their headquarters in, of all places, Chicago, and they like science.
So, they came to one of these events. And Kathy gets up on the stage and introduces the two fellows. And the fellows come up and give their talks. And the kids come up and ask questions afterwards. And while Kathy is wrapping everything up and talking to people from the audience afterwards, one of these guys comes up from World Book and says, ‘Kathy, I really enjoyed this. I think there’s a possibility that we could do, at no cost to NASA, a series of books focusing on the NIAC fellows and their exciting research. And we would do the research. All we would need is the researchers’ time to interview them. And then we would publish the book ourselves and we’d put NIAC’s name in there, NASA’s name in there. And whatever we need to do with the lawyers to get this all right in place and everything, we’ll do it. We would love it.’
And he gives her a business card. And it took seven months to get the lawyers to agree, but we got the Space Act Agreement in place. And they interviewed eight fellows. And there’s a series of books called ‘Out of This World.’ And we got to chance to interview a former chief technologist of NASA, Mason Peck. His book is called ‘Squishy, Fishy Robot Explorers.’ And it’s all about how you could use a soft robot to go through the ice at Europa and then swim around in the under-ice ocean. It’s a really interesting series of eight books. And a second series is in the works, and hopefully will be released next year, 2021. That’ll be really exciting. And so that’s another partnership that’s developed over time.
We have a yearly meeting that we call the NIAC Symposium, where we get all of the various fellows together to give their unvarnished progress reports to the program office, in front of all the other fellows. Again, we’ve come together and fellowship. And everybody, almost everybody, is from a different field, right? We have people that specialize in propulsion, people that specialize in spacesuits, people that specialize in energy production. It’s all over the map. And these people get together. They’re all advanced thinkers. They’re all really creative people. And they see somebody’s presentation, and somebody will jump up and say, ‘Well, have you thought about using this material in that, because then you would have these benefits and eliminate the negatives that you were talking about in your presentation?’ ‘No, I haven’t thought about that. I didn’t know about that material,’ et cetera.
And usually by the third day, I’ll be down at breakfast one morning, and I’ll have some fellow come up to my table at breakfast and ask if he can sit down for a second. ‘Of course, you can sit down and have breakfast with me if you want.’ He says, ‘No, no, I don’t have time. I just wanted to thank you for having the symposium because I met with’ — and gives another fellow’s name – ‘and we were up until three o’clock in the morning, talking about a potential collaboration that we can do and maybe even propose to NIAC next year. It’s so great to have these meetings.’
Sadly, this year we had to do a virtual meeting. We tried our best to make it as social as possible and to give the fellows opportunities to collaborate and make these collaborations and partnerships that are so important to the advanced concepts community. And it went OK. Looking forward to when we can do them in person again, hopefully, next year, but we’ll see what happens.
So that’s collaborations. We have someone who specializes in them in the program, Kathy Reilly. She is fantastic. The Strategic Partnerships Manager for NIAC. And then the fellows themselves are constantly collaborating, not just with themselves, but with other people outside of the agency. And they bring them back to NIAC when it’s appropriate. And that’s how we’ve moved forward with partnerships.
Host: How do you strike a balance between embracing these futuristic, way-out-there concepts and looking at the ideas through a realistic engineering lens?
Derleth: Well, you can look at some of our studies and you wonder where that realistic engineering lens went. We talked about the Breakthrough Starshot Program, which is a long way from being implemented. And you might say that our lens was broken there, but really it’s not.
My undergraduate degree is in philosophy. One of the greatest moments in philosophy, actually, is the moment that Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon. From the way that the ancients used to think, he stepped on the heavens. That’s not possible. And it’s really cool that that’s what happened, and that NASA was able to do this. Mind you, that’s only from the ancient point of view. We knew by then that the Moon was just stuff and that we could walk on it. That was sort of all brought together in modern thought hundreds of years ago.
There’s another one that’s very similar in import in the philosophy world, sort of, for the species. And that is, can we find life elsewhere? And so, being able to send a probe to another planet, yeah, Alpha Centauri is highly unlikely to harbor life. But still, to be able to visit another planetary system with even a Palm Pilot-sized — wow, I’m aging myself there — with a cell phone-sized spacecraft is just such an amazing thing to be able to do. While it is a long way off, there’s nothing really keeping it from happening. Yeah, data transfer back from Alpha Centauri is a real bear. You’ve got to wait 4.2 years for the signal to get back, even if it’s at lightspeed, but there’s ways to get around the weakness of the signal from that far away. So very interesting stuff.
So how do we keep that balance? Well, primarily, we ask our technical panel people, the experts from different fields we hired to help review the proposals, we ask them to tell us what’s possible to go wrong here. Because the way that these things work at Headquarters, all it takes is for a program to fund something that’s truly impossible once and the program could get canceled.
People are not forgiving of bad news blurbs in the government sometimes. If you don’t pass the Washington Post test, well, you better not fund that study. It’s amazing, these panels. We get a mix of people. Oftentimes there’s folks from the Old Guard. And we still have one guy that comes that worked for Apollo. He loves coming to the NIAC panels. And he was a student intern during Apollo. So it’s getting harder and harder to get those folks.
And then we bring in new people fresh out so that they know the current state of the art, what’s going on in universities across the nation and everything. We get people in the middle of their careers as well. They’re building spacecraft or whatnot so that they can review these concepts and say, ‘This one’s not going to work. And here’s why.’ Or, alternatively, because we get things from every part of the space enterprise, I have had a reviewer say to me more than once, essentially, ‘You know this is a really good idea. That’s why I funded it back in 1978 when I was a program manager at Headquarters. And it didn’t work then, and it ain’t gonna work now. And here’s why.’ It’s just absolutely astounding with these people, how their memory goes back so far in some cases. Other people understand physics so much better than I do. They’re able to keep us out of the woods.
The other thing that we try and do is we really do try to have a mix. You can think of our selections as sort of a bell curve, where we go for some near-term things and some really far-out-there things, every year. But the bulk of our studies are more feasible, but things that people aren’t thinking of doing yet, or they’re scientifically curious that whether or not this could work for later on. For instance, we had one researcher from the University of Maryland propose that there’s a contactless way of telling if there is a piece of micrometeorite or orbital debris around your spacecraft. These MMODs should produce something called a soliton. And I am not a physicist. So don’t ask me to tell you what a soliton is. You can look it up if you’re really curious. And the solitons should be detectable for meters to hundreds of meters away, depending on how strong the solitons are. None of that is certain, none of it. But it’s very interesting that you could create an MMOD density map if her instrument turns out to be feasible. So you put this thing up on a small sat or a medium sat, and have it sit in orbit for a while. And as it senses these solitons coming in from all over, you can build up a density map based on altitude of tiny particles that we don’t track from the ground.
So that’s a very interesting concept. We don’t know if it will work, but it’s probably worth $125,000 to find out. So, the NIAC program has three phases of study. A Phase I is $125,000 dollars, spent over nine months, to prove basic feasibility of a concept. A Phase II is $500,000, spent over two years, to advance from, say, TRL 3 to TRL 4, or five, probably more like four. We sometimes have people at Phase II produce robots, multiple robots. There’s a guy, his name’s Red Whittaker, a famous roboticist. He’s the one who won the DARPA Robotic Driving Challenge, started this whole self-driving revolution. He came to his mid-term review one year in with three fully functional robots that were able to do spelunking into caves and pits on the Moon, potentially. Very few people are Red Whittaker though. So, most people don’t come with three robots to the midterms.
The Phase III is $2 million over two years to bridge the gap from TRL 5 up to TRL 7, something on that order. The basic idea is to find a home for the technology where it could be used. And we’ve only had three of those, Red Whittaker was one. So far, we’ve managed to convince management that that would help with technology throughput from early-stage technology programs up to the middle TRL and the use programs like the Technology Demonstration Missions Program, which does actual spacecraft out of STMD.
Host: What do you think makes the NIAC Program successful?
Derleth: Everybody wants to dream. I think that NIAC is as successful as it is because it’s so exciting. And there’s two reasons why it’s so exciting. Because it tries to go all the way up to that edge of science fiction while still remaining feasible. That’s really important. Both of those things are two sides of the same coin, the first part of why NIAC is so successful. It’s very exciting because of that. It’s real possible stuff that might change the world. And that’s really, really cool.
The second reason is because of the concept that we talked about earlier. This is not just some person that’s saying, ‘Hey, I can make a new anode for a battery that’s going to really revolutionize the way that we can store energy in batteries. And this is because of this and that.’ And they go on, and eventually you find out that maybe, 10 years from now, your iPhone will have better battery power, right?
But because NIAC requires everyone to put something into a mission context, you know what it’s for right away. That in-space thruster, the fusion thruster that Stephanie Thomas is trying to create, is going to be able to take us all the way to Pluto fast, in maybe five years, all the way the Pluto, to orbit it and land the lander on it. And that’s exciting. And so, it’s this sort of dual thing. Not only is it futuristic, but you know what it’s for or what it can do in greater detail than in other programs. I think that that captures the imagination of people who look in at our symposium. I think it’s really exciting to see these things, to see a glimpse of what the future is.
As many as 22 percent of our fellows get follow-on funding to another program, which is really high for an early-stage, advanced concepts sort of program. It’s so high that I kind of worry that we’re not doing our job of being cutting-edge enough. So, if you look at eventual use, we’ve only been around for 10 years, and we call ourselves a 10 years and farther out program, so we shouldn’t have too many successes yet. But we’re at about 1 percent of use in space or on aircraft or things like that. So that’s pretty good for a 10 years and out program that’s 10 years old, I think.
Host: Absolutely. Jason, do you think these concepts and ideas NIAC is nurturing are likely to change what’s possible in aerospace engineering?
Derleth: Yes, I think they already have, but maybe not directly. What I mean by that is, take a look at Breakthrough Starshot. It is changing what is possible in space, even though it may not eventually be successful at launching a spacecraft to go to Alpha Centauri. For one of any number of reasons, it could end up being not successful, but it has absolutely inspired a lot of people to think differently about what’s possible in space.
We had a proposal a year after Breakthrough Starshot started about how you might do it in a different way where instead of shining a laser at a solar sail, why don’t you tune the laser to a specific frequency and shine it to solar sails that are tuned to that frequency? You can achieve 50 percent, perhaps, efficiency in the receiving end of that solar sail because it’s tuned to the right frequency. And if you have a direct conversion with no intervening power changes to a high-power ion engine that’s facing back towards the laser, you could change that energy into the ion engine and continue to accelerate. Admittedly, the acceleration would be slower than the direct photon acceleration, but that means that you’re not going to jelly up your spacecraft either. I mean, if you’re accelerating too fast, even very thin electronics will get squished. And so the ion engine, though, could continue thrusting for much longer than 10 minutes. It could continue thrusting for potentially months. And so it would eventually get to the same speed or even faster than the Breakthrough Starshot plan.
And so that was a result of the Breakthrough Starshot getting into the news media and people understanding what it was saying. And somebody else said, ‘Hey, that’s not right, why don’t you do it this way?’ It doesn’t take too many people saying things like that, and then entering the field or changing what they’re doing in the field, if they’re already there, before things rattle down and start changing the way that we’re building spacecraft. And I think that that’s already happened a couple of times.
A good example of that isn’t inspired directly by NIAC. There’s NASA publications on flyback boosters going back to 1988. And of course, it had rattled around in the industry for a dozen years before that, maybe even longer, but it took SpaceX saying, ‘Hey, I don’t care if we blow up rockets, let’s go fly back a booster,’ and trying it and failing over, and over, and over, and over. You can see the bloopers reel on YouTube, right? Until they finally started landing these boosters over and over.
And now, I believe ESA is looking at a flyback booster. Other people are thinking about it. And it’s opened up this whole world because somebody was successful at doing something that folks had just dismissed as really hard over the years. And I think that you get a little bit of that in NIAC, where you get people that look at something that’s really hard, like Stanford Torus, and say, ‘Well, that’s not the way I would do it. I would use tensegrity. That makes it 90 percent less massive, and you can launch it in one go.’
And then somebody else looks at that and says, ‘You know that tensegrity idea is really interesting, but using it for a human habitat is really challenging. What you ought to do is use a tensegrity tower that can unfold in a permanently shadowed region of the Moon to lift a solar sail up above the rim of the crater. Because the Moon is one-sixth gravity, we can already build hundred-meter tall towers with tensegrity in one-Earth gravity. Well, by golly, you could make something that unfolds itself because tensegrity folds up really easily that’s gossamer because there’s no wind and only one-sixth gravity. Well, you don’t even need to put the solar panel at the top, you just put a really thin membranous mirror at the top and put the solar sails down at the bottom, and then you don’t even hardly have to hold anything up. And so, your tower is only going to weigh a few dozen kilograms and it’s going to be able to lift itself up 10, 50 meters, somewhere in there. And that’s the way to go.’
And now, the person who came up with that — Dr. Joel Sercel, he proposed it as part of his latest study for NIAC — he’s looking at trying to do this. Really exciting stuff. And I think that it’s ideas like that that are just going to change everything about the way that we think about space. Instead of building a $5 billion nuclear reactor that works on the surface of the Moon, just lift a mirror up. I mean, it’s stupid simple, but it might change everything. It’s really cool.
Host: When it comes to NIAC success stories, do you have a favorite?
Derleth: Well, that’s like asking to choose a favorite baby, I think. I think some of what Dr. Sercel has done is really amazing. I think that what Anthony Longman did was just inspiring and far thinking and might change everything. It might take 50 years, but it might change everything. But there’s a whole bunch of really interesting and innovative ideas in over 200 studies that we’ve funded. I think we’ve already talked for a long time about some of those favorites. I could definitely go on.
One of my favorites is from Dr. Staehle at JPL. Back in 2011, the first set of proposals that we got had a proposal from Staehle. And he said, ‘These newfangled CubeSats are really interesting, but everybody’s using them in low Earth orbit. I think you can go to Deep Space with them and make them work. There’s three tall tent poles. You need a way of thrusting them out there. You need a way of powering them. And you need a way of communicating back with them.’
And before his study, nobody was really thinking about small-sat Deep Space missions. JPL now has six lined up, one of which just flew past Mars. And when I talked to the head of the Small Spacecraft Technology Program in STMD, he credits NIAC, the study by Staehle, for the boom in Deep Space CubeSats, because nobody had been thinking about it until that study came along and said, ‘You know it’s possible, given a limited set of circumstances, for us to do this.’ They’re really exciting.
Host: Jason, this has really been fun. I appreciate you taking so much time talking with us today.
Derleth: Oh, it’s been a pleasure, Deana. I really appreciate getting the chance to talk about what I like to call the most advanced technology program that NASA has.
Host: Any closing thoughts?
Derleth: Apply. You only get the chance to apply to NIAC once a year. It comes out in June, the first or second week of June. Think about the most exciting thing that you’ve seen in aerospace engineering, figure out how to make a mission out of it, and apply. Because it’s all of you that make NIAC exciting. So please, help us keep NIAC exciting. Give us an application next year.
Host: You’ll find links to topics discussed on the show at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast along with Jason’s bio and a transcript of today’s episode.
As we wind down our podcast activity for the year, I want to give a special shout-out to members of our podcast team: Steve Angelillo, Masha Berger, Dan Daly and Kevin Wilcox. Thank you for everything you do to keep the podcast on track.
Our next episode is set for Wednesday, January 13, and we will look forward to reconnecting with you then.
On behalf of APPEL Knowledge Services, I want to wish you Happy Holidays and again thank you for listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps.