NASA picked a good time to announce that it is funding 28 ambitious projects through its NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. When you land a nuclear-powered, laser-equipped vehicle on another planet using a supersonic parachute and a sky crane, you earn yourself some street cred. After the Curiosity stuck its landing like an Olympic gymnast, more people are going to give the bizarre NIAC projects consideration. They include a landsailing rover to cruise the surface of Venus, and a submarine to explore the ice-encrusted ocean of Europa, Jupiter’s sixth moon. That’s right, there’s an ice moon in our solar system that probably has a hidden ocean, and scientists are exploring the possibility of exploring it.
Concepts in Phase I will get about $100,000 (£64,000) to explore the basic feasibility of their harebrained scheme, for one year. Phase II projects — which includes new projects, and concepts that survived last year’s Phase I — will get as much as $500,000 (£320,000) for two years, to help develop their projects even further.
The Venus and Europa mission ideas are getting attention because they are badass and easy to visualize (however implausible they might turn out to be, we can picture them in our minds quite easily because they are basically variations of the “send a robot to explore another planet” thing we are already doing). But some of the other projects are even more exciting. For example, NASA’s own Jet Propulsion Lab will explore the potential of 3d-printable spacecraft. Three dimensional printing is one of the most disruptive technologies currently in use, and its applications are legion. I cannot wait to see how it will affect our efforts to explore, mine, and colonize the solar system. In the coming decades, when astronauts need equipment we will simply email them the designs, which they will print using on-board systems and raw materials that have either been brought up from Earth in bulk (major efficiency here) or mined somewhere else (the asteroid belt, say).
These far-sighted projects are the kind of thing that NASA is uniquely positioned to fund, even as it turns to the private sector to get people and equipment into near Earth orbit. Unfortunately, the radicals who demand that the U.S. Government cut out “wasteful” spending — even as they blame Obama for the cuts to the Pentagon that they voted for — aren’t interested in giving NASA the funding it needs. The Republicans once publicly lambasted volcano monitoring for being wasteful; they can’t appreciate the importance of geological surveys on Earth, let alone on other planets. Even more enraging to the right wing is NASA’s role in the Great Global Warming Hoax. They’ve done everything in their power to politicize science within the FDA, EPA and every other government agency that can get in the way of corporate profits. But NASA still comes out with reports like this one, showing “Unprecedented Greenland Ice Sheet Surface Melt”, or this one, concluding that “a sharp increase in the frequency of extremely hot summers can only be the result of human-caused global warming”. NASA’s climate scientist James Hansen has been a thorn in the sides of climate-deniers for years. It annoys the hell out of them that the geniuses who are landing robots on Mars are unequivocal in their statements affirming global warming.