by Peter Stemmler

While most of NASA’s exploratory energy is expended on distant stars and planets, one small department is searching for the fantastic right here on Earth. The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) is dedicated to advancing notions so complex that they might not leave the laboratory for another 10 to 40 years. These aren’t new valve designs; they are whole new technological architectures and systems.

This past October, 12 novel ideas were awarded NIAC grants, including a moon-based telescope and a proposal for genetically engineered vegetation that can survive in harsh climates such as Mars. The awards are what NIAC calls Phase I studies: six-month, $75,000 grants that allow the scientists to delve into the details. For example, Amy Grunden and Wendy Boss, the North Carolina State University scientists who proposed the martian garden, will look into which plants would be most accepting of
so-called extremophile genes, which enable organisms to thrive with limited oxygen. When finished, they’ll submit their work to NIAC’s science committee, which will decide
if it has enough promise to advance to Phase II –a $400,000 grant–for further refinement.

NIAC’s end goal is to produce real technologies that will support manned and robotic space missions. But as NIAC director Robert Cassanova notes, the benefits of the institute’s research aren’t just long-term. “Visions of the future may help us to understand and explore creative solutions to near-term problems,” he says. A martian garden, for instance, could help us grow food in barren soil on Earth. Here, four radical new ideas that have captured NASA’s attention.