Is NASA Boring? Not a Chance

Transformer-style planetary exploration vehicles being studied under a NIAC grant. (Scott Ferguson, North Carolina State University)

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

James Cameron’s recent solo voyage to the bottom of the sea — 7 miles down in the Pacific’s Mariana Trench — garnered universally rave reviews. Commentators praised director for his daring in going to a place where only two men had only gone before and opening up a new era of deep sea exploration.

There was one discordant note, aimed not at Cameron but rather — of all things — NASA. One blogger attacked the space agency’s Public Affairs Office for not sufficiently playing up the advisory role of one of its scientists in the expedition. “NASA is Becoming Boring” the headline thundered, indicting the coolest government agency in the world for some minor lapse involving an expedition it wasn’t even running.

What. Ever. Bro.

If only the critic had attended the NASA Innovative Advance Concepts Spring Symposium last week in Pasadena. During the 3-day gathering, researchers gave us a glimpse of the future. I didn’t find it boring. And neither did June Lockhart, for that matter. (Of which, more later.)

Spacecraft powered by a fission fragment rocket engine. (Robert Werka, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center)

NIAC funds technologies that are promising but which could be about 10 years from being viable. NASA funded 30 Phase 1 studies at $100,000 each last year. It will fund 6-10 projects for Phase II studies this summer at up to $500,000 apiece. The symposium gave researchers a chance to present their work before the call for Phase II proposals was issued.

SPS-ALPHA: Solar Power Satellite via Arbitrarily Large PHased Array. (John Mankins, Artemis Innovation Management Solutions)

Based on the presentations I saw, the future looks pretty awesome. Just consider some of the advanced projects that researchers are working on:

  • A Phobos sample return mission using two (count ’em, two) CubeSats [story] [video]
  • Transformer-like planetary surface vehicles
  • Spacecraft/rover hybrids that could hop, tumble and fly on and over moons and asteroids
  • Printable spacecraft using 3-D technology
  • Vehicles to explore caves, skylights and lava tubes on the moon and Mars
  • Ultra-light photonic muscle space structures
  • Fission fragmented rocket engines
  • Deep-space communication using quantum entanglement
  • Arbitrarily large phased array solar power satellites
  • Aneutronic fusion space propulsion
  • Metallic hydrogen fuel with a specific impulse of up 1,700 seconds (take that, 460 ISP space shuttle!)
  • Hypervelocity nuclear interceptors to shoot down incoming asteroids.

Pretty awesome stuff, huh? And that’s just a partial list.

Aneutronic fusion spacecraft architecture. (Alfonso Tarditi, University of Houston at Clear Lake)

The projects were all very interesting, even if I didn’t quite understand all of them. On that, I was in good company. A fellow journalist told me that the advance nuclear propulsion projects were way above the “C” he had received in physics. I could certainly empathize. Another friend whose technical expertise is way above mine was as puzzled as I was by the “Laser-Based Optical Trap for Remote Sampling of Interplanetary and Atmospheric Particulate Matter” presentation given by NASA Goddard’s Paul Stysley.

An atosmpheric breathing electric thruser vehicle for planetary exploration. (Kurt Hohman, Busek Co. Inc.)

As challenging as some of the material was, it certainly wasn’t boring. And I was glad that NASA was doing this type of research again. NIAC’s similarly-named predecessor, the NASA Institute for Advanced Studies, had been shut down in 2007 so the space agency could pay for the Constellation program. It was revived after the Obama Administration took office in 2009.

A low-power microrobot that uses biologically inspired power generation. (Gregory Scott, Naval Research Laboratory)

I wasn’t the only one impressed by NASA’s vision. So was June Lockhart.

The Lost in Space star was NIAC’s special guest on the second day of the symposium. She had just finished doing some public service announcements for NASA and decided to drop by the symposium to see what the future held. Still spry at 86 years young, Lockhart addressed the scientists just before the afternoon break.

She told them that she is a huge fan of NASA. She had seen the space agency’s previous landings on Mars, and she was eagerly awaiting Mars Curiosity Rover touchdown on the Red Planet next August.

Thomas Edison

Lockhart then told a story that revealed where her interest in science and technology came from. Her parents had been introduced by Thomas Edison back in 1923. The famous inventor was preparing for his annual Edison Dealers Caravan Convention, which traveled by train bringing the company’s latest inventions to cities across the continent. In addition to products, the caravan included actors who perform a play in each city.

Canadian actor and Broadway star Gene Lockhart had done the play for Edison the previous year. For the 1923 play, they needed an actress who would sing, dance and do comedy. They found a talented English actress who could fit the bill. Standing at his desk at his Menlo Park laboratory, Edison introduced Lockhart to his new leading lady, Kathleen Arthur.

The caravan traveled all over the continent that year, selling Edison’s wares and entertaining people all across the United States and Canada.

“When they got to Lake Louise, that’s when daddy made his move,” Lockhart recalled with a laugh.

June Lockhart followed in her parents footsteps, making her debut in 1938 opposite her mother and father in a film version of “A Christmas Carol.” In 1965, Lockhart began a three-year stint on Lost in Space, a television adaptation of “The Swiss Family Robinson” in which a family becomes lost on their way to Alpha Centauri. Since then, she has been meeting people who told her that Lost in Space helped inspire them to pursue careers in the space industry.

“Did you ever make it home?” scientist and author David Brin asked.

No, we were canceled,” Lockhart replied, recounting how the show never got a fourth season.

“Well, you’re home here with us,” Brin assured her.

“Yes. Yes, I am,” she said, smiling.

JPL’s Robert Staehle asked her, as someone who was used to communicating with the public, what space scientists could do to better communicate what they are doing.

Never be concerned about being overenthusiastic about what you are doing, she told him. If you are enthusiastic, then that will come through others will get excited about it, too.

Wrapping up her brief talk, she invited everyone to not be shy and come talk to her during the afternoon break. She was soon surrounded by a group of star-struck scientists, who took pictures with her, asked her whatever became of the Robot, and recounted their own memories of Lost in Space.

It was very cool. Lockhart’s parents had been introduced by one of the greatest inventors of all time. She then starred in a science fiction show that inspired people to explore space. And these scientists were inspiring her with their visions of the future.

No, NASA wasn’t getting boring. With NIAC back, it was just getting started.