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Science

NASA Funds Sci-Fi Technology 135

Posted by michael
from the thinking-different dept.
Michael Huang writes "Wired News profiles the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC), the $4 million-a-year agency most famous for Bradley Edwards' study of the space elevator. Lesser known studies include weather control, shape-shifting space suits and antimatter-powered probes to Alpha Centauri. Remember, 'if it's not risky, it's not going to get funded'."
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NASA Funds Sci-Fi Technology

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  • Sounds familiar (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Carnildo (712617) on Friday May 07, 2004 @05:47PM (#9089861) Homepage Journal
    Gee. Sounds like Heinlein's "Long Range Foundation".
  • What? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Neil Blender (555885) <neilblender@gmail.com> on Friday May 07, 2004 @05:47PM (#9089867)
    NASA is getting into space things? That's odd.
    • Re:What? (Score:5, Funny)

      by linzeal (197905) on Friday May 07, 2004 @07:20PM (#9090435) Homepage Journal
      Nasa getting into sci-fi would be like the US Military getting into video games, never going to happen.

      • Re:What? (Score:1, Offtopic)

        by dontbgay (682790)
        uhmmmmmmm... on the contrary. try this [americasarmy.com] on for size. I hear it's a decent game.
  • by James A. O. Joyce (777976) on Friday May 07, 2004 @05:48PM (#9089871)

    When I skimmed the article summary I was going to write a comment complaining th at NASA should be investing in "proven technologeis". After all, it's the "proven technologeis" that help us about our daily lifes and help us fulfilll ourselves: space elevators don't enter into it, right? Besides, NASA needs to bring in some green and they can only do that by making proprietry software and crafts.

    But then I realised something important; no matter how important it is for NASA to make money, we still have to spend money to make money. Even if spending money on space lifts causes taxes to get nothced up by a few dollars, it will all be worth it in a few decades because we will all benefit from the advanced cabling tech. Besides, every dollar that's spent on this is another dolll ar that isn't spent on military applications or other less savoury things [slashdot.org].

    Still, judging by their website [usra.edu], I'm a little suspicious of what they're up to! ;-) I guess their just busy working on something cool like transforming space suits, heh. Keep up the good articals, simoniger. (The shape-shifting space suits are almost certainly more useful than the shape-shifting trainers I saw linkked on Fark, anyway.)

    • As Buckminster Fuller said, we should focus more on "livingry" rather than weaponry.
    • by theM_xl (760570) on Friday May 07, 2004 @05:58PM (#9089950)
      Aye, if everyone only invests in "proven techonologies" we can forget about progress... Sure, we'll probably refine things, but some new ones would be nice. We can't rely on the guys in basements to do everything... Somebody has to do the hard science that at least on the surface offers little. If the NASA is the one to do it, more power -and funding- to them.
    • by DShard (159067) on Friday May 07, 2004 @06:00PM (#9089961)
      And honestly, space elevators are not as far fetched an idea as they sounded when I first read about them in Kim Stanley Robinsons' Mars series. What it would return when we work out the tech is a solar system of resources at or disposal. With the price of bringing up and down cargo going to dollars a pound, the potential is breathtaking. There are worse pipe dreams to invest in.
      • Actually, that's more than a little optimistic. Theoretically, having a single space elevator might drop the price for lifting material to geosync to under a thousand dollars a kilogram. That's still a big improvement over tens of thousands, but it doesn't mean you'll be sending up your kids' science projects anytime soon.
        • by xmath (90486) on Friday May 07, 2004 @06:28PM (#9090124)
          Quoting the site:
          The first space elevator would reduce lift costs immediately to $100 per pound, as compared to current launch costs, which are $10,000-$40,000 per pound, depending upon destination and choice of rocket launch system.

          Plus, if you look at their studies it seems they have figured out pretty much everything already. The only technical detail they're waiting for is a sufficiently strong carbon nanotube composite to make the cable of, and they're already making good progress there. After that, apparently it becomes just an engineering/funding problem.

          Of course the studies could be mistaken, but still it's definitely not in the pure "Sci-Fi" category anymore. With a bit of luck, we'll still live to see it built. :-)

          • Heaven help us if it ever snaps. imagine a super strong cabel accelerating from a geosync orbit across some city? like a 4 km long 2 meter wide meteor.
            • by Saige (53303) <evil DOT angela AT gmail DOT com> on Friday May 07, 2004 @07:16PM (#9090401) Journal
              Cause, of course, we haven't seen every single technical article that describes the space elevator in any sort of techincal detail mention that it would be a wide but extremely thin ribbon that, were it ever to break or be cut, would float down with not even enough kinetic energy to hurt a person. That coupled with the fact that any sections not far enough into the atmosphere to be slowed that way would, upon reentering the atmosphere and building up a bit of heat, disintegrate.

              In other words, if their engineering ideas are even close, the only place we'll see a big disaster caused by a space elevator cable coming down is fiction.
          • If it's scientifically impossible, it's not science fiction - it's fantasy. The space elevator is something that we (meaning humans) pretty much knew would be possible eventually. Hence, the pure sci-fi category is not a bad place to be.
        • Theoretically, having a single space elevator might drop the price for lifting material to geosync to under a thousand dollars a kilogram. That's still a big improvement over tens of thousands, but it doesn't mean you'll be sending up your kids' science projects anytime soon

          Nah. The first thing we'll do is use the first space elevator to build more space elevators. And rotating tethers. Etc.
      • The idea of the space elevator is about 35 years old. Yuri Artusanov (spelling?) came up with the idea circa 1968, and Arthur C. Clarke ran with it in "The Fountains of Paradise". The anchor point's name of "Clarke" in the Mars series was a tribute.
    • by NoMercy (105420) on Friday May 07, 2004 @06:14PM (#9090053)
      Goverments deal in milions, 50 milion there, 20 milion there, the cost of some piece of stupid artwork to stick at the end of a bridge cost a insane ammount of money while another piece of local-goverment artwork is spiraling though milions of dolars while its schedule is pushed furthur and furthur back...

      Benifit of this is, a) the costs are fixed, b) we might just get that anti-mater powered probe to aplha-centuri ;)
    • Besides, every dollar that's spent on this is another dolll ar that isn't spent on military applications or other less savoury things.

      Military applications like the internet, computer, or most everything digital, electrical, and mechanical?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 07, 2004 @05:50PM (#9089877)
    Be honest, you were outraged to hear that funding was given to wacky pseudo-science projects, weren't you?
    • by Reorax (629666) on Friday May 07, 2004 @06:01PM (#9089967)
      I was outraged to hear that funding was given to their wacky pseudo-science projects. Still nothing for my magnetic levitation air-hockey table.
      • I was outraged to hear that funding was given to their wacky pseudo-science projects. Still nothing for my magnetic levitation air-hockey table.

        That's because it's already been solved. You take an air-hockey sized piece of superconductor, cool it down to liquid-nitrogen temperatures, and place a puck-shaped magnet on top. Since superconductors are naturally diamagnetic, the magnet will float. By adjusting the strength and weight of the magnet, you can change the float height.
        • Then you have to worry about the puck being brittle. Boy, it would suck to have your multi-thousand dollar puck shatter in a gajillion pieces on the first volley!
          • The puck doesn't need to be a superconductor. It just needs to be a magnet, and those are cheap. It doesn't matter if you break one every now and then.
      • While I know your post was a joke, it got me thinking. Maybe you could get a whole bunch of these kits [scitoys.com] together and make a graphite puck and you might have one.
  • by jafo (11982) on Friday May 07, 2004 @05:50PM (#9089881) Homepage
    This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, by Gordon Moore: "If everything you try works, you're not trying hard enough."

    Sean
    • Gordon Moore: "If everything you try works, you're not trying hard enough."


      And adapted for Slashdot:



      "If you're hard, you're not trying to work enough."

      ;)
  • I believe this concept (or one very similar) Arthur C Clarke aired in his book 2061.
  • by Intocabile (532593) on Friday May 07, 2004 @05:53PM (#9089904)
    .. for the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon 6? Or is that not risky enough?
  • 250x less (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DAldredge (2353) <SlashdotEmail@GMail.Com> on Friday May 07, 2004 @05:56PM (#9089935) Journal
    It costs more than 250 times their yearly budget to fly one shuttle mission...That is a sad joke, I bet there budget is less than what NASA spends each year to fly the NASA highups around the country.
  • Heh... (Score:4, Funny)

    by Burgundy Advocate (313960) on Friday May 07, 2004 @05:57PM (#9089942) Homepage
    Re-fund Orion.

    ...then Superfund the United States!

    • They have [nasa.gov], sort of.

      No one is going to use a fission based launch system though, too many hippies alive still.

      • I would definitly want to see Greenpeace protesting against that one. The standard Greenpeace protest involves chaining themselfs against whatever they are protesting against.

        Just picture this:

        1) build nuclear launch system.
        2) Allow greenpeace hippies to chain themselfs to launch system.
        3) Launch system.
        4) Annouce the first hippies in space to the world.
  • by cft_128 (650084) on Friday May 07, 2004 @05:58PM (#9089952)
    The most important thing said in the article was a quote by an analyst "It's impossible to make breakthroughs if all you're funding is immediate, near-term applications".

    In society today we all seem to concentrate on short term benefits and ignore the long term consequences, be it government budget deficits, long term research funding, balking at online music distribution, moving jobs off shore or the environment.

    • "we all seem to concentrate on short term benefits and ignore the long term consequences, be it government budget deficits, long term research funding, balking at online music distribution, moving jobs off shore or the environment. "

      You forgot one example: Military policy. Think of all the children in the middle east right now who are getting houses and cities bombed by 'American bombs' and having their fathers killed by 'American soldiers'. In 25 years, they will all be grown up, and they will hate Ameri

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Unfortunatly the brute force method to interstellar travel will never work. One sand grain sized particle hitting a craft going 1% of c will end the mission. Then there is the issue of having enough fuel and the multigenerational length of the mission.
  • My dad has worked with Brad Edwards on the Space Elevator extensively, and I can tell you from experience that it is not wacky science fiction. It is a six billion dollar investment that isn't likely to appear anytime soon. However, it is almost certain to happen within the next thirty to forty years. While it is nice that the government can handle that kind of long-range vision occasionally, if they are the only ones providing investment into technologies like this one then they will end up controlling those technologies. What would really be nice is if the private sector could see into the future too and fund some of this kind of stuff without NASA's help.
    • Lets see, the U.S. spends six billion dollars in less than a month on the circus in Iraq which isn't producing any useful result. The U.S. has spent 6 or 7 times this on the F-22 and its still barely in limited production. Estimates very but the F-22 will run $200-$300 million a pop. Kind of shows you how screwed up our priorities are.

      I really doubt the major powers will let a private company own a space elevator. It will so dramatically alter the balance of power I wager the U.S., E.U., Russia, China
  • by Humorously_Inept (777630) on Friday May 07, 2004 @06:01PM (#9089970) Homepage
    It's too bad that a defenseless program like this is just the sort that would be hacked apart if some hackney news agency decided to do an expose on the $4m it gets. I'm sure John Stossel could paint horns on it.

    Even outlandish ideas deserve study. This isn't "duh" stuff like the speed at which ketchup comes out of the bottle, etc. I think it's important to keep an eye out on the horizon and if a couple bucks is enough motivation, then go for it!
  • Corny as it may be? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Killjoy_NL (719667) <slashdotNO@SPAMremco.palli.nl> on Friday May 07, 2004 @06:06PM (#9090004)
    I'd like to see more research into replicator technology (maybe we will get there after enough nano-research?)
    If we get replicators, we can solve a lot of problems at once:

    - Food, nobody would have to grow hungry again
    - Money, nobody would need it ever again
    - Fuel, no more dependancies on oil
    - Nuclear waste/pollution, easy to clean that up now
    - Living forever, refreshing the building blocks of our bodies
    - etc.

    The only problem I can see here (and I'm sure there are more) is nano-warfare. As in "Let's make a nanobot that can kill all people with a certain DNA profile", that's the only thing I'm afraid of.

    I think it will take a long time before we finally have that technology, but I'm afraid I won't live to see that (and I'm still hoping to have about 70 years ahead of me to live to the ripe old age of 95)
    • by painandgreed (692585) on Friday May 07, 2004 @06:26PM (#9090110)

      I'd like to see more research into replicator technology (maybe we will get there after enough nano-research?) If we get replicators, we can solve a lot of problems at once:

      - Food, nobody would have to grow hungry again
      - Money, nobody would need it ever again
      - Fuel, no more dependancies on oil
      - Nuclear waste/pollution, easy to clean that up now
      - Living forever, refreshing the building blocks of our bodies
      - etc.

      You're high. Successful nanotech replictors probaly wouldn't solve any of those problems. It does not allow for escaping from the law of conservation of mass and energy. Materials are still going to take resources and energy to manufacture. both are commodities that, even if cheap, will prevent free replication. We'll be able to make our own oil but the energy to do that will have to come from someplace and might not be efficient as simply running electric cars to begin with. In fact, it may still be cheaper to pump the stuff out of the ground and use it. It might even still be cheaper to grow food naturally.

      • Nanotech isn't going to make everything free without switching to a communisme-like society (the theoreticaly happy one, like Startrek). But it could make things very cheap. Sufficent advanced nanotech factories could be as efficient as biological cells. (creating complex chemicals without any garbage). Combined with fusion it could make cheap fuel, cheap food and cheap thingamabobs.

        Even resources aren't an issue. We've got huge piles of resources that are considered so worthless that people would pay you
    • by king-manic (409855) on Friday May 07, 2004 @06:50PM (#9090229)

      - Food, nobody would have to grow hungry again
      - Money, nobody would need it ever again
      - Fuel, no more dependancies on oil
      - Nuclear waste/pollution, easy to clean that up now
      - Living forever, refreshing the building blocks of our bodies


      -Food: We can already fend off hunger, it's socio economic reasons why we don't. Food distribution, international politics cause grain and other excess food goods to be stored/rott instead of eaten, not supply. Replicators would not help this. Chances are they would require electricity to operate and most places with low food levels also don't have electricity.
      -money: Money is an idea, its a innovation to quantify the value of "work" or "goods". If replicators worked, they would require power, and then power and base materials would become the basis of a monetary system. Also replicators aren't magic, nanobots would still require base amterials and could only make things according to what is available. It's likly it will make manufacturing moot if it worked exactly liek you think it should.
      -Fuel: We will need more, it doesn' solve fuel problems it woudl create it. We dont' yet know the power requirements a replicator would need, but changing matter require energy. If it work just a syou think (ie, make anything you tell it to out of base materials) We'd need a lot of energy. If your thinking of the magical Star trek replicators it's going to need even more energy (and also a major major innovation in physics to overcome the uncertainty principle.)
      -Nuclear waste: Again nano machiens aren't magic They might be able to convert 8h2so4 into 8 h2 1 s8 and 16 o2 but it can't make pu-242 into 50 h2o.
      -Living forever: It may someday result in this, This is a fairly realistic possibiltity but not for a good long time. Even then you may run into some problems, like memory. IF your 350 can your brain remember enough to keep you functional, will we hae to invent a forgetting machine lest we fill up our brains? This one might happen I doubt the other 4 will.
      • It might be reasonable to assume that if we manage to achieve clinical immortality, we might be able to transform ourselves to vastly increase our mental capacities, or download our consciousness into a computer, blah blah science-fiction-cakes. Read Diaspora [amazon.com], Schild's Ladder [amazon.com], or Permutation City [amazon.com] by Greg Egan for ideas. Yeah, I know it's just sci-fi, but as long as we're dreaming, let's dream big, instead of assuming one fantastical thing and then assuming we wouldn't be able to get past problems it might
        • Their might be some severe consquences form a race of functionally imortal beings. Who gets to be immortal is question? will it be a reward for talent and personal fortune or will it be applie to everyone, if it's to everyone overcrowding will kill us. If it's just the accademics and the rich will science and industry become more and more conservative (going broke or having all your ideas discreditted at 450 might suck a lot, the reputation may never leave you)? Or will those groups become rampant risk take
  • by j3ll0 (777603) on Friday May 07, 2004 @06:06PM (#9090005)
    The one thing that I like about the idea for shifting the hurricane is that when there wasn't a hurricane to be shifted, you could redirect all that energy onto a bank of photovoltaic cells.

    Of course...the one thing I don't like about the idea is that us humans don't have a whole lot of success in anticipating the consequences of fucking around with nature :)
  • ..How about trying to get CowboyNeal a date?

    ~m
  • by icekillis (777986) on Friday May 07, 2004 @06:14PM (#9090052)
    A modest proposal: Instead of just posting an article every time a Wired Article comes out, slashdot should just made a special section feeding everything from Wired.
    • And then, the next breraking story would be about a Wired article about pending litigation against an online news forum web site for large scale copyright infringement.
  • by notany (528696)
    At least they are not any of that 4 000 000$ year to web designers. That's allways a good sign.
    The homepage looks absolutely horrible!!
  • Robert A Heinlein (Score:3, Interesting)

    by LittleLebowskiUrbanA (619114) on Friday May 07, 2004 @06:26PM (#9090112) Homepage Journal
    Reminds me of this novel [fantasticfiction.co.uk] where there's an organzation that won't finance something unless it's crazy and has no chance of succeeding. I believe its motto was Bread cast upon water multplies sevenfold. In the novel the organization finances a novel way of communicating between Earth and starships.
    • Yes, the Long Range Foundation. The actual criteria was that if any potential payoff was at least a century in the future, the project had a chance of being funded.

      Of course, they had a slight problem with projects paying off too soon.
  • by Saeger (456549) <farrellj@gmai l . c om> on Friday May 07, 2004 @06:28PM (#9090123) Homepage
    Dear NASA,

    Here is my 'sci-fi' grant proposal. I hope you approve:

    1. Wait for advanced nanotechnology and brain-scanning tech to emerge over the next 25 years [kurzweilai.net]. I'll still need funding during this period to analyze the research landscape for suitable bla bla (i.e. sit on my ass.)
    2. Launch a 'seed' probe using the old space elevator.
    3. Have the seed probe attach to any unclaimed, suitably-sized asteroid and self-assemble the solar arrays, dish, and computing substrate necessary for a couple million transhuman beings + "matrix" environment.
    4. "Broadcast" the willing scanned human minds from Earth for $0/lb (and let the bio-luddites join the dinosaurs.)
    5. Grow our new home into a dyson-sphere-sized Matrioshka Brain [aeiveos.com] around the Sun to add to the "missing [thinking] matter" out there. :)
    6. No profit.

  • I thought that NASA had stopped funding their forward-thinking "breakthrough propulsion program." Perhaps not?
  • NIAC (Score:3, Interesting)

    by dmouw25 (777994) on Friday May 07, 2004 @07:20PM (#9090429)
    I recently attended one of their conferences as a one of the student presenters. This is not a waste of money. Their grants come in two phases with the first one about $60,000 and the second phase much more. The amount they give is miniscule compared to potential rewards. As far as the space elevator, before I went to the conference I thought it was a joke as well, but it is a very viable concept. In response to the guy who made the comment about protecting it from planes, this will be constructed in the ocean and it would be very easy for a year round no fly zone. Also, if I remember correctly, the location was choosen because this area is storm free year round, but I am not sure on this point.
    • by wass (72082)
      I would also imagine that the tension of the space elevator cable would make it nearly immune to plane attacks. Ie, an incoming plane would probably have it's wings ripped off by the line.

      In WWII the Brits used a 'wall' like this to protect against incoming German missiles/rockets. Helium balloons (big) would be tethered to the ground w/ a steel cable. Incoming missiles had the wings/fins ripped off and couldn't fly further inland.

  • The Warbot 1Alpha needs serious debugging. The nanobots got too smart and did serious upgrading beyond my control.

    I need funds so I can perfect the techniquie and build a billion of them to rule the world, er I mean explore space, yeah that's the ticket! :)
  • Does NASA also have a group for the
    "Most Advanced NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts" as well?

  • More at Defense Tech (Score:2, Informative)

    by noahmax (534339)
    There's a whole bunch more on NASA's way-out research over here [defensetech.org].

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