Living the dream

5 min read

NASA’s Bob Cassanova has a daring approach to bringing seemingly outlandish ideas for the future to fruition. He tells Niall Firth why the agency is seriously interested in several pioneering space concepts.

Listening to Bob Cassanova’s laid-back, South Carolina tones for the first time, one would not necessarily get the impression that he heads one of NASA’ most exciting organisations; nor that he evaluates some of the world’s most outlandish and futuristic technological concepts every day. But as director of the organisation that first championed the space elevator — the NASA Institute of Advanced Concepts (NIAC) — Cassanova is used to dealing with ideas that at first glance appear to have nothing more than a passing acquaintance with reality. NIAC was set up by NASA eight years ago to nurture ‘revolutionary advanced concepts’. According to Cassanova, NIAC’s aim is to look at technological concepts that reach far beyond NASA’s current capability by anything up to 40 years into the future. Before becoming NIAC’s director, Cassanova was director of the Aerospace and Transportation Laboratory at the Georgia Tech Research Institute where, among other projects, he conducted research into combustion, acoustics and biofluid dynamics. At the helm of NIAC since its inception, he relishes the freedom that his organisation is afforded. Operating independently from NASA gives NIAC the freedom to explore concepts that will not necessarily come to fruition even within the next 20 years, and the relationship between the two remains strong, according to Cassanova. ‘Despite being funded by NASA we are independent,’ he said. ‘This means that we do our own peer review and issue contracts ourselves. NASA looks at our results and then decides whether it is happy: so far it has been.’ One of the criteria for receiving Phase 1 funding from NIAC is that the proposed concept must be revolutionary rather than evolutionary. It must be able to prove it can ‘initiate a fundamental paradigm change in thinking’. That is no simple hoop for researchers to jump through but it helps restrict the final dozen or so projects that receive a share of NIAC’s $3m (£1.7m) annual budget only to those that are seriously pioneering. One such project that has received additional central funding from NASA — a telling sign of the agency’s interest in a project — is an innovative system for launching spacecraft. The rotating momentum exchange system would be able to ‘throw’ cargo pods or manned pods from an earth orbit towards the moon or even Mars. The concept comprises a rotating tether that tumbles end-upon-end in a low-earth orbit. The tether would be a few hundred kilometres long and constructed from many strands of a strong material such as Kevlar. A cargo pod could be launched into orbit at a relatively low speed and the tether would then grapple on to and launch it at an escape velocity out into space. More than 150 different studies have been funded by NIAC over the past eight years, either at Phase 1 or the more testing Phase II stage. One of those that has been approved for Phase II funding, which can mean anything up to $400,000 in grants, is an innovative spacesuit being developed by a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The biosuit has also attracted additional funding from NASA, and its potential for revolutionising the movement of astronauts in space is huge, said Cassanova. He added that that traditional suits for astronauts are heavy, cumbersome, and tiring to wear. ‘This biosuit will fit you like a wetsuit. Instead of using internal gas pressure to protect the astronaut it uses external mechanical counter pressure.’ The suit will assist in the motion of moving your elbow by analysing brainwaves and then sending a signal to the material that would allow it to expand and contract as needed.

‘The materials it would use would have to be very stiff, electroactive polymeric materials that are able to physically react to the astronaut’s movement. As you bend your elbow the material will contract on the inner part and expand on the outer. The suit will be able to sense this movement and react accordingly,’ said Cassanova.

Among ideas being worked on by Cassanova and his team at NIAC are suits for astronauts to allow easier movement and a plasma bubble to protect against cosmic radiation

The work that Cassanova and NIAC does has certainly not been overlooked. In 2003 he won the NASA Public Service Medal for ‘exceptional contributions to the Mission of NASA’, while the entire NIAC team received the NASA group achievement award. This, said Cassanova, vindicates their innovative and daring approach. ‘The National Aeronautic Association organised its presidential commission which looked in depth at the exploration programme, and in its report, NIAC was mentioned specifically as a model for how advanced concepts should be developed,’ said Cassanova. ‘So we must be doing something right.’ One of NIAC’s most extraordinary recent funded studies was a project examining ways of using caves formed by lava flow on Mars to create habitats for astronauts. As unlikely as it may sound, Cassanova is adamant that the ‘lava tube idea’ is a viable proposition for the future. He said tunnels that were left when the ancient lava flows passed beneath the surface of Mars will have left solidified walls that are structurally stable. ‘The tube can be closed off and used as a habitat for astronauts that need to stay on a planet for any length of time, as it would provide radiation protection,’ he said. ‘It looks promising and, as it is a completed Phase II project, it is quite advanced. Living quarters could be created by pumping in breathable gases and pressurising the chamber. Once the tube is in place it can be closed off and will be a liveable working environment.’ Another concept that is exciting Cassanova and his colleagues is plasma bubbles, or sails. The idea was originally conceived as a propulsion technology in which a small magnetic field would be applied to plasma to create a giant bubble — many kilometres in diameter — using solar wind to push it along. When researchers looked further into the technology they discovered that it could also be used to create plasma shields that could theoretically protect a spacecraft or habitat on the surface of a planet from radiation. ‘It is a very important issue if you want long-term missions in space to protect the spacecraft and occupants from the effects of cosmic radiation. The possibilities of this technology are now going way beyond simply propulsion. It is unproven but we believe it has good prospects,’ said Cassanova. During the next fortnight Cassanova and his team will listen to presentations from researchers looking for funding for the next generation of advanced technological concepts. But he is aware that the relative paucity of funding available to the study of advanced technologies means that the further development of an innovative technology can take some time. ‘Many of these concepts are not that far away but there are two factors that influence the development of ideas: technology and funding,’ he said. ‘If you put real focus into something like this with large amounts of funding it could be made far more quickly.’ Despite this, and although NIAC has not remained immune from the sweeping budget cuts that have decimated much of the agency’s capability in the past few years, Cassanova is fairly confident about NIAC’s future. ‘Our budget has been trimmed slightly, but we have been pretty stable for the past eight years because we are able to fund new ideas that are picked up by NASA and that influences near-term programmes as well,’ he said. ‘We find that often revolutionary concepts will inspire new enabling technologies that can have a more immediate impact in the near term.’ However, he is well aware that history will judge how realistic his organisation’s projects are. ‘None of our concepts have been around long enough for us to know how successful they will be in the long run,’ he admitted.