How-To: Get your Idea Funded by NASA (Really!)
Updated: Jun 27, 2020
Did you know that NASA has an office dedicated to "Innovative Advanced Concepts," that is specifically designated to fund new and novel technologies? You don't even have to be a scientist, or be part of a large company to apply! If you have an idea that can benefit the aerospace community (including the space science community), you can write a paper and submit it for review. The hardest part of this process is coming up with a plausible mission context for your idea. I'll say that again: you have to express your concept in a mission context, and it has to be plausible. This doesn't mean it is possible, just plausible within the laws of physics (and sometimes, the laws of economics).
There are 3 phases in the Nasa Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, and the first phase has a two-step approach.
Phase I: $125,000 to determine the feasibility of the concept in the mission context.
Phase II: $500,000 to mature the concept so it could potentially be used in the future.
Phase III: $2,000,000 to prepare the technology for use on a specific mission.
Note that NIAC is open to anyone in the United States, although "Non-U.S. organizations and individuals may partner in or lead NIAC studies on a no-exchange of funds basis."
Now, about Phase I. This is where it all starts, and what this article will really focus on. Phase 1 is not designed for you to develop your idea, it is designed to give you the funding needed to determine if the idea is feasible, and report back to NASA on that feasibility. The award period is 9 months. In essence, if you are selected for a Phase 1 award, you have 9 months to write an in-depth technical report about the feasibility of the concept in the mission context. To better understand this, you can read up on NASA's Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) - all your report (called the Phase 1 Deliverable) has to accomplish is moving the TRL up a notch, and determining whether the technology is feasible or not. You may find out it is NOT a good idea during the course of this evaluation, and you should report that back to NASA. Otherwise, focus on moving the technology to TRL 2. You don't need to build any prototypes during Phase 1. You will have to submit periodic reports back to the NIAC office.
How to get that Phase 1 Award? There are two parts of Phase 1, called Phase 1A and Phase 1B. After we outline Phase 1A and 1B, I'll tell you what you have to do step-by-step to apply.
Phase IA: This solicitation is going to ask for a 3 page white paper to be reviewed by the staff in the NIAC office. This paper includes a system-generated cover sheet (don't worry about this in your drafts), plus an overview chart, and a references page if you need it. You don't need a cost proposal or management structure in this paper. The nice people in the NIAC office review these Phase 1A papers as a sort of "filter" before inviting the authors to produce a more technical proposal for Phase 1B. The idea here is to not waste YOUR time, they will tell you if the idea has a chance or not, and if it does, you can invest more time in the 1B proposal (below).
Phase 1B: This is an 8 page technical proposal, including cost and management information. The budget (cost breakdown) and management information need to be included in the proposal itself. The budget will only be reported in the 8 page document itself, however, the "team" part of your management section will also be covered in the NASA NSPIRES system when you are submitting. An example budget sheet is included in "Sample+NSPIRES+Budget+Sheets.docx" which was published in NSPIRES with the NIAC Appendix. Otherwise, you need to expand your paper from 3 pages to 8 pages, and have it be ready for a peer review panel. Use the same overview chart (aside from very small changes if you must) - drastically changing the overview chart can be seen as a sort of "bait and switch" and should be avoided.
Here are the main steps for submitting your idea to NIAC:
Figure out when the solicitation dates and deadlines are.
Write a 3 page white paper + overview chart, outlining your idea in a mission context.
Before the Phase 1A solicitation date, submit your 1A paper to the NIAC office (using the email address on their website) for a cursory review to see if you are "in scope" - the NIAC office staff are the ones that decide if you pass the 1A review, and they are in charge of having your ideas reviewed by industry experts in step 5. They are allowed to talk to you about your idea any time before the solicitation date. This is very important, as they are very helpful!
Make any changes necessary to make your concept more compelling, and submit the Phase 1A proposal after the solicitation opens. For this you will have to use the NASA NSPIRES system, and it can take several weeks to get everything up and running... be sure to leave yourself time! This isn't fun and probably deserves its own article. I have one good tip to give you: when setting up your personal NSPIRES account you don't need to enter a cage code for an associated organization, you can actually skip that whole page - not obvious at all. You can set up your organization later. Only organizations can submit, but you can be a sole proprietorship which you set up just for this.
If invited to submit a 1B proposal, you need to expand your white paper to 8 pages long, include a cost proposal, and mention a little more about the approach and management of your proposal. This 1B paper will be getting reviewed by a panel of experts, you want to make sure you are writing for a technical audience and anticipate / address the objections they are likely to have. It may be best to "red team" this with your friends so you can identify the objections that may be raised and mention them in your paper.
A note about the Overview Chart: This is really important in Phase 1A, for two reasons. The first is that you should use the same overview chart later for your Phase 1B. The second reason is that you don't include any management information in the 1A paper - the overview chart, in the "technical approach" section, should say what you will be doing for your study. Later, you'll have to write about this in your 1B paper, but you have to think ahead enough to make this chart speak to that approach during the 1A process without the paper to back it up (basically, you simply won't have room to properly explain your approach in the 1A paper). NASA does provide an example overview chart with the solicitation documents.
That it! If you can pull off step 1-5, the review committee will either approve your proposal and you will get the Phase I NIAC award, or they will reject it. If they reject it, they are required to provide you with specific reasons and technical feedback on why they rejected it. Often, proposals rejected come back the next year, in much better shape having gone through the experience and improved.
Ariel Waldman's overview of how to apply to NIAC: https://niacfellows.org/apply/
Ariel's criteria page, including elimination criteria for 1A: https://niacfellows.org/criteria/
Planetary Radio episode about NIAC: https://www.planetary.org/multimedia/planetary-radio/show/2019/1016-2019-niac-symposium-leonov.html
NASA's NIAC "How to Apply" page: https://www.nasa.gov/content/apply-to-niac
2020 NIAC Recipients: https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-selects-early-stage-technology-concepts-for-new-continued-study
NASA's TRL Overview: https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/heo/scan/engineering/technology/txt_accordion1.html