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How will your imagination help you become an explorer?
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How will your imagination help you become an explorer?

Subject Matter Expert: Sharon Garrison

“It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and reality of tomorrow.”
Robert Goddard (considered to be America’s ‘father of rocketry’)

Imagine yourself traveling on a spacecraft just like those in Star Trek or Star Wars. Impossible? It depends on whom you ask. It was less than 66 years between the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight and Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. Impossible some might have said. But true. Impossible things can become quite possible, especially for NASA and the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC).

NIAC looks for ideas that are “revolutionary, not evolutionary.” According to NIAC, revolutionary ideas are breakthroughs that inspire others. They look for the kind of thinking that breaks old molds. Creative thinkers and researchers are challenged to stretch their imaginations. Their ideas don’t fit into today’s needs. NIAC wants ideas that WILL be used 10 to 40 years in the future. Their slogan, “Don’t Let Your Preoccupation With Reality Stifle Your Imagination,” sets the stage for their work.

The list of ideas generated for NIAC causes you to wonder. Science fiction? No, someday science fact. Imagine traveling by space elevator one day. How will it work? Kind of like an electromagnetic vehicle. It will travel into space and back to Earth while attached to a cable that is several thousand kilometers/miles long. We expect that a safe and economical space elevator would place objects in orbit at a fraction of the current cost. New technology must be perfected to create the cable and electromagnetic propulsion system. But the idea is sound. It’s been around since 1895, suggested by scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke wrote about it too, in 1978. Where there are ideas, there can be creations.

Think about new robots for future space exploration. “Microbots” are being considered as a way to study planets such as Mars. These robots would be microscopic (a few millimeters to centimeters). They could fly in groups, hundreds or thousands covering a wide area of the planet while hopping, bouncing, and flying, they could analyze materials on the surface of a planet as well as in the atmosphere.

Need a place to stay as you travel between the Earth, moon, and Mars? A solar-electric-propelled spacecraft called an Astrotel (short for “astronaut hotel”) may be just what you need. Designed as a “safe and affordable” way to transport astronauts, the Astrotels could send supplies to astronauts already on the moon and Mars. Constantly orbiting between these locations, astronaut crews and supplies could be refreshed every few months.

Living and working in space is challenging. Outside the spacecraft, astronauts depend upon their space suits to hold in air needed for breathing as well as pressure to keep them alive in the near vacuum of space. Current space suits are bulky and awkward. What might be created to replace them? A Bio-Suit System is being studied. Like a “space leotard,” this new type of suit may be a “spray-on” material. It could even make you stronger and contain artificial muscle fibers to enhance human strength. Astronauts would still wear a sealed helmet, gloves, boots, and a hard shell around the torso for extra protection for the vital organs.

Where will you live once you’ve landed on the moon and Mars? One thought is to use a transparent “bubble” chamber for a temporary home. These “bubbles” could be constructed inside caves or similar locations on the surface. Offering protection to the astronauts and a place to grow plants, the bubbles would not harm the environment.

Does all this information sound like science fiction? Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” NIAC is looking for people with BOTH imagination and knowledge. They need creative thinkers – men and women and people of all ages and backgrounds. In fact, the principal investigators for the Bio-Suit and the Cave Bubble are women.

You may someday be one of those dreamers, helping to change science fiction into science fact. NASA has big dreams for future space exploration and maybe one day you will be a 21st Century Explorer.


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The following National Education Standards are addressed in this educational package.

Science (NSTA/NRC)
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