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NIAC Phase I Proposal Process Overview

NASA likes to complicate their explanation of this.

The bottom line is that you are writing a 3-page proposal with the goal of getting an invite to write an 8-page "full" proposal. A NIAC 3-page can be one of the hardest proposals to write, because it has to be creative, persuasive, highly innovative, and it must do all of this while projecting credibility in three pages. You don't get to use your team or capabilities to bolster your credibility.

The technology concept stands on it's own... in a mission context.

You can see the "elimination criteria" that the NIAC office uses to circle-file a good 60% of the proposals they get (listed below). The people who wrote those circle-filed (trashed) proposals didn't read this blog post, and they wrote a proposal which got eliminated for violating one (or more) of the elimination criteria. They didn't get get a serious consideration.

Phase I Elimination Criteria (Thou-Shall-Nots):

  1. Not an aerospace architecture. Fails to sufficiently address national government and commercial benefits related to space or aeronautics.

  2. Unclear or not adequately articulated. It fails to identify or propose to study a specific innovative concept. NIAC does not fund studies that identify a difficult challenge coupled with a plan for a thorough literature search or analysis study of known alternative concepts.

  3. No representative mission. There is insufficient description of a representative mission. The proposal must include a specific representative mission and its architecture in sufficient detail to demonstrate the benefit of the concept.

  4. Previously explored. Does not identify a new factor that substantially differentiates the proposal from prior efforts.

  5. Incremental. Proposes typical next steps or aims at only modest improvement, rather than investigating far-term or high risk “breakthrough” concepts.

  6. Not technically credible. Conflicts with established physics or engineering principles, without acknowledging this and offering a sufficiently plausible defense.

  7. Not programmatically credible. There is no reasonable path to implementation, without acknowledging the barriers (e.g., requiring unrealistic budgets or policy changes) and offering a sufficiently plausible approach.

  8. Too narrowly focused. There is insufficient evidence of incorporation into a reference mission. While some focused work may be appropriate to establish the credibility of the underlying technology, a NIAC study must also include a detailed mission analysis.

  9. Develops pre-mission tools or processes. Focus is on the development of tools or processes in the early stages of mission development to improve design, decision-making, or algorithm development without sufficient incorporation into a representative mission.

Although the elimination criteria can leave you dead in the water if you violate them, a proposal do not they write. You should write your rough draft as if it is a piece of creative writing, describing a mission context that leverages your technology. Be fearless when you write this. See our How to Write NIAC Three-Page Proposals article. After you write this, apply the elimination criteria to yourself. You shouldn't spend more than 2 days on polishing your junk draft before you send it to the NIAC office for feedback -- they are intimately aware of the elimination criteria. If they think you will be eliminated, they will tell you there is a problem, and what the problem is.

Once the solicitation opens, you can take some time to read through it (and the "parent" solicitation; the NASA Space Tech REDDI NRA [Nasa Research Announcement]), just to get an idea of how this all works. You'll notice there is a "Compliance Table" (image below) which provides an at-a-glance list of the "evaluation criteria" that you will be judged on. This is pretty handy (for both you and your reviewers), but it changes a little bit each year. There isn't much point in reading last year's solicitations, but it can help if you are trying to stay ahead of things. It isn't important that you understand everything in these documents. NIAC Phase I studies are actually pretty simple on the paperwork end. The real thing to keep in mind is where you are going. You already did your draft and got some feedback. Now you are going to create a polished 3-page that is 1/3 sci fi, 1/3 technical, and 1/3 gamesmanship.

Yes, gamesmanship. You are competing against 250+ other proposals. 12 will get selected. This is a game. Your innovative idea needs to be sexy, it needs to stand out, and it needs sizzle. You should be thinking about what you love about this concept, and what you want to elaborate on in your 8-page proposal later. Sometimes it helps to keep notes about that for future reference. Whatever you do though, don't write the 8-page first. It'll feel clunky and forced, not sexy.

NASA uses an online system called NSPIRES to do all of their solicitations. It's actually a great system when you get to know it. Don't be afraid of it. It isn't that hard to get set up in. However, it is a hurdle. You should start setting it up as soon as possible. It's fine to wait until the solicitation opens though, so you can focus on discussing your concept with the NIAC office before their blackout period starts (a good rule of thumb is to assume that they can't help you after June 1st).

When invitations for Step B are issued, you'll get a notification email from NSPIRES telling you that something has happened. When you log in and pull up the proposal, the status will either be INVITED or DECLINED. There will also be a letter attached to this notification, but sometimes it doesn't post right away. You can see an example of an INVITED letter and a DECLINED letter below.

Now, if you get invited, you've got five more pages to write. My guess is you'll accidentally write ten more. Also, don't forget, those five extra pages you get to write include your work plan, challenges that your concept could face, and competing approaches that may exist or that you can imagine. It's probably best to start with the work plan, so as you flesh out everything else, you can try to support that. I would avoid using Gantt charts in your 8-pages; do a text-only work plan. You can add a timeline chart later in the budget justification pages.

The Step B 8-page proposal has other requirements as well. Now you need an "Overview Chart" and a copy of that Compliance Table right in your proposal document. You also need to create biographical sketches for each team member, build a table of contents, and create a budget.

The budget probably deserves it's own blog post, so I'll stop here for now. Luckily, the budget isn't counted in your page count. I usually do a one-page budget table and then two pages of narrative that ends in a simple Gantt chart called "Study Timeline" or similar. The reason for this is to provide a referenceable timeline to satisfy the evaluation criteria for "Technical Approach" (4.C. above).

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