NIAC projects are feasibility studies to evaluate the potential of a technology in a mission context. The proposal must show that the technology and mission are plausible and possible.
Any American can apply to NIAC. If you are going solo, you will need to set some things up so NASA knows that you are a "sole proprietor." We'll go over that in a later blog post.
Write a junk draft of your idea in a mission context.
When presenting an innovative technology idea to NIAC, it's crucial not just to explain the technology itself, but to place it within a broader mission context. The mission context is a requirement of the NIAC program, and for your technology to succeed, this needs to be central to your thinking. If the mission occurred to you first, and you developed the technology to solve a key problem, you are already in the right frame of mind. If not, write "mission context" on your bathroom mirror in lipstick or something, because this is the frame of mind you need to get in. When in the lab, garage, neighbor's shed, etc., you can be a technologist, mechanic, or inventor, but when you have Word open, you are a mission planner.
With your mission planner hat on, write out a two-ish page essay. Start with the need for this type of mission and/or science, and then describe your technology solution and your mission. It is best if you treat this like a creative-writing piece, but include parenthetical notes for yourself where sources from the scientific literature should be added later, or where figures should be added.
If you find it hard to get started with this task, you can use Chat GPT to do this. See our blog post on using the Tree of Thoughts approach to craft a persuasive technical note. You should plan on spending a day or two fixing the result. Don't ask chat GPT to include sources. If you want to use Chat GPT as a research buddy, do it in a separate chat window and use this method for that part.
You could also work with a writer on Fiverr (or another gig platform), who you could meet with on a zoom call. Getting your ideas down -- however you choose to do it -- is an important step.
Send the draft of your concept to the NIAC office for feedback.
The next step is to send your junk draft to the NIAC office and ask for feedback prior to the Phase IA solicitation opening. The office can tell you if your idea is great, if it sucks, if they've seen it before, etc., and can give you specific criticism for how to improve. Importantly, they can also tell you if the concept is "out of scope" and simply not right for NIAC.
Note that I'm telling you to write a junk draft and send it to the office before I'm even explaining how the rest of the program works. That's how important this is. If you miss this opportunity and the solicitation opens, you missed your best opportunity for feedback, and it may not matter how the program works, because it will likely be proceeding without you.
When the NIAC Phase IA Solicitation opens, a "blackout period" starts, and the office cannot discuss your idea with you until after the Phase I awards are announced.
It's really good to start this process over winter break, and plan to make your rough draft over spring break. If you don't interface with academia at all, and don't have kids in school, think about what this cadence would look like for you. Final drafts can be crafted and polished in May/June.
Timeline for Financial Year (FY) 2025 Step IA Proposals:
The Phase IA Solicitation is expected come out around June 1st 2024.
The deadline for Phase IA proposals should be around June 26th 2024.
NIAC Key Dates page:
DO NOT TRUST THE KEY DATES PAGE, JUST GET A NOTION OF WHEN SOLICITATIONS WILL OPEN.
Actual proposal deadlines should only be retrieved from NSPIRES (this is a "later" thing). After the solicitation is opened the NIAC office will post a link to it on this page under the "CURRENT AND UPCOMING SOLICITATIONS" section on this page: https://www.nasa.gov/content/apply-to-niac
About Step IA Proposals (NIAC Phase IA)
Step IA Proposals are three pages long and do not include a budget, details on the staff, etc. (no management information is requested). There is zero point in writing a longer proposal and it may actually make your life very difficult. It is harder to write a three-page NIAC than anything else, because you can't hide behind fluff, bullshit, or diagrams like you did in college. Concisely describing your concept in only three pages is hard. This is why kicking-out a stream-of-consciousness junk draft (perhaps two pages) and sending it to the NIAC office is so important. Hand-drawn diagrams (no more than three, maybe four if small) or AI artwork to help explain your technology and your mission concept are encouraged.
If you want to apply to NIAC and you can get over your imposter syndrome, write out a junk draft of your Step IA proposal and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org before you do anything else. Do not let the Solicitation come out before you do this (and don't wait to the last minute). Sometimes you may wish to talk about your idea with the office staff and update your junk draft (towards something that resembles a rough draft) prior to the Solicitation opening. This could take two or three iterations, so it's nice to have time.
The rest of the stuff on this website, and the instructions from NASA (from the NIAC site or NSPIRES), can all be done after the Solicitation opens. Missing the opportunity to discuss your idea with the NIAC office staff is the biggest mistake you can make as a proposer.
If you are a small business who normally survives on SBIRs and found the NIAC Solicitation (after it opened) using an online tool, your chances of success are between 1:1,000 and 1:1,000,000.
If your intern, student, welder, mechanic, barista, etc. came up with an idea which you thought was stupid or not needed, and if that person found this page and sent it to you prior to the solicitation opening, your chances are around 1 in 50. Make sure they are the Principal Investigator because this is the person you want to represent your organization to NIAC, and this is who will benefit from NIAC Fellowship the most.