MADMEN1.JPGFor 25 years, Ross Hoffman has had a vision: to use tiny changes in the environment to alter the paths of hurricanes, slow down snow storms and turn dark days bright.For most of those years, Hoffman kept his ideas largely to himself. His adviser at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told him weather control was too outlandish for his Ph.D. thesis. The chances of a buttoned-down foundation or government agency funding such research were so slim, Hoffman didn't even bother to ask.But, in 2001, all that changed. Hoffman stumbled upon a tiny, obscure cranny of the American space program -- the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, or NIAC. In this $4 million-a-year agency, Hoffman found a place where the wildest of ideas were not only tolerated, they were welcome.Shape-shifting space suits? Step right up. Antimatter-powered probes to Alpha Centauri? No problem. Robotic armada to destroy incoming asteroids? Pal, just sign on the dotted line. Weather control seemed downright down to earth in comparison.Hoffman is now wrapping up his half-million-dollar study for NIAC. But the agency is continuing to bankroll concepts for a future decades away.Some space analysts wonder how long it can last, however. With NASA in turmoil, and a presidential directive to return to the moon, will a science fiction-oriented agency like NIAC survive?My Wired News article has details.THERE'S MORE: LL points out that a related program, NASA's Breakthrough Propulsion Project, has been axed by the agency."One wonders," LL writes, "if the federal government does not fund this kind of research, and public corporations are eliminating most of the basic research expenditures, what would happen to the scientific leadership of this country?"AND MORE: "The leadership in basic science has already been ceded in certain areas," says Defense Tech dad Tom Shachtman. "High-energy particle research has gone to Switzerland because we wouldn't fund the supercollider; cutting-edge stem-cell research is now being done primarily in other countries because it has been impeded here for political/moral reasons. Congress, and in some instances the Executive Branch, have become unwilling to recommend for funding a lot of research that is too far out, or that appears to not be cost-efficient in terms of yielding near-immediate practical results. That is the very definition of short-sightedness."AND MORE: NIAC is a lot more relevant than you think, Hoffman says. Take the all the studies "that relate to the sustained exploration of Mars," for instance.One NIAC-funded researcher looked at where to live on Mars, and decided caves were the best place. Another studied a plant genetic assessment and control system for space environments, since astronauts cannot live by Tang alone. A third looked at what to wear on Mars, and settled on "an astronaut bio-suit system... coupling human and robotic abilities into a hybrid of the two, to the point where the explorer is hardly aware of the boundary between innate human performance and robotic activities," Hoffman explains.Then of course, there's the question of how to get to the Red Planet.That would be tackled, one NIAC thinker suggests, with "small, highly autonomous, solar-electric-propelled space ships, dubbed Astrotels for astronaut hotels. Hyperbolic rendezvous between them and the planetary transport hubs [would use] even smaller, fast-transfer, aeroassist vehicles called Taxis."Obviously.

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