At the outer limits of the imagination NASA: Go ahead and giggle that futuristic idea man John Mankins has space between his ears. Galileo was once universally dismissed, too.

July 13, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- John Mankins' government career can be traced through the drawings on his office wall: a rocket whizzing from an Earth-based slingshot into outer space, a glittering moon colony, a giant bug-like contraption fueling a spacecraft in interstellar darkness.

Crazy ideas? Not to Mankins. In his job at NASA, he is paid to come up with concepts so far-out they sometimes only get laughed at. Consider him one of NASA's sci-fi guys.

"I try to be reasonably conservative with my ideas," Mankins says, looking as though he hasjust come through a brainstorm, with his rumpled hair and government ID dangling askew. "Nobody believes that."

Later, he adds, "There are people out there who think I'm nuts."

Mankins, 42, is one of the government's roughly two dozen researchers responsible for dreaming up futuristic ideas for human space exploration and development. At best, his eureka moments might shape the next century. At worst, his far-reaching visions could fall into NASA's own black hole, forever ignored. More likely, the outcome will be a little of both.

Day after day, Mankins combines sophisticated scientific theory with fanciful imagination to churn out ideas that look to the outsider like the government version of a "Star Trek" set. "I've stopped reading most science fiction," Mankins sighs. "It's too much like talking shop."

It is lonely work. Recently, Mankins finished a nearly two-year study about outer-space tourism, geared toward persuading families to vacation in lower-Earth orbit instead of, say, in Orlando. The study, set far in the future, caused barely a ripple in the mainstream media. The report opened with the words "carpe diem." Not many in the mainstream did.

Mankins, a physicist who went to NASA 11 years ago after working at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, says obscurity is not always a bad thing.

If his tourism study had stirred splashy publicity, "it would have gotten a lot more criticism from people who didn't believe it could happen," he says. So far, none of Mankins' big ideas -- including his proposal for space theme parks and orbiting hotels -- has been adopted. Still, he believes some will in his career, despite those who doubt.

In this line of work, "the giggle factor" is just part of the job.

"It's sort of a compliment when people call you crazy," says Whitt Brantley, a colleague of Mankins' who directs the advanced systems and technology office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "A lot of people before us have been called that, and they turned out to have good ideas that were later appreciated."

Brantley cites Galileo, who was just about tarred and feathered in the 17th century after arguing that the Earth was not at the center of the universe. A century ago, Nikola Tessla was ridiculed for his work on long-distance power transmission and his proposal that all electrical power be free. The fights go on today, Brantley says, "and it gets downright blood-curdling sometimes."

As for Mankins, he did not take the $101,000-a-year job for controversy -- rather, he finds it the perfect pursuit for a self-described "space cadet" who grew a goatee long before it was considered cool. A California native who has a master's degree in physics from Harvey Mudd College -- a science and engineering school near Los Angeles -- he came of age in Santa Maria, Calif., pressing his nose to the television screen any time there was a rocket launch.

In conversations with non-scientists, Mankins drops the complex aerospace terminology and relies mostly on intergallactic-themed TV shows to describe his line of work. "In 'Star Trek Voyager,' there was an alien race called the Borgs -- this was much bigger than one of the Borg mother ships," Mankins says, talking about an old NASA idea for a space factory. "Did you see 'Babylon 5?' It was much bigger than [the space station] Babylon 5."

Mankins looks everywhere for ideas -- not just in serious scientific tomes. He knows what time and channel all the best space-travel television shows are on, tapes quotes from his favorite German mathematician on his office walls and scribbles brainstorm ideas on an erasable board in purple pen.

Sometimes, inspiration comes from the most unlikely places.

Take the design for his proposed Sun Tower, a series of solar panels that would beam power back to Earth from a spot in outer space. Mankins dreamed it up one afternoon as he stared into a Diaper Genie while his young daughter, Willa, was being changed. There, in the diaper storage unit, he saw the idea -- identical pieces interlocking to form a stack of plastic diaper bags.

"I kept looking at how the inserts were plugged together," he says. "It was a flash."

He realized that the same concept could be used for his tower, which would assemble itself using identical sections meant to interlock after reaching space. Using a similar contraption, he also envisions spacecraft hooking up and refueling at a solar-generated power station in mid-flight.

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