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Brainstorms Build Bridges
Brainstorms Build Bridges

The Keck Institute for Space Studies brings together the expertise of JPL and the Caltech Campus to address high-return concepts for space mission science and technology.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology are collaborating to address the science and technology needs of future space missions. The W.M. Keck Institute for Space Studies, or KISS, brings together study leads from each organization to identify key challenges for missions and instrumentation and then funds the initial technical development research toward breaking those barriers.

The W.M. Keck Foundation awarded an eight-year grant to Caltech in 2008 to develop a “think and do tank” for new planetary, Earth and astrophysics approaches that will impact future space missions. KISS began operations in October, 2008 and is funded at $3 million per year to foster collaborations between Caltech and JPL researchers that will lead to revolutionary space mission concepts and technologies. JPL expects to provide additional discretionary funding, to support its participation in the Institute, through the Research & Technology Development (R&TD) program.

Institute director Tom Prince, who served previously as Chief Scientist at JPL, says the nature of the award is significant. “As far as I know, this represents the first time that a private foundation has invested its money for the benefit of the U.S. space program,” he says. Private funding allows KISS to pursue research that is high-risk, but with correspondingly higher payoffs. “We’re looking for ideas with potentially huge returns, and we’re willing to accept a certain amount of risk for those returns,” says Michele Judd, the Institute’s managing director.

Caltech manages JPL for NASA, but the two Pasadena institutions maintain distinctive personalities and cultures. Both realized there was an enormous underdeveloped potential for collaboration between them.

What grew out of this recognition is an organization that is not just a traditional think tank, in which a diverse group of people comes together for intensive interactions that generate new ideas. The KISS “think and do” charge is to follow up the brainstorming with targeted seed funding of groundbreaking technical work.

KISS awards funding for large, one-year study programs that, with sufficient progress, may lead to two-year technology development follow-up work. In addition, the institute’s short-duration mini-studies allow researchers to quickly target novel concepts and pressing challenges that can serve as incubators for future large studies. Academic programs, including postdoctoral and graduate fellowships, as well as public outreach programs, are also part of the Institute’s ambitious agenda.

Collaboration in KISS studies gives participants leverage in pursuing additional funding sources for their work, as they take with them a vote of confidence by the Institute and funding to immediately begin addressing their technical concerns. Receiving a seed award from KISS makes it easier to apply for larger awards to take their ideas to the next level.

KISS opened its virtual doors in late 2008, and will establish a physical location on the Caltech campus in mid-2009. The space will provide offices for 24 program participants, plus conference and seminar rooms. “It’s important that a KISS program is not just another workshop or symposium,” Prince says. “We want to create the physical environment in which technical discussions take place and bring together people who wouldn’t necessarily talk and work in concert.”

The initial challenge for KISS is to figure out how to enmesh the many institutional cultures, policies and roles of the two organizations. “There are a huge number of different cultures within JPL, and equally many on the Caltech campus, and each culture knows that theirs is the one that everybody should adopt,” jokes Prince. “So part of the challenge is to do the social experiment of merging these different cultures. The Institute is, to some extent, what we choose to make it.”

Contact Information

Tom Prince - Director, W.M. Keck Institute for Space Studies
E-Mail –
Phone – 626.395.6605

Michele Judd, Managing Director
E-Mail -
Phone – 626.395.6630


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