NASA Wants to Fund Centennial Challenges at $10 Million Per Year

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Continuing our look at NASA’s proposed 2011 budget, we see that the space agency is proposing to spent $10 million per year through 2015 on its Centennial Challenges program.

In selecting topics for prize competitions, NASA consults widely within and outside of the Federal Government. The $10 million per year FY 2011 request for Centennial Challenges will allow NASA to pursue new and more ambitious prize competitions. Topics for future challenges that are under consideration include revolutionary energy storage systems, solar and other renewable energy technologies, laser communications, demonstrating near-Earth object survey and deflection strategies, innovative approaches to improving the safety and efficiency of aviation systems including Next Generation Aeronautics efforts, closed-loop life support and other resource recycling techniques, and low-cost access to space. Annual funding for Centennial Challenges allows new prizes to be announced, addressing additional technology challenges that can benefit from the innovation of the Citizen inventor.

The Centennial Challenges program seeks innovative solutions to technical problems that can drive
progress in aerospace technology of value to NASA’s missions in space operations, science,
exploration and aeronautics. Beginning in FY 2011, Centennial Challenge activities associated with
the Innovative Partnerships Program are transferred to the Space Technology Program. Centennial
Challenges encourage the participation of independent teams, individual inventors, student groups
and private companies of all sizes in aerospace research and development, and seek to find the
most innovative solutions to technical challenges through competition and cooperation. NASA’s
original seven prize challenges have been successful in encouraging broad participation by innovators across our nation and across generations. Many of these technical challenges also have
direct relevance to national and global needs such as energy and transportation.

Prize programs encourage diverse participation and multiple solution paths. A measure of diversity is
seen in the geographic distribution of participants (from Hawaii to Maine) that reaches far beyond the locales of the NASA Centers and major aerospace industries. The participating teams have included individual inventors, small startup companies, and university students and professors. An example of multiple solution paths was seen in the 2009 Regolith Excavation Challenge. NASA can typically afford one or two working prototypes in a development program but at this Challenge event, over twenty different working prototypes were demonstrated for the NASA technologists. All of these prototypes were developed at no cost to the government. For three years of competitions with dozens of teams investing tens of thousands of hours, NASA spent only $750,000 in prize money.

The return on investment with prizes is exceptionally high as NASA expends no funds unless the
accomplishment is demonstrated. NASA provides only the prize money and the administration of the
competitions is done at no cost to NASA by non-profit allied organizations. For the Lunar Lander
Challenge, twelve private teams spent nearly 70,000 hours and the equivalent of $12 million trying to win $2 million in prize money. Prizes also focus public attention on NASA programs and generate
interest in science and engineering. Live webcasts of Centennial Challenge competitions attract
thousands of viewers across the nation and around the world. The 2009 Power Beaming completion
resulted in over 100 news articles and web features. Prizes also create new businesses and new
partners for NASA. The winner of the 2007 Astronaut Glove Challenge started a new business to
manufacture pressure suit gloves. Armadillo Aerospace began a partnership with NASA related to
the reusable rocket engine that they developed for the Lunar Lander Challenge, and they also sell
the engine commercially.