NASA PROGRAM UPDATE
NASA’s pioneering use of prize competitions and innovation challenges is a dramatic departure from government’s traditional “business as usual.”
The agency’s innovation and technology challenges include prizes that encourage independent teams to race to achieve bold goals — without any upfront government funding. NASA benefits from private sector investments many times greater than the cash value of prizes, and the agency only pays for results.
“NASA prize competitions unlock the extraordinary, sometimes untapped potential of U.S. students, private companies of all sizes and citizen inventors,” said NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “These individuals and teams are providing creative solutions to NASA challenges while fostering new technology, new industries and innovation across the United States.”
NASA has a history of broad and successful experiences with prize challenges. The agency is a leader in government-sponsored competitions that solve problems to benefit the space program and nation. Since 2005, NASA has conducted 20 Centennial Challenges in six areas and awarded $4.5 million to 13 teams. Each challenge is managed by non-profit organizations in partnership with NASA.
In July, NASA announced three new challenges and is seeking non-profit organizations to manage them. The challenges are:
- The Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge is to place a small satellite into Earth orbit, twice in one week, for a prize of $2 million. The goals of this challenge are to stimulate innovations in low-cost launch technology and encourage commercial nano-satellite delivery services.
- The Night Rover Challenge is to demonstrate a solar-powered exploration vehicle that can operate in darkness using its own stored energy. The prize purse is $1.5 million. The objective of this challenge is to stimulate innovations in energy storage technologies for extreme space environments, such as the surface of the moon, or for electric vehicles and renewable energy systems on Earth.
- The Sample Return Robot Challenge is to demonstrate a robot that can locate and retrieve geologic samples from varied terrain without human control. This challenge has a prize purse of $1.5 million. The objective is to encourage innovations in automatic navigation and robotic technologies.
NASA’s Centennial Challenges program has an impressive track record for generating novel solutions from student teams, citizen inventors and entrepreneurial firms outside the traditional aerospace industry. NASA is putting the innovations to work, as the agency recently announced awards to two small aerospace firms for flight testing rocket vehicles based on designs that won prizes in the Lunar Lander Challenge.
NASA’s Green Flight Challenge offers $1.5 million for an aircraft with unprecedented fuel-efficiency. At least 10 teams are preparing to compete next summer in the challenge. Other agency challenges are focused on wireless power transmission and super-strong materials.
In addition to the Centennial Challenges, NASA sponsors innovation challenges, posing problems via the Internet to people around the world. NASA uses open innovation platforms, or crowd sourcing, to take advantage of group power from outside the agency to help solve problems or to bring in new ideas. Current challenges seek innovative solutions to health and medical problems of astronauts living in space, the forecasting of solar storms and exercise equipment for crews aboard the International Space Station. Solutions are submitted in return for prizes or recognition by the space program.
NASA recently inaugurated an employee challenge called NASA@Work. This collaborative problem-solving program will connect the collective knowledge of experts from around the agency using a private Web-based platform. NASA “challenge owners” can post problems for review by internal “solvers.” The solvers who deliver the best innovative ideas will receive a NASA Innovation Award.
The public can learn more about NASA’s Centennial Challenges and other innovation challenges on:
This new online platform empowers the federal government to bring the best ideas and top talent to bear on the nation’s most pressing problems. On this site, entrepreneurs, innovators and citizen solvers can compete for prizes by providing novel solutions to tough problems.