14 July 2004
Announcements - General (Good)
New NASA Program: The Centennial Challenge
Article and Space Future's comments
by G B Leatherwood
by G.B. Leatherwood


In his Space.com article, Senior Science Writer Robert Roy Britt says:

"NASA will soon go where it has never gone before, offering cash prizes for space exploration achievements. The first prizes, modest in monetary terms, could be announced later this year, SPACE.com has learned." (Space.com, June 23, 2004)

Earlier in 2004, NASA announced that it had created a Centennial Challenges office to manage the prizes, which could be up to $250,000 without additional approval from the US Congress. In his interview with Robert Roy Britt, NASA Centennial Challenges program manager Brant Sponberg said, "Prizes might range up to $30 million for the attainment of goals such as a soft lunar landing or bringing back a piece of an asteroid."

The concept is modeled on the early prizes for aeronautical achievements like Charles Lindbergís solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean to capture the Ortieg Prize. According to Sponberg, the idea is to award prizes for accomplishment, not funds for development. As he says, "Itís not funds for something that may never happen as so many other awards have been, but for accomplishing something that has been done." Sean OíKeefe, NASA Administrator said, "I look forward to stimulating competitions and very innovative wins that advance the nationís Vision for Space Exploration."

To kick start the program, NASA held an inaugural workshop at the Hilton Washington on June 15-16, 2004 to gather ideas for Challenges, develop rules for specific Challenges and gauge competitor interest in various potential Challenges, and promote competitor teaming. Brainstorming sessions covered the following areas:

- Aeronautics
- Earth Observation
- Exploration Systems
- Bioastronautics
- Planetary Science
- Astrophysics

Candidate Challenges included:

- Very Low Cost Spacecraft Missions, including micro reentry vehicles, lunar robotic landings, Mars and asteroid microspacecraft missions, and solar sail missions.

- Breakthrough Robotic Capability Competitions, such as a robotic triathlon, telerobotic construction race, robotic insect, rover survivor, and an Antarctic rover traverse.

- Revolutionary Technology Demonstrations, including lunar resource utilization, long-term propellant storage, astronaut glove, precision lander, autonomous drill, battery breakthrough, in situ life detector, extreme environment computer, nanotube tether, and very low cost suborbital launch.

Workshop speakers and panelists included US Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Chair, Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space; Dr. John H. Marburger III, Director, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Edward C. "Pete" Aldridge, Chair, Presidentís Commission on Moon, Mars, and Beyond; and Elon Musk, CEO and CTO, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation. Additional panelists addressed various fundraising sources for potential competitors.

A complete list of the proposed Challenges will be released soon and will be available, with application forms and procedures, on the NASA website, when the administrative details are finalized. By the end of July, Sponberg said in an interview with Space Future, a NASA "Request for Information" (RFI) will go out to all individuals and corporations currently on NASAís procurement list. Anyone interested in receiving this information should go to the Centennial Challenges web site and ask to be included. Based on the response to the RFI, the list of Challenges will be refined. Those selected for publication will go into a NASA "Request for Proposal" (RFP) via the normal procurement process.

In discussing the overall plan of the Challenges program, Sponberg described three levels of interest:

Level One: "Full Up" Space Missions

These will consist of such major efforts as a science demonstration on the Moon; different approaches to human settlement in space, on the Moon and Mars; aero capture of asteroid material; or near Earth asteroid exploration. Such achievements may run into the millions of US dollars, and the prize award, like the Ansari X Prize, will probably not cover the entire cost of the project.

Level Two: Subsystem Technology Demonstrations

Challenges at this level might include robotics of all kinds; Earth analog sample returns, for example, synthetic substitutes for Moon or Mars regolith demonstrating innovative ways to use local materials that do not require combination with materials that must be transported from Earth; specific subsystems such as autonomous drilling machines that can extract samples from depths significantly greater than current robotic vehicles such as the Mars rovers can deliver.

Level Three: Component Technology

These could involve further development and demonstration of nanotube technology; spacesuit gloves to allow more flexibility and sensitivity than current models; and components of larger systems.

In addition to the "hard" Challenges, i.e., those with a tangible result, the Centennial Challenges program will be interested in educational partnerships with colleges, universities, and high schools to increase interest in space programs, develop new ideas for Challenges, and suggest program improvements.

Still to be approved is the budget for the program. Current budget allotments may permit award of prizes up to $250,000 by the end of calendar year 2004, but continuing funds and authorization for larger prizes (possibly up to $30 million) will depend on US Congressional approval. A partnership relationship with private investors is being actively explored as one avenue of funding. "However," Sponberg says, " we will make sure that anyone partnering with us in the funding will not be a competitor for prizes in the same field as the partnership."

While there was no discussion of prizes specifically related to either space tourism or space solar power, many of the proposed challenges could have a direct impact on the development of vehicles, habitats, propulsion systems, and technology needed to implement either or both.

In a separate interview with SF, George Whitesides, Executive Director, National Space Society, said he was pleased with the concept of prizes instead of funds for proposals. "Iím pleased that NASA is taking this step to open up space activities to people and organizations other than the traditional vendors, and making awards based on actual achievements rather than pie-in-the-sky ideas."

Additional information, including recent press releases and solicitation of ideas for subsequent challenges can be found at www.centennialchallenges.nasa.gov.


Comments by Peter Wainwright

A good idea to offer prizes for achievements in space travel, but one that is late in coming to NASA (the Ansari X Prize was announced in 1996). And as it was announced on the heels of Scaled Composites' achievement with SpaceShipOne, the timing is suspicious: now that the X Prize is near completition, NASA offers its own prize, as if NASA wants to put themselves in the center of the picture again.

It makes sense for the U.S. government to offer an aviation prize, but thereís no reason for NASA to be the government branch to offer it. It should be the parts of the government responsible for commerce and trade. Just because this competition deals with space doesnít necessarily make it NASAís province. Scaled Composites has proven this.
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G B Leatherwood 14 July 2004
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