By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 5/3/2007 10:04:31 PM ET 2007-05-04T02:04:31

NASA's multimillion-dollar Centennial Challenges program, aimed at furthering the technologies that will be needed for the space effort's decade-long push to the moon and beyond, has produced its first winner.

Maine engineer Peter Homer on Thursday won the $200,000 top prize in the Astronaut Glove Challenge, one of seven contests supported by the space agency and its partners, the chief organizer of the contest told MSNBC.com.

Three teams vied in the two-day competition, which was conducted at the New England Air Museum at Bradley International Airport, said Alan Hayes of Maryland-based Volanz Aerospace. The nonprofit educational organization contracted with NASA to run the first-ever astronaut glove contest.

Hayes said he was thrilled to have a role in the Centennial Challenges' first prize-winning performance. "I'm very excited," he said. "It was an excellent competition."

Ken Davidian, NASA's program manager for the Centennial Challenges, was also excited about Homer's victory. "We've done it — we've actually given away money," he told MSNBC.com. "This sends a good signal that productive work is being done out there."

NASA established the Centennial Challenges in the wake of the Wright brothers' centennial of flight in 2003, drawing upon the examples of the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight and the $2 million DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous ground vehicles.

Building a better space glove was first suggested as a potential challenge by engineer-blogger Rand Simberg, and NASA picked up the gauntlet in hopes of stimulating the development of sturdier and more flexible gloves for future spacewalkers.

The gloves currently in use, which are reinforced for the rigors of space, take much more effort to flex than your garden-variety work gloves. In fact, spacewalkers often complain about aches, blisters and damaged fingernails after working with the gloves during the hours-long construction jobs at the international space station.

Better than NASA?
To win this week's contest, Homer's glove design had to perform better than NASA's baseline astronaut glove as well as the other two competitors. The gloves were tested by measuring how much torque it took to move the fingers, performing a series of real-world dexterity tasks inside a glovebox, and inflating the pressurized glove bladders until they burst.

In addition to Homer, teams from New York and Cape Canaveral, Fla., took part in this week's contest, said Hayes, Volanz's chief executive officer. The contest's commercial sponsors include ILC Dover as well as Hamilton Sundstrand, NASA's prime contractor for the current spacesuit.

Slideshow: Cosmic Sightings: From Earth to stars Hayes said Homer spent 10 years as an aerospace design engineer and another decade as a sales manager for such firms as Netscape, America Online and Sun Microsystems. Homer was executive director of the Harbor House Community Service Center in Southwest Harbor, Maine, until February but is currently unemployed, Hayes said.

"I have a feeling that won't last long," Hayes said.

In a statement issued by Volanz Aerospace after the contest, Homer said he spent many months building his glove prototype, using materials bought locally as well as via online auction sites.

"I wanted to do this to show my kids that they can do anything they set their minds on," Homer said. "When I started, I didn't know anything about making a glove. I had to learn that, and also design and make my own test equipment, metal parts and do my own fabrication. It was a great learning experience along the way."

Following the money
Hayes said NASA would give Homer his $200,000 award at a ceremony yet to be scheduled. A $50,000 prize, which was offered for a separate mechanical glove joint demonstration, went unwon this year.

"Nobody applied for that competition," Hayes said. "That money will be rolled over to next year."

He said the main glove competition would be rerun next year as well, with a higher bar to beat and a larger prize. The total purse will be raised from this year's $250,000 to $400,000, Hayes said.

NASA's Davidian said the spacesuit experts attending this week's contest thought Homer's glove "had some really good design elements in terms of finger dexterity and joint technology." It may take a long time for the innovations to be incorporated into spaceworthy gloves, but Davidian said the experts do want to follow up nevertheless.

"They're very interested in what they saw, and they're trying to think of ways to dialogue with the teams more," Davidian said.

More to come
Another $250,000 NASA Centennial Challenge is due to be run on May 12, when teams will bring robotic systems to Santa Maria, Calif., for a competition that involves excavating simulated moon dirt.

Two other NASA-backed competitions, aimed at fostering technologies that could be used for power-beaming systems and perhaps eventually for space elevators, were conducted in 2005 and 2006. So far, no one has won any money in those two contests, known as the Beam Power Challenge and the Tether Challenge, but the contests are to be staged again this fall.

Last October, Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace came close to winning a prize in the $2 million Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. Armadillo was the only entrant in a rocket-powered race that simulating the conditions future lunar landers might face, but the team couldn't complete the final leg of the specified flight pattern. The challenge will be repeated this October at the X Prize Cup in New Mexico.

Other contests yet to be run include the Personal Air Vehicle Challenge and the Moon Regolith Oxygen Challenge. Details on all the challenges are available via the NASA program's Web site.

The space agency is offering prize money for the challenges from a $10 million appropriation that was made in the 2005 fiscal year. NASA had hoped to expand the program to provide even richer purses for feats such as sending a privately developed spacecraft to the moon, but the additional funds were left out of NASA's budget. Late last year, the program was restructured to ensure that the current set of competitions could offer prizes until the 2010-2011 time frame.

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