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Protecting NASA's prizes

Space advocates are banding together to urge Congress to revive funding for NASA’s Centennial Challenges, a program modeled after the $10 million X Prize and designed to encourage the development of technologies needed to go to the moon and beyond. The bad news is that the program is currently budgeted for no new spending, due to congressional inaction. The good news is that NASA has shifted around already-allocated funds to ensure that most of the existing prizes will be available at least until 2010.

This week, the X Prize Foundation and the Space Frontier Foundation as well as the Space Exploration Alliance (which includes the National Space Society) calls for the U.S. Congress to put some more funds into the Centennial Challenges kitty from the 2007 budget, which is currently in legislative limbo.

The House had set aside additional funds for the prize program, but the Senate "zeroed out" the appropriation in its version of the budget. Those two versions still have to be reconciled, and in the meantime, NASA is holding off on setting aside any new money for prizes.

"We're not spending any, because we just don't know," said Ken Davidian, a NASA contractor supporting the Centennial Challenges.

That doesn't mean the prizes for unwon feats, such as the recent Lunar Lander Challenge and the Space Elevator Games, have suddenly gone poof. "Right now we're working with no money, but obviously the competitions that are out there are funded, and there's no problem with them at all," Davidian said.

In fact, NASA has set up a schedule using the $10 million that was appropriated back in fiscal year 2005 to make sure the existing challenges will be in the money until the 2010-2011 time frame. In fact, like the lottery, the purses build up until someone wins. Here's the plan:

  • The Beam Power Challenge as well as the Tether Challenge will continue through 2010 as part of the Space Elevator Games. The potential payout was $200,000 each this year. Another $300,000 will be added to each pot for 2007. Then there'll be another $400,000, then $500,000, then $600,000. If someone wins a challenge - say, next year's $500,000 total for the Tether Challenge - then the pot starts out again with the $400,000, and so on. That's $2 million per competition, for a total of  $4 million.
  • The same sort of math applies to the Astronaut Glove Challenge: The purse will be $250,000 the first year, with $350,000 added to the pot in the second year and $400,000 in the third. Total: $1 million.
  • Ditto for the Personal Air Vehicle Challenge: First $250,000, then $300,000, then $400,000, then $500,000, then $550,000. Total: $2 million.
  • Davidian said $750,000 in all has been set aside for the Regolith Excavation Challenge, and $250,000 for the MoonROx Challenge. Total: $1 million.
  • The Lunar Lander Challenge will stand pat with a $2 million purse.

"We want to make sure that we're going to have competitions going through 2011," Davidian explained. "That way, the public is going to be seeing this, guaranteed. And that will be good, because the Congress will see that activity."

No one has yet won a single Centennial Challenge - and George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, acknowledged that it might be easier to draw on more congressional support if someone had won something. But he said "it's not surprising" that contestants would fall short at the beginning - just as they did during the DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous ground vehicles.

"It generally takes a couple of years," he told me. "Hell, as we know, the X Prize took longer than that."

If NASA had more prize money to offer, the agency could provide incentives for the really ambitious feats required for settling the moon and other space destinations, Whitesides said. For example, there could be prizes for space solar-power satellites, or for micro-spacecraft for bringing small biological experiments down from the space station. You could even fund contests aimed at creating hardhat robots and unmanned aerial vehicles for other planets - two ideas that were proposed but ended up losing out on the money.

"The issue for us is that things are not going in the right direction," Whitesides said. Because of the multiplier effect - the fact that the competing teams tend to spend way more money collectively than the value of the prize - Whitesides and other prize proponents argue that efforts like the Centennial Challenges (or, for that matter, the stalled H-Prize) are the best bargains in research and development.

"If we could get this level of production from the rest of the government, we could probably solve poverty as well as go to Mars," Whitesides said, only half-jokingly.