NASA Offers Prize to Private Innovators

The Bush administration has released its proposed budget for NASA.

It reflects the new policy that the president announced a couple weeks ago, and Keith Cowing, of NASA Watch, has spared us from having to plow through the turgid document ourselves, and interpreted it in that context.

As Keith points out, the budget increases for the first few years are modest, but they are real, and NASA, having been now told that the shuttle will no longer be available a decade from now, can truly focus on new things with the funding available. The agency budget will slowly grow to almost $20 billion dollars by the end of a second Bush term (should that occur), but given the dramatic growth of the federal budget in this administration, it will remain less than its historical one percent of the total, which this year will exceed two trillion dollars.

However, there's one little item in the budget also mentioned in Keith's report that, while tiny, may be a portent of huge things to come. The budget of the new Office of Exploration is about a billion dollars (less than 10 percent of the total NASA budget), and buried deep within it is a $20 million line item called "Centennial Challenges."

According to the description, the purpose of this is "to establish a series of annual prizes for revolutionary, breakthrough accomplishments that advance exploration of the solar system and beyond and other NASA goals...By making awards based on actual achievements instead of proposals, NASA will tap innovators in academia, industry, and the public who do not normally work on NASA issues. Centennial Challenges will be modeled on past successes, including 19th century navigation prizes, early 20th century aviation prizes, and more recent prizes offered by the U.S. government and private sector."

The latter reference is to a prize offered by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for the first autonomous robotic vehicle to navigate itself across the desert from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, in a race to be held next month. It's for a million-dollar purse.

As this article points out, the prize may not be won this year, but even if not, the teams will learn a great deal from the experience, and be ready to try again next year (the program is currently funded at least through 2007).

Why did DARPA do it?

DARPA was convinced that good ideas existed for overcoming some of the problems plaguing vehicles that drive themselves. But officials also suspect that they aren't hearing all those ideas because some people are unable or unwilling to run the bureaucratic paperwork gauntlet necessary to secure a DARPA contract.

"Who's out there in their garages, their bedrooms, in their labs, working on this?" Negron said. "We want to know." The race might appeal to some people who simply want to show what they can do, without all the red tape.

It's also a reference to the X-Prize, which may be won this year (and if not, it won't be won at all, because the prize expires on Dec. 31.) This, a private prize, has spurred several teams to attempt to build vehicles that can take people out of the atmosphere, and repeat the effort within two weeks, proving out the concept of a reusable spaceship.

Both prizes are modeled on something else obliquely referred to in the Office of Exploration document ("...early 20th century aviation prizes...")--the Orteig Prize, which Charles Lindbergh won in his solo flight across the Atlantic over six decades ago, and both take advantage of the efficiency (at least to the prize offerer) and leverage provided by such prizes. For the DARPA prize:'s not a race likely to be won on the cheap. Whittaker estimates it will cost about $5 million to win the $1 million prize.

The Orteig prize similarly generated many times its value in net resources poured into the goal, and Burt Rutan's X-Prize attempt alone has reportedly already cost more than the $10 million dollars on offer. More importantly, unlike many recent NASA programs, it achieved its goal, in a spectacular fashion (a fate to soon be hoped for with the DARPA and X-Prizes as well).

What's the down side? Again, looking at the Office of Exploration document, here's a key phrase: "...from 19th century navigation prizes..."

I'm not sure what they're referring to here, because the most famous navigation prize was the Longitude Act, passed by the British Parliament in 1714 (that is, in the eighteenth, not the nineteenth century). This was a 20,000 pound prize (worth millions in today's currency) for the ability to determine the longitude of a ship at sea.

As related by Dava Sobel in her best-seller Longitude, the prize was won by John Harrison. He invented the spring-powered clock, unaffected by the rolling of the waves as previous pendulum clocks had been, which allowed ship's navigators to know what time it was in England--necessary information to determine their position.

I should have used quotes around the word "won," because as hard as the challenge of achieving the goal itself was, it proved even more difficult to collect the full reward, an endeavor to which he devoted much of the remainder of his life. His thinking turned out to be a little too far "outside the box," and some used this as an excuse to try to deprive him of his rightful dues.

This should be a cautionary tale for modern government prizes as well. Anyone who's ever dealt with Congress knows that it can be most fickle, and ultimately, the greatest barrier to the utility of such prizes may be confidence of the contestants in the ability and willingness of the government to ultimately deliver.

The initiative in the new Office of Exploration budget is small--just two percent of its budget--and perhaps just the proverbial camel's nose under the tent, but that may be just as well. It could prove a useful pilot program to determine whether NASA is truly interested in true innovation, from previously-unknown talents, or instead in continuing to maintain the status quo.

The eyes of the alternative space community will be kept very closely on this prize.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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