The Obama administration wants to expand a NASA initiative that awards cash prizes to nongovernment teams that solve mission-critical problems, marking another step to increase collaboration with the private sector on space activities.
NASA announced on Tuesday three so-called centennial challenges, contests the space agency hopes will accelerate innovations in satellite launch technology, energy storage and robotics. The contests are funded by an allocation in NASA's fiscal 2005 budget, which has disbursed about $4 million a year in prize money. In his fiscal 2011 budget, President Obama requested to more than double the amount of money for centennial awards to $10 million annually through 2015, NASA officials disclosed this week.
One of NASA's prizes this year is a $2 million award for the winner of a competition to send a small satellite into orbit twice in one week. The goal of the challenge is to spark commercial interest in developing minisatellite launch services, NASA officials said.
The prizes "will be part of the office of the chief technologist now," said Andrew J. Petro, a program executive in NASA's innovative partnerships program office who oversees the centennial challenges. "That will be beneficial because it's now part of a larger technology effort within NASA."
Petro said the big increase in contest funding "reflects the interest that the new administration has in doing these things," and the larger prize purse "will allow us to expand what we're doing."
Obama unveiled on June 28 a space policy that partly relies on the private sector to supply work previously performed by NASA personnel such as transporting crew and cargo to and from the International Space Station.
The guidance also highlights contests as a mechanism for energizing industry to advance the development of satellite manufacturing, services and launches. It directs space-related agencies to "cultivate increased technological innovation and entrepreneurship in the commercial space sector through the use of incentives such as prizes and competitions."
The policy is not the only White House effort plugging contests to find solutions to national problems. The Office of Management and Budget in March published a legal framework that sanctions and promotes the use of cash incentives to entice the public to submit ideas for solving the government's problems. The guidelines grew out of a December 2009 presidential memo that instructed agencies to use technology to be more collaborative with businesses and the public, more transparent with citizens and more democratic in policymaking.
The March memo cites NASA's centennial challenges as a model that other agencies can follow, stating the awards "have triggered an outpouring of creative solutions from students, citizen inventors and entrepreneurial firms for technologies such as lunar landers, space elevators, fuel-efficient aircraft and astronaut gloves."
One of the other challenges NASA announced on Tuesday is a $1.5 million contest to build a solar-powered vehicle that can operate in darkness by tapping into stored energy. The purpose of the challenge is to spur innovation in the energy storage market for use in extreme space or electric cars on Earth. The third challenge is a $1.5 million competition to construct a robot that can find and retrieve rock samples from a wide area without human help. The goal is to stimulate advances in automatic navigation and robotic manipulation.
Petro said NASA is interested in partnering with other agencies on contests that would result in mutually beneficial inventions such as a joint challenge with the Energy Department to produce energy-efficient fuel cells, or with the Federal Aviation Administration to enhance launch technology.
"NASA sponsors prize competitions because the agency believes student teams, private companies of all sizes and citizen-inventors can provide creative solutions to problems of interest to NASA and the nation," NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun said in a statement.