March 04, 2013
With its budget under pressure and its future under debate, prize challenges and competitions have a unique appeal to NASA. To the financial leverage of paying only for success and the intellectual outreach of looking beyond traditional contractors is added the publicity boost of being seen to encourage innovation.
Not a bad return on a small investment for a space agency struggling to stay in manned spaceflight, and keep its aeronautics research relevant. And NASA's success with challenges is catching the eye of other government agencies.
NASA's flagship is its Centennial Challenges, which since 2005 have ranged from designing an astronaut's glove to flying a lunar lander. “We have done nine challenges, and 24 competitions within those nine,” says Larry Cooper, Centennial Challenges program executive. “We have awarded over $6 million to 15 teams, and had more than 100 teams compete.”
Past events have seen technology breakthroughs, winners of 2011's Green Flight Challenge more than doubling the targeted fuel efficiency and boosting interest in electric aircraft. Others have kick-started new entrants in fields from laser power-beaming to reusable suborbital spaceflight.
Three Centennial Challenges are active. In June, Worcester (Mass.) Polytechnic Institute (WPI) will host the $1.5 million Sample-Return Robot Challenge. First staged in June 2012, when no one won the prize, this contest is for a robot that can locate and retrieve geologic samples from varied terrain without human control.
Also space-related, the $1.5 million Night Rover Challenge is expected to be launched shortly, with the first competition to take place at NASA Glenn Research Center in Ohio early in 2014. The goal is to stimulate innovations in high energy-density storage enabling a Moon rover to operate through the lunar night, but also benefitting terrestrial vehicles and renewable-energy generation systems.
Next is expected to be the $1.5 million Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airspace Operations Challenge (UAS AOC). To be conducted in two stages of increasing difficulty, with the first competition planned for spring 2014, this challenge will tackle the thorny problem of the safe integration of unmanned aircraft into national airspace.