“We take one or two [challenge ideas] a year to senior management,” Cooper says. The Centennial Challenges program has a budget of $5 million a year, which NASA can use to launch a prize then hold for up to 10 years. “That's unique,” he says. “We are not stuck in a 'use it or lose it' situation.”
NASA has learned a few lessons along the way to becoming among the most adept of government agencies at using prize challenges—one or two from its failures.
Cooper cites the MoonROx Challenge, which expired in 2009 with its $1 million purse unclaimed. The goal was to generate oxygen from simulated lunar regolith. “We misjudged the interest, the size of the prize, difficulty of the challenge and its commercial potential, and never got anyone to register.”
NASA now takes “a lot more time up front to understand the lay of the land, to announce potential challenges and gauge the interest, so when we are ready to launch, we have the rules and can start registering contestants immediately,” he says.
NASA has also learned to work with outside organizations to conduct the challenges, as the Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency (CAFE) Foundation did for Green Flight, bringing in Google to sponsor the event, for which NASA offered its biggest aviation prize ever—$1.35 million.
Partnering “saves us money, allows greater flexibility, brings in outside technical experts and broadens the base of support,” Cooper says. Sample-Return Robot, being staged with WPI, lists 14 teams as active, including one from Canada and one from Estonia. Night Rover will be staged with Cleantech Open, a non-profit organization that acts as a business accelerator for “clean technology” entrepreneurs.
NASA received more than 40 responses to its October 2012 RFI on the UAS AOC. “We are evaluating proposals for the management organization and should be underway in the spring,” he says. Partnering comes at a price. One organization that holds its own contests lost interest in hosting the airspace challenge when it realized NASA would only fund the prize purse and there would be no money to support running the competition, unless sponsors could be found.
Cooper cites the Google-backed Green Flight as among the most successful of NASA's recent challenges. “We saw a significant advancement in the state of the art for energy efficiency in that size of aircraft. It captured public interest, the winner was nominated for the 2012 Collier trophy, and there was a commercial follow-on,” he says, with winner Pipistrel planning to produce hybrid- and electric-powered aircraft.
The Astronaut Glove and Lunar Lander challenges, meanwhile, spurred the formation of new businesses. Peter Homer, the Maine-based engineer who won the 2007 and 2009 glove design challenges, formed Flagsuit to develop space-suit gloves and is now a NASA contractor. Masten Space Systems and Armadillo Aerospace, first and second in the 2009 Lunar Lander contest, were selected to provide commercial suborbital launches under NASA's Flight Opportunities program.