“The challenges have helped build a pool of potential competitors for procurements down the road,” says Cooper. But there is no guarantee. LaserMotive received some NASA study contracts after winning the Power Beaming Challenge, only to see the agency's interest in laser propulsion wane (see page 54).
Typically, Cooper says, NASA will run a challenge “till someone wins, or until it looks unlikely to be won in any reasonable timescale.” The $2 million Power Beaming Challenge, to demonstrate wireless power transmission to a space-elevator “climber,” was staged four times between 2005 and 2009, when LaserMotive won the $900,000 second-level prize for powering a climber up a 1-km cable with a laser.
“The winner did not get the top prize, but they came so close it was not worth repeating the competition just to give the money away,” he says—a decision that disappointed LaserMotive. The companion Strong Tether Challenge to demonstrate materials for space-elevator cables never produced a winner.
There have been challenges that have proved too hard, such as MoonROx, says Cooper, “but we have never had one that was too easy.” Even though Green Flight was won the first time, “when we put the rules together, we thought no one would win it for years. But two teams came close to doubling the requirement.”
Following a successful competition can be a challenge in itself. “Thrilled” with the results of Green Flight, for which he drafted the first rules, NASA Langley engineer Mark Moore came up with the idea for a university-focused “eVSTOL” prize for a sub-scale electric-powered vertical/short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft. But the Centennial Challenges program decided not to fund it.
The CAFE Foundation, meanwhile, has had a “tremendous response” to its proposal to follow Green Flight with not one, but five challenges, to be run over five years with a prize purse totalling $13.5 million, says President Brien Seeley. The CAFE Green Flight Challenge Program would culminate in demonstration of a quiet, fast, autonomous “sky taxi.”
Challenges are becoming part of the way NASA operates. “Centennial Challenges is our flagship program, but we have experience with other prize types—not just big technology demonstrations where teams bring hardware and compete with others,” says Jennifer Gustetic, NASA program executive for challenges and competitions.
Individual NASA programs can fund prizes, and the volume of challenges is growing. “It's another tool in their toolkit” to solve problems, she says.
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