Washington, D.C., November 27, 2006 The Space Exploration Alliance, the Space Frontier Foundation, and the X Prize Foundation have come together to call on Congress to support and expand Centennial Challenges, NASA's space prize program.
Created with an appropriation of just under $10 million in FY2005, Centennial Challenges is currently returning highly leveraged and efficient research, development, and engineering benefits to NASA at extremely low costs and stands ready to accomplish even loftier goals if given additional funding. Unfortunately, although the House of Representatives voted to support the program in 2007, such funding was zeroed out in the 2007 Senate appropriations bill for NASA. If the program is to be restored to full funding, it must happen during Congressional conference deliberations in the final phase of the budget process.
"We call on the appropriations conferees to support full funding for the Centennial Challenge program in 2007," said George Whitesides, Executive Director of the National Space Society.
"This modest program deserves to be saved because it leverages the innovation of America's entrepreneurs to solve our space program's toughest technical challenges at low cost."
Centennial Challenges, NASA's first foray into prizes, is built on a tradition of prizes going back hundreds of years. Large cash prizes have successfully stimulated transformative breakthroughs in fields from navigation to chemical engineering to aviation. Recently, the awarding of the successful and popular $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 marked the peak of an eight-year program resulting in significant private investment, global attention, and the creation of a burgeoning new industry. The Department of Defense's Grand Challenges robotics prize, a $2 million program for autonomous vehicles, generated approximately $150 million in development, according to many sources.
"NASA has repeatedly stated that it cannot accomplish its Vision for Space Exploration without innovations from the private sector," said Jeff Krukin, Executive Director of the Space Frontier Foundation. "Why derail a NASA program that stimulates the very entrepreneurial development that NASA has said it requires?"
Using the FY2005 appropriation, NASA is currently funding seven prizes, most of which carry annual purses well under $1 million. Leveraging other organizations and companies, administer the prizes using their own funds, these seven prizes have already attracted extensive worldwide media coverage and have encouraged teams to spend millions of dollars of private research money far more than the prize purses themselves to pursue these areas of research needed by NASA. The first year of the Northrop Grumman sponsored Lunar Lander Challenge generated flights that set world records for robustness and reusability of rocket engines all before the agency awarded a single dollar on the program.
"Contests like the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge not only speed new technologies, they create a sense of competition and excitement, while inspiring a new generation of science, math, and engineering students," said Peter H. Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation. "We're seeing partnerships between NASA, non-profits, traditional aerospace companies, and the leanest and most entrepreneurial of start ups and it's all being covered in major media outlets worldwide. NASA can't buy that kind of positive publicity."
The program's funding difficulties have largely resulted from the unique nature of prize appropriations. Traditionally, it has been hard for Congress to deal with money that is not spent on an annual basis, especially when other programs may appear to be short on funds. Yet, this is the key to prizes. Knowing that the purse is waiting and fully funded allows competitors to raise the resources needed and creates momentum over time until one person or team succeeds in winning. For example, in the first year of the DARPA Grand Challenge, no teams were able to complete the required course. Yet, one year later, several teams did so, led by Stanford University, who took home $2 million.
"Congress, and in particular the Senate, needs to understand how prizes work," said Rick Tumlinson, founder of the Space Frontier Foundation. "They see the money sitting there unspent and it makes them salivate. But with a prize, just because it hasn't been won yet doesn't mean it has failed. Quite the opposite."
Added Whitesides: "Take the current challenges for example, because the money is there already, waiting to be won, teams are working all across America right now, from universities and high school labs to commercial firms and even private individuals, each developing new concepts from beamed power to lunar landers to new types of aircraft all of them striving to cross the line first."
The Centennial Challenges budget currently represents well under one percent of NASA's budget in fact, it only makes up about one-twentieth of a percent. With that minimal expenditure, NASA is already driving innovation, attracting new ideas and new investors to the industry, and inspiring students across the country. However, studies have shown that larger value, higher visibility prizes could have an even greater effect. Thus many supporters are calling not just to save the challenges, but to increase them.
"The Centennial Challenges funding shouldn't just be restored, it should be significantly increased. $30M per year would be a reasonable annual budget," concluded Tumlinson. "Dollar for dollar, they are the absolute best investment NASA is making in our future in space right now."