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Image: LunaCorp rover
LunaCorp
For years, LunaCorp has been working on a plan to put a rover on the moon with the aid of commercial sponsorships, as shown in this artist's conception. NASA plans to encourage such privately funded missions by offering prizes for the first team to achieve a specified objective.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 5/7/2004 5:39:42 PM ET 2004-05-07T21:39:42

What happens when worlds collide? NASA will find out next month — not by launching an interplanetary probe, but by inviting aerospace entrepreneurs to help flesh out the agency's plan to reward feats on the final frontier.

The June 15-16 workshop in Washington will focus on drawing up NASA's first batch of "Centennial Challenges" — government-funded competitions that would encourage non-governmental teams to develop technologies vital to NASA's exploration initiative. For example, a better astronaut glove might earn its developers $1 million, while the first team to put a privately funded lander on the moon could win $20 million.

The scheme is modeled after this spring's DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous ground vehicles, and the X Prize for private passenger rockets. Some say the Centennial Challenges are NASA's best hope for recapturing the spirit of the early space effort.

"No dollar spent on space research will yield greater value for the American people than those prizes," Elon Musk, founder of the SpaceX rocket company, said this week in testimony for a Senate committee hearing on space policy.

But not everyone is convinced that the NASA establishment is sincere about following through.

Skepticism and excitement
The prize program's manager, Brant Sponberg, got a foretaste of the skepticism as well as the excitement two weeks ago when he addressed the Space Access '04 conference in Phoenix. The gathering caters to just the kind of people the Centennial Challenges are aimed at encouraging: rocket enthusiasts who are working far from the halls of power, on projects taking shape in hangars, garages or just on drawing boards.

As Sponberg spoke, he was peppered with questions and even a few complaints — so much so that the moderator had to admonish the crowd to settle down. But by the time he was done, he had won applause as well, and was surrounded afterward by a throng of would-be prize competitors.

Not that there's that much to compete for, yet: Because of budgetary limits, the prize amounts are currently limited to $250,000 each, and can be offered for only a two-year term. But NASA is hoping that Congress eventually will authorize bigger amounts with wider horizons. The agency's $16 billion budget request for the next fiscal year would set aside $20 million for the prize program.

June's workshop at the Washington Hilton is aimed at devising the initial bargain-basement challenges, which are to be rolled out during the summer months, as well as the bigger ideas for the years ahead. And when it comes to big ideas, even the sky isn't the limit. Here are some of the challenges on Sponberg's list:

  • Invent a device capable of turning moon rocks and soil into, say, liquid oxygen or fiberglass, with the technology tested on simulated lunar material.
  • Develop a rocket-powered robot that can make precision landings under conditions similar to those on Mars — that is, little or no satellite navigational data or surface imaging. The robot that comes closest to the target wins.
  • Create a remotely operated robot that can build a simulated space habitat in the Arctic or a similarly challenging environment. The prize would go to the first team to finish the construction race. Other possibilities include an Antarctic robot race or a Mars-style robotic "triathlon."
  • Build a spacecraft that can put a 22-pound payload on the moon, or perhaps even bring samples back from an asteroid or one of Mars' moons. Other spacecraft possibilities include small re-entry capsules or solar sails.

Sponberg noted that some of the suggestions duplicate missions being planned by NASA, although the privately funded missions would likely be on a smaller scale with lower scientific objectives. "They might actually beat us on something we want to do. ... I don't mean that in a negative sense — it would be a great competitive spirit," Sponberg said.

He stressed that the Centennial Challenges should not duplicate privately sponsored efforts like the X Prize. "We're not going to do suborbital human access," he said.

But Sponberg noted that X Prize executives have been helping NASA set up the Centennial Challenges program, and said outsiders could be asked to administer prize programs on NASA's behalf.

"To be honest, NASA probably would not have considered this program if some of these private efforts had not been going as well as they've been going," he said.

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Not for every mission
What's the benefit of prizes? Sponberg said they fill a particular niche in technology development. "You want to set up something that's not impossible, but at the same time something where there's no obvious path for getting to the objective," he said.

Offering a prize opens up a technological field to nontraditional players, and get more brainpower devoted to a tough-to-crack problem. "Competitors tend to spend more than the actual value of the prize, which is huge leverage," Sponberg said.

But for now, there are no plans to expand the win-a-prize approach to NASA's mainstream programs, such as space station operations, robotic exploration of Mars or future human missions to the moon.

Some industry observers say more competition — even in those core NASA programs — is just what the space agency needs. For example, Jerry Pournelle, who is well-known as a science-fiction author as well as a technology commentator, suggested that every NASA mission could have a parallel prize feature: "If anybody else could do it first for half the price, they'd get the money."

SpaceX's Musk made a similar suggestion in this week's testimony: "One interesting option might be to parallel every major NASA contract award with a prize valued at one-tenth of the contract amount. If another company achieves all of the contract goals first, they receive the prize and the main contract is canceled. At minimum, it will serve as competitive spur for cost-plus contractors."

Worries about the old NASA
Rick Tumlinson, founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, has long championed giving private enterprise more of a free hand in space exploration. In fact, he believes that NASA should get out of the orbital transportation business and open up the bidding for space travel contracts. However, he worries that the Centennial Challenges could fall victim to old-style NASA-think.

"Every once in a while, NASA will apparently adopt an exciting idea, and they'll send some young, excited person to present it, and they do a great, enthusiastic job of presenting that new and exciting idea," he told MSNBC.com in Phoenix. "And then the people above them or around them, that are more institutionally minded, will eventually kill it off."

If the Centennial Challenge prizes address tasks that are important to NASA's objectives, then any private-sector success could embarrass the internal program going after the same objective, Tumlinson said. "I don't see how those two lines of development can coexist at the same time," he said.

But if the prizes don't address important tasks, what's the point?

"It's a magnificent thought, and is certainly a wonderful psychological shift on the part of some well-meaning people," Tumlinson said. "But I think the system itself might snuff out any real usefulness. I'm not going to predict that, but that's what we have to be careful about. That's what we have to protect the prizes from."

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