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updated 6/23/2004 10:33:20 PM ET 2004-06-24T02:33:20

NASA will soon go where it has never gone before, offering cash prizes for space exploration achievements. The first prizes, modest in monetary terms, could be announced later this year, SPACE.com has learned.

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In the wake of SpaceShipOne's historic suborbital flight Monday, NASA officials reiterated the federally funded space agency's recently announced plans to offer awards for commercial spaceflight milestones.

The idea was first announced by NASA earlier this month. The agency has created a Centennial Challenges office to manage the prizes. An initial list of 129 possible challenges was winnowed to 15, but NASA had not said what they are.

The prizes might range up to $30 million for the attainment of goals such as a soft lunar landing or bringing back a piece of an asteroid, according to Brant Sponberg, Centennial Challenges program manager.

The first prizes, offering no more than $250,000, might be announced by the end of the year, Sponberg said in a telephone interview today.

"Our intent is to get at least one and possibly several announced this year," he said.

Morale boost
On Monday, the SpaceShipOne craft designed and built by Burt Rutan climbed to the edge of the atmosphere. Civilian pilot Mike Melvill became an astronaut when his ship reached 62 miles (100 kilometers) altitude.

"What we're looking for is innovation like what Burt Rutan brought to the table," Michael Lembeck, director of the Requirements Division Office of NASA's Exploration Systems, told Reuters after the flight.

Separately, U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) proposed last week at a Centennial Challenges workshop that a prize of some $200 million dollars be offered for the first private, piloted mission to orbit Earth. Brownback is chairman of the Senate Commerce science, technology and space subcommittee.

Reports that NASA was weighing this $200 million figure were inaccurate.

"NASA is certainly considering many types of prizes to kick off the Centennial Challenges program," Lembeck told SPACE.com this morning, "but we haven't actually kicked around real dollar figures as yet, pending authorization from Congress."

The model
The prize-winning ideas sound a lot like the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million offer to the first privately funded team that can send a vehicle into suborbital flight with three passengers twice in two weeks. Rutan is the odds-on favorite to capture the X Prize and is likely to make an attempt before summer's end.

Such prizes would barely cover the costs of innovation. Rutan's SpaceShipOne was financed by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. Nobody knows how much Allen contributed, but he has suggested that it was at least $20 million.

Rutan and the roughly two dozen other teams competing for the Ansari X Prize have their eyes on longer-term goals of carrying commercial payloads or tourists into space. Monday's flight was a major step toward the X Prize goal.

"It provides a good validation that we're onto something here," Sponberg said.

The idea of NASA offering prize money for private accomplishments would be a significant break from agency history. But it is in line with recent recommendations made by a White House commission charged with figuring out how NASA will achieve President Bush's vision of putting humans back on the Moon and then on Mars.

Some of NASA's roughly $16.2 billion annual budget should be earmarked for privatizing space, the report concluded, suggesting even that Congress consider prize money for commercial spaceflight milestones.

For now, NASA only has authority to offer up to $250,000 in prize money. Congress would have to approve higher purses.

"Starting next year, we hope to have legislative authority to award purses above this level," Sponberg said earlier this month. NASA is asking Congress for $20 million for the program for 2005. If that budget is approved late this year, Sponberg said the first big-money prize could be announced early next year.

One idea would be to encourage development of an inexpensive cargo ship for ferrying supplies to the Moon. Given current NASA technology, such a mission would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Could someone do it cheaply?" Sponberg wonders. "If so, it might be something we would use here at NASA."

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