Why Fund Challenges?
The reason why NASA funds Centennial Challenges is simple - it makes sense.
That was one of the conclusions in a broader study of government-funded research initiatives in the Federally Funded Innovation Inducement Prizes report (CRS R40677) issued June 29. The report was authored by Deborah D. Stine, a Congressional Research Service science and technology policy specialist.
Centennial Challenges are intended to drive progress in aerospace technology of value to NASA's missions; encourage the participation of independent teams, individual inventors, student groups and private companies of all sizes in aerospace research and development; and find the most innovative solutions to technical challenges through competition and cooperation.
To those ends, NASA officials' expectations have been exceeded in the Centennial Challenge competitions. The competitions have spurred the creation of new businesses and products, including innovations in pressure suit gloves and reusable rocket engines, according to the report.
Individual challenges are either "first-to-demonstrate" competitions, or "repeatable contests" with prizes that range from $300,000 to $2 million. Each challenge is a public and private partnership with co-sponsor organizations that contribute cash toward the prize purse and allied organizations that provide in-kind services to enhance the competition.
As the amount of the prize increases, the degree of participation and level of technical maturity and ingenuity also increase, the report detailed. In past competitions where the prizes were $300,000 each, it is estimated that the 10 to 15 participating teams represented an investment of $50,000 to $100,000 each. In the competition with a $2 million prize, teams invested on the order of $250,000 to $500,000 each.
The return on investment with prizes is high, as NASA expends no funds unless the accomplishment is demonstrated. NASA provides only the prize money and the administration of the competitions is done at no cost to NASA by allied nonprofit organizations. Prizes also focus public attention on NASA programs and generate interest in science and engineering.
NASA is considering future challenges focused on revolutionary energy storage systems, solar and other renewable energy technologies, laser communications, demonstration of near-Earth object survey and deflection strategies, innovative approaches to improving the safety and efficiency of aviation systems, closed-loop life support and other resource recycling techniques, and low-cost access to space.