One of the talks given at Space Access last week, by Ken Davidian, was rather informative. Ken’s a contractor working with NASA on running the Centennial Challenges program. Now, I’m kind of biased toward the Centennial Challenges, I work for a company that fully intends to walk away from the X-Prize Cup this year with at least one goofy oversized check from them. But even though most of the rest of the prizes aren’t things we’re directly involved with at the moment, I still think the Centennial Challenges program is one of the most useful and innovative things NASA is doing.
There are currently several Centennial Challenges currently being offered, ranging from space suit gloves, to lunar landers, to space elevators, to lunar regolith movers. And the guys running the program have even bigger plans for the future, including the possibility of a prize for the first company to soft land a robotic lander on the surface of the moon!
But, none of that is going to happen if the funding situation for the Centennial Challenges program doesn’t improve. While the original plan was for them to get a steady stream of funding in the $10-30/year range, that hasn’t panned out, and in fact they haven’t really received any new money for a while.
It turns out that publicly funded prizes are kind of a hard sell compared to normal contracts because it’s not clear which companies in which congressional districts will win the money, so it’s a lot harder for people in Congress to take “ownership” of the program, because it isn’t clear if it will actually benefit their constituents. It’s really easy for a Florida congressperson to be excited about the CEV and CLV, because it will provide a concrete amount of jobs in their districts (even if it is a completely lousy investment for the country as a whole).
Another problem is that the Senate is having a hard time understanding with giving Centennial Challenges more money this year since they haven’t spent all of their money from last year. One of the coolest things about how the Challenges are setup is that it allows them to put a modest amount of money in each year to offer much larger prizes than they could offer if they had to get all the funding for those prizes in a single budget year. But since no money has been claimed yet from any of those prizes, there are some Senators who didn’t want to give them more money.
So the situation as it stands is that the Centennial Challenges has been more or less living off of what it got over a year ago. Fortunately, as soon as they realized that they weren’t getting more money, they put together plans so that all the prizes they had already started would be fully funded. They have money set aside so that they can afford to run competitions and award money for some of the prizes several years in a row. Most of the $12M they currently have is set it aside for prize money payouts, while only using the minimum they can for overhead. One of the creative things they’ve been doing is teaming up with outside groups like the X-Prize Foundation to run the prize competitions, with those companies getting no NASA money to actually operate the prizes. All in all, I think they’re probably one of the best run, highest “tooth-to-tail ratio” entities in NASA.
And they’re still not getting any new money this year…
I’m trying to figure out ways to fix that. While prizes are far from a panacea, they are quite helpful in promoting new commercial development, and typically deliver a lot more bang-for-the-buck than typical prime contracts. I’m hoping that with this year’s X-Prize Cup, and the several challenges being run between now and then, that we’ll see a lot more positive attention being focused on this program. If the Lunar Lander Challenge contest this year at the X-Prize cup ends up being anywhere near as exciting as it looks like it will be, and especially if NASA leaves that contest with several pounds less of goofy oversized checks, that will definitely help.
But I can’t help wondering if there’s something else that can be done.
One half-baked idea I’ve been noodling is trying to find some way to find a Congressional (and Senatorial) “champion” for the program. As I mentioned above, this will be tricky, since being an inherently low overhead program, there aren’t a lot of fixed government jobs to put in someone’s district. But I wonder if it’s possible. If anyone has an idea for who might be a champion or patron saint for the program, let me know. If there is someone likely to take up that role, we need to make sure they get invited out to the X-Prize Cup or some of the other challenges, so they can see the creativity and innovation that such a small allocation of funding is providing. It’d also be cool to see a congressional hearing about the centennial challenges. Possibly soon after the X-Prize Cup if that goes as well as it seems it will. I think that with how much private space companies are starting to capture the public’s imagination, this might provide a clear and direct cause for people to get behind…
What do you all think?