Buried deep within NASA’s 2005 budget proposal is a new program called “Centennial Challenges”. The program would establish a series of annual prizes to promote “breakthrough accomplishments” in key technical areas. The program, for which NASA is requesting $20 million in 2005, would initially offer prizes in “low-cost robotic space missions; highly mobile, capable, and survivable rover systems; and fundamental advances in key spacecraft technologies.” The specific prizes won’t be announced until late this year, assuming Congress funds the program.
While the concept of prizes is new to NASA, it is not new to aerospace or government. Over two dozen teams are registered to compete for the X Prize, which offers $10 million to the first privately-developed reusable suborbital spacecraft capable of carrying three people. The X Prize is modeled on the $25,000 Orteig Prize, won by Charles Lindbergh in 1927. DARPA, in the meantime, is offering the $1-million Grand Challenge, a race among autonomous ground vehicles between L.A. and Las Vegas scheduled for next month. (TechnologyReview.com took a look at this race last summer.)
Could NASA’s Centennial Challenges evolve into bigger prizes for robotic or even human exploration? That remains to be seen, but for a time in the 1990s Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin suggested a series of prizes for Mars exploration, including $20 billion for the first human expedition. Zubrin even won the support of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, but Gingrich never seriously pushed the plan in Congress and it eventually died.