Centennial Challenges update

Lost in all the discussion this week about that whole, well, bunnysuit thing, was this Space News article about renewed efforts to get funding for NASA’s Centennial Challenges program this fiscal year. An earlier effort to reprogram $2 million from the FY04 budget to permit an initial series of small-scale prizes was rebuffed by the House Appropriations Committee last month. However, Space News reports, NASA has been on the Hill trying to educate members about the program and submitted a new reprogramming request in late June which again asks for $2 million for Centennial Challenges. There are some concerns among both Republicans and Democrats about such so-called “no year” funding, when there’s no idea when—or even if—the money will be spent.

8 comments to Centennial Challenges update

  • And so it begins. Other than the lack of control and lack of pork for specific districts, this will always be the biggest bugaboo of government prizes.

    I still like my idea (well, actually it’s Tom Kalbfus’ idea–probably the only good one he ever had) of just soft landing a safe on the surface of the moon with a billion dollars in unmarked bills.

  • They’d probably be worth a lot less by the time NASA gets there – the value of money roughly halves each decade.

    On the other hand, the value of minerals up there isn’t going down any time soon.

  • Anonymous

    I have yet to see any detailed policy discussion of the prize issue, such as the legal issues involved, how prizes would affect funding and appropriations, and how it might positively or negatively affect other R&D. Lots of people start from the assumption that prizes are inherently good. But are they always? Furthermore, aren’t we effectively out here in Government Nowhere’s Land? In other words, can anybody point to any other government agency that has allocated prize money in the multiples of millions of dollars? The only example I am aware of is the DARPA robot race.

    I’m not saying that prizes are bad. But it is easy to understand why members of Congress might be wary to undertake an unprecedented program that has little pedigree.

  • Anonymous

    The pedigree ain’t so little:

    Longitude prize (British government; won by John Harrison)
    Orteig Prize (private; won by Charles Lindbergh)
    ANSARI X PRIZE (private; to be won)
    DARPA Grand Challenge (American government; to be won)
    and now:
    NASA Centennial Challenges (American government; to be won)

  • This document may assist with some of your concerns:

    Concerning Federally Sponsored Inducement Prizes in Engineering and Science

    Report of the Steering Committee for the Workshop to Assess the Potential for Promoting Technological Advance through Government-Sponsored Prizes and Contests, National Academy of Engineering

    56 pages, 8.5 x 11, 1999

  • They’d probably be worth a lot less by the time NASA gets there…

    Who said anything about NASA?

  • Sam Dinkin

    NASA should just spend the money immediately to buy an insurance policy at auction. Sure it will cost them a risk premium, but it will also save them a good chunk off the budget because they will just be paying the actuarially fair value of the prize instead of booking the whole prize.

  • Jonathan Goff


    I have to agree with your assesment (and not just because I had a similar idea). The big bonuses I see of such an idea are:

    A) NASA doesn’t need to fund the full prize, just the premium you mention
    B) The money is spent and can’t be canceled by a future Congress.

    However, I see two drawbacks:

    A) You now have a deadline on the prize
    B) By forcing them to spend money up-front you lose at least some of the “only-have-to-pay-for-success” appeal that prizes normally have.

    I still think it is worth investigating further though.