Centennial Challenges funding

I’ve received a couple of email queries about this subject recently, so it’s worth a brief post. While the House included some money for Centennial Challenges in its FY2007 appropriations bill (the exact amount I don’t have at my fingertips at the moment), the Senate has not included any funding for the program in its version the bill (which has been approved by the full appropriations committee but not yet by the full Senate.) As the report accompanying the Senate version notes:

The Committee does not provide any funding in fiscal year 2007 for the Centennial Challenges program. Funding provided in previous fiscal years for this program is sufficient for NASA to run a prize based competition, as well as to verify that NASA will see tangential benefits from running such a program. Providing additional funds to a program based on prizes only creates a pot of unused funds while other aspects of NASA’s mission are being cut or delayed due to a lack of funds.

That doesn’t mean that the program won’t get any money in 2007, only that the Senate and House versions will have to be reconciled at some point (whether that’s in the lame-duck session after next week’s election or at the beginning of the next Congress remains to be seen.) It also wouldn’t doom the program, only prevent it from announcing additional prizes.

That said, Centennial Challenges could use a success story to demonstrate the benefits of the program. It has benefited from the media attention accorded to the Space Elevator Games and Lunar Lander Challenge, but it would have helped a lot more if one of the competitors earlier this month had actually won a prize. There aren’t any additional competitions for the program until next spring—the astronaut glove and regolith excavation competitions—too late for the current budget cycle. In any case, finding a winner is largely outside the control of NASA.

11 comments to Centennial Challenges funding

  • Chance

    Maybe you’ve seen this already, but on a semi – related note, I have read that DARPA will not be offering a cash prize for the next Grand Challenge. The article I read was a little fuzzy on specifics, but apparently the DARPA lawyers have determined that cash prizes are not authorized under a law passed by congress. The head of the challenge said he’d get trophys, “even if I have to buy them himself”. While a appreciate his spirit, I got to tell you that a trophy just wouldn’t do it for me if I were a robotics engineer, especially since the Stanley crew got 2 million.

  • Ray

    I have a link at to an article on the DARPA Grand Challenge prize issue. It sounds like the next Grand Challenge is on, with a good competition and a lot of grant money, but no cash prize for winning. Of course giving a number of teams grants puts the government in the traditional position of paying regardless of whether or not any team succeeds.

    Hopefully this event and the Senate Appropriations Committee language on the Centennial Challenges is not the beginning of the end of the government’s dipping its toes in the “prize” waters.

  • Anonymous

    What utterly lazy logic on the part of our Congress.

    Rather than support a bold experiment that pays only for results, let’s shovel that remaining 0.001 percent of NASA’s budget out of the Treasury’s door, where hard-working taxpayers will never be able to reclaim it, even when contractors and grantees fail to deliver the products they’re paid for.

    Forget space politics. What a pathetic statement about our appropriators’ general lack of fiscal rigor…

  • sarah

    hi,umm i was just wonderin if you could please answer my question. my question is: How did a knowledge of Astronomy help in the exploration of earth hundreds of years ago? please tell me what the answer is.thankyou

  • Chris Mann

    How did a knowledge of Astronomy help in the exploration of earth hundreds of years ago?


  • Tony Rusi

    It would be nice to know exactly who in Congress and/or who’s Congressional staffer(s) is/are responsible for zeroing out future prize money for the Centeniel Challenges. The tether prize is based on the theory that small prizes over a DECADE will advance the “state of the art” in material science enough to make a stationary space tether possible. Realistically, this tether is one of the few possibilities for “cheap access to space” for the rest of us.

  • Jeff Foust

    A couple of points:

    1) The problems with DARPA’s Grand Challenges program are different from those with NASA’s Centennial Challenges. In the former Congress redirected authority for granting prizes from the head of DARPA to his superior; in the latter, a Senate committee elected not to provide NASA with addtional prize money. Generalizing that this means that Congress is wavering in its support of prizes doesn’t, to this observer, seem warranted.

    2) Even if Congress eventually decides not to provide additional funding for Centennial Challenges in FY07, the prize money previously allocated will still be available; NASA simply won’t be able to fund additional large prizes. So things like the tether strength competition can continue next year.

  • I hope it is okay to post this, but I’ve just found out about a new commercial magazine published out of New York focusing on private spaceflight. I have not seen it, so this is posted for information only.

    — Donald

  • i was at the xprize event. it was a great show, and it didnt produce a ‘winner’ by the narrowest of margins. Carmak and his team were off by a few inches from winning the lander competition, and while there is some doubt as to what happened, exactly, the U. of Sasskathawan came damn close to winning the power beaming competition. i am certain there will be a winner in both areas next year.

    unless there is a significant materials breakthrough, i doubt the tether competition will be won.

    so, hopefully, we can put on a good show for congress, prove that it was money well spent, and they will authorize funds.

    personally, i’d like to see a BIG prize available. i went with last march to talk with congress about a big, $100m prize… didnt get much of a response. :-) but consider this, NASA has gotten priceless PRESS value, and they have not had to spend a single $ yet… and probably $1-1.5M has ACTUALLY been spent by teams working on this stuff. as a finance guy, that seems like a really strong return on investment….

  • Ray

    I’ll answer Sarah’s question about astronomy and the exploration of the Earth. I’ll just stick with an aspect related to the topic at hand (prizes). The Longitude Prize was offered by the English government because at that time there was no effective way to determine longitude on a ship at sea, which hampered travel and commerce on the oceans. Eventually an astronomical method to determine longitude was developed. Clocks were also developed that could remain accurate under conditions at sea, which also gave a method to determine longitude. In this case not only was the problem solved, but worthwhile advances (apart from the longitude problem) were made in both astronomy and clocks. Some of the papers I linked to in the blog I mentioned in the earlier post have more details (as does the book Longitude by Dava Sobel).

    The point for Centennial Challenges is that prizes have been offered and won (to the benefit of both offerer and winner) many times in the past in similar situations. The idea doesn’t really need to be treated so gingerly, as if it were brand new and highly speculative. Some judgement in picking prizes to offer, some management skill, and of course some money are the main ingredients needed.

  • anonymous

    In reply to Mr. Rusi’s request…

    Here’s the website with the list of Congressional members on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies:

    Obviously some Senators pay more attention to NASA issues given their districts, but you could also shotgun the list with the same letter body (just change the addressee and address).

    Here’s a list of staffers on the overall Senate Appropriations Committee (and their salaries).

    It’s a huge list, but you could narrow it to just the professional staff members and shotgun them with the same letter body (and again change the addresses). Alternately, Allen Cutler and Paul Carliner (both on the list) have dealt with NASA issues in the past — no idea if they still do.