Allies for Centennial Challenges

A Space Frontier Foundation press release Monday announced that the Space Exploration Alliance, a loose coalition of over a dozen space organizations, along with the Space Frontier Foundation and the X Prize Foundation, are all asking Congress to restore funding for NASA’s Centennial Challenges prize program in the still-incomplete FY2007 budget. “We call on the appropriations conferees to support full funding for the Centennial Challenge program in 2007,” said George Whitesides of the NSS. (That call might be a bit premature, since the full Senate hasn’t yet acted on the NASA appropriations bill, but it may be a more pragmatic approach.)

The press release rehashes ground that should be familiar to many readers (such as the debate on the topic in the comments to this post): prizes promote innovation and cost NASA very little, even though it’s hard to convince some in Congress that unspent prize money has not been wasted. “They see the money sitting there unspent and it makes them salivate,” said Rick Tumlinson. “But with a prize, just because it hasn’t been won yet doesn’t mean it has failed. Quite the opposite.”

One question: the press release includes the statement “The Department of Defense’s Grand Challenges robotics prize, a $2 million program for autonomous vehicles, generated approximately $150 million in development, according to many sources.” A quick search this morning didn’t turn up a reference to the $150-million figure; does someone know the source of this? While prizes typically do stimulate total investment far greater than the prize purse, the 75-to-1 ratio here seems rather high.

8 comments to Allies for Centennial Challenges

  • The $150 figure probably sprang from the same mysterious well as the $20 million price tag constantly quoted for orbital flights aboard Soyuz. Someone throws it out, then it is perpetuated.

  • Adrasteia

    The best reason to keep the Centennial Challenge program would be for the positive media exposure and goodwill it’s generating for the agency. (which they’ve now burned.) I can’t think of any time in history that NASA PR money has been more efficiently spent.

  • joeblow

    In this article, three different teams are quoted as spending $40 thousand, $100 thousand, and $3 million on their entries in just the first year of the DARPA competition.

    There were over 100 entries that year, so through simple multiplication one could guesstimate that all the teams spent between $4 million and $300 million in the first year of competition. Double that for the second year of competition (when the prize was won) and you get a figure between $8 million and $600 million. It’s a huge range, but in that context, a $150 million estimate does not seem totally out of bounds.

    The article also notes that DARPA spent $13 million total on the first year of competition (not just $1 million for the first-year prize). Double that to $26 million for two years of competition, and assuming the $150 million figure for what the teams spent and the ratio is more like 5:1 in terms of what all the teams spent versus what DARPA invested.

    It’s not 75:1 but it’s still a very impressive ratio. Even NASA’s Crew/Cargo program is only garnering 1:1 private sector cost-sharing from Space-X and Rocketplane/Kistler. And if Centennial Challenges is ever funded at the level necessary to conduct competitions on the scale of DARPA’s, NASA’s ratios for prizes may be even better than DARPA, as Centennial Challenges relies on other organizations to manage the competitions and these organizations raise their own funding (e.g., Northrup Grumman sponsoring X PRIZE’s management of this year’s Lunar Lander Prize).

  • joeblow

    It’s good that these organizations came out with this statement. But it’s not clear if they’re following up with congressional visits or letter-writing. So I’d encourage anyone with a congressman on the relevant appropriations committee to send letters to them and their staffers. Below, I’m reposting one sample letter for the state of Maryland (feel free to copy/modify), along with links to lists of appropriators, their staffers, and contact information.


    With regard to the Senate appropriations cut to NASA prizes, I for one am putting my pen where my mouth is and using a little of my Thanksgiving vacation to mail a letter (see bottom) to Senator Mikulski (the incoming chair of NASA’s appropriations subcommittee). I also plan to fax the letter and put in a follow-up call to her office. Here’s the contact info:

    The Honorable Senator Barbara Mikulski
    Suite #503
    Hart Senate Office Building
    United States Senate
    Washington, DC 20510
    tel (202) 224-8858
    fax (202) 224-4654

    I plan to do the same with Paul Carliner, who appears to be Democratic clerk on NASA’s appropriations subcommittee holding up Centennial Challenges funding. He presumably answers to Mikulski. His contact information is:

    Mr. Paul Carliner, Clerk
    Senate Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee
    S-146A Capitol Bldg.
    Washington, DC 20510
    tel: (202) 224-7277
    fax: (202) 224-2698

    I encourage anyone who cares to do the same, especially anyone in Maryland (I’m not) or in states with Senators or Representatives on NASA’s appropriations subcommittees. You can find them, their contact information, their staff, and their staff’s contact information here:

    House —

    Senate —

    The letter below emphasizes the next prize competition taking place in Maryland (Mikulski’s state). Feel free to copy it, but you may want to modify if you’re mailing to a different Congressman or staffer.

    Here’s the letter I’m sending:

    === begin letter ===

    November [XX], 2006

    The Honorable Senator Barbara Mikulski
    Suite #503
    Hart Senate Office Building
    United States Senate
    Washington, DC 20510

    Dear Senator Mikulski:

    I am writing to increase funding for the NASA Centennial Challenges Program in the FY 2007 budget. I am an aerospace industry professional [or other relevant background] and a citizen of [Your State].

    This spring, a Maryland organization (Volanz Spaceflight Inc./Spaceflight America) will conduct a prize competition for breakthrough astronaut glove technology. The NASA Centennial Challenges Program sponsors the prize for this competition and that program is in jeopardy.

    Centennial Challenges is NASA’s pilot program of prize competitions, a new and critically important tool to stimulate innovation in our civil space program and in the aerospace sector at large. In less than two years, this remarkable program has:

    — Induced a small, private company to develop and fly a new rocket-powered vehicle with vertical take-off/landing and fast re-flight capabilities that are applicable to NASA’s future lunar landers and the emerging sub-orbital space flight industry. This vehicle was built for a very small fraction of comparable military efforts ($200 thousand versus $58 million) and with the company’s own dollars.

    — Encouraged dozens of university and company teams to develop and demonstrate high-density wireless power transmission systems and high strength-to-weight materials. These are key technologies for making NASA’s lunar return sustainable and aerospace vehicles more efficient.

    — Partnered with six external organizations to manage these and other future prize competitions at no cost to the taxpayer. Prizes pay only for demonstrated success and are a proven tool for innovation with a history going back centuries. Centennial Challenges is perhaps the most efficient program at NASA and has great potential for the aerospace sector.

    The FY 2007 Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Bill (S. 109-280) terminates funding for the NASA Centennial Challenges Program for the second year in a row. I respectfully request that funding be restored and increased to $20 million during the House-Senate Conference markup.

    Plans and studies for future prize competitions, as detailed in NASA’s FY 2007 budget request, are exciting and highly relevant to NASA’s mission. Please ensure that this important pilot program receives the support it deserves.

    Thank you for your attention and consideration.

    Very sincerely,

    [Your Name]
    [Your Address]

    === end letter ===

    On a final note, the $58 million Pixel comparison is to the stated build costs of the DC-X, which one can find here:

    It’s not a perfect comparison, but it’s the most relevant one. And $58 million is actually an underestimate as it does not include site or operations costs.

    Here’s hoping that prizes at NASA survive Congress…

  • One question: the press release includes the statement “The Department of Defense’s Grand Challenges robotics prize, a $2 million program for autonomous vehicles, generated approximately $150 million in development, according to many sources.” A quick search this morning didn’t turn up a reference to the $150-million figure; does someone know the source of this?

    I’ve heard that number from people within DARPA. From what I understand, it isn’t a summation of what all the teams spent (as joeblow does in his post) but rather an estimate of what it would have cost the government to do the same amount of R&D directly.

    Judging from my knowledge of other prize programs, those numbers pass the sniff test. I remember seeing presentations at AIAA’s Space 2005 wherein the presenter used standard cost models to estimate the cost of a government-run Ansari X PRIZE winning program. I remember two presenters citing numbers like 700 million and $1 billion (off the top of my head). That’s a lot higher what you’d get adding together the total expenditures from all of the Ansari X PRIZE teams…

  • joeblow

    You’ll find this quote:

    “Recent experience of the Darpa Grand Challenge is that for every dollar in the prize, the competitors invested 65 dollars to compete and try to win.”

    If you scroll down to the third speaker summary from the anti-aging conference at this link:,_2004.html

    Apparently this conference (or speaker) was considering a prize for breakthroughs in anti-aging medicine and reviewing the DARPA prize experience.

    As Mr. Pomerantz states, the 65:1 figure for the DARPA Grand Challenge on that website may be a misintepretation of the $150 million figure. But it’s consistent with that figure and the 75:1 ratio mentioned in the original post.