NASA announced March 23 the first two cash prizes offered under the Centennial Challenges program, the U.S. space agency’s effort to stimulate innovation in space exploration technologies.

The 2005 Tether Challenge will award $50,000 to the team that makes the strongest tether of a specified diameter. Tethers will be stretched until they break, and winners will advance in a single-elimination tournament . The finalist must then beat NASA’s “house tether,” made of existing material, to snare the cash.

In the 2005 Beam Power Challenge, teams will develop wireless power transmission systems, including transmitter and receivers, capable of powering a robotic climber to the top of a 50-meter cable. The team whose system that enables the robot to carry the greatest amount of weight to the top of the cable in under three minutes will claim the $50,000 prize.

Both challenges will be repeated in 2006 with tougher rules and a bigger prizes: $100,00 for the first place winner, $40,000 for second place and $10,000 for third.

The prizes, which mark a subtle but important turning point in how NASA does business, are designed in part to help meet the ultimate goal of returning Americans to the Moon by 2020 and then sending them on to Mars under a vision laid out last year by President George W. Bush. NASA hopes that by putting up the cash purses, it will encourage innovations in the development of lightweight yet strong tether materials and wireless power transmission systems that could play a role in human lunar exploration and long-duration Mars robotic reconnaissance missions.

“We need to reach out and find innovation wherever it can be found,” said Brant Sponberg, the Centennial Challenges program manager.

Sponberg announced the prizes here at Flight School 05, a two-day brainstorming session among industry leaders in commercial spaceflight and space tourism.

NASA has partnered with the Spaceward Foundation to manage its first two challenges. The Mountain View, Calif.-based non-profit plans to make the tether and power beaming competitions the centerpiece of the Elevator 2010 Annual Space Elevator Games it is hosting for the first time this fall in the San Francisco Bay, according to the group’s W eb site.

NASA intends to direct $80 million toward a variety of Centennial Challenges prize competitions over the next five years, Sponberg said.

NASA plans to announce one to three additional prizes in the coming weeks or months, according to Sponberg.

At the same time, NASA is asking the U.S. Congress to grant it the authority to offer prizes of $1 million or more. NASA is currently limited to offering prizes of $250,000 or less. If NASA gets the authority to put up multi-million dollar purses, the agency plans to host so-called Flagship Challenges that would encourage major private space missions.

The Centennial Challenges prizes, which NASA said last year were in the works, are inspired partly by the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private, manned suborbital flight, which was won last year by Scaled Composite’s SpaceShipOne. NASA also took a page from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has a long history of using similar incentives to advance technology.

Even if the ultimate missions that the prizes are geared toward never come to fruition, the technologies developed in the process will be useful to NASA and others, Sponberg said in an interview prior to the announcement. Beaming energy for a space elevator also can be applied to beaming power from Earth to support a Moon base, he said. High-stress composite materials would be useful in the air travel industry.