For far too long, our nation’s civilian space and aeronautics agency has been operating with insufficient resources. In September I will introduce
provide NASA with a private funding mechanism, which will complement our nation’s federal investment.
Through the process of developing and passing legislation, I have learned firsthand that there are constant challenges to NASA’s mission of achieving new and consistent successes. The
nearly 50-year-old establishment must be given the rules and tools to operate in an ever-changing, high-tech global environment and to capitalize on
its global name brand.
The 2005 NASA Authorization Bill, which was signed into law, gave NASA the authority to “carry out a program to competitively award cash prizes to stimulate innovation in basic and applied research, technology development, and prototype demonstration that have the potential for application to the performance of the space and aeronautical activities of the Administration.” The idea was inspired by Charles Lindberg’s successful trans-A
tlantic flight to win the Orteig Prize in 1927 and the SpaceShipOne team’s successful suborbital flights to capture the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.
In response, NASA has created the Centennial Challenges program and
currently is working with allied organizations to hold competitions nationwide. These competitions offer cash prizes to teams of innovators for challenges such as new astronaut gloves and technologies for lunar regolith excavation capabilities.
Unfortunately the Centennial Challenges program competes with “here and now” priorities within NASA. In order to implement the Centennial Challenges program with certainty each year there must be a constant and consistent revenue stream. We can hardly expect a program with uncertain funding to produce the results we had envisioned when the Centennial Challenges program was created. NASA has scores of ideas and technologies both large and small that it would like to test and validate through Centennial Challenges. NASA, through the X
Prize Foundation, has identified a range of concepts that could total $113 million in prize money but NASA doesn’t have the cash to fund the prize pot.
Many Americans, from science hobbyists to our engineering universities,
probably are not even aware that this opportunity is available to them. In a time of constrained budgets it is unrealistic to assume that the federal government would simply increase funding for the Centennial Challenges program in order to attract a high level of competition.
I believe that by leveraging the NASA brand, the private sector could have the opportunity to provide funding in the form of sponsorship. This would allow NASA to tap the same source of funding that supports enterprises from the Professional Golfers of America to our universities to National Public Radio. The idea of a sponsorship program at NASA is not new but unlike previous attempts, the time is right and the Centennial Challenges is the right venue.
My bill, the NASA Innovation Fund and Sponsorship Act
will set up a trust fund account – to be named the Innovation Fund (IF) – to hold
funds generated from private sponsorship. NASA would be authorized to solicit and receive money from individuals and corporations in exchange for approved promotional programs that associate the corporation with NASA and the IF. Sponsors would have their identity on certain NASA assets and be granted use of a NASA Innovation Fund Partner Logo. My bill will explicitly prohibit
product placement on NASA assets that the public would find objectionable or inappropriate. There will be no decals on the space shuttles or blinking neon lights on the international space station. However, there is room for the agency to capitalize from its popularity in a manner that is tasteful and has been approved by a board of seven individuals, including the NASA
the chief strategic communications officer and five private citizens
who have a stake in NASA’s reputation and future.
The Sponsorship Board and the vetting process it will undertake will be a key component of the NASA Innovation Fund and Sponsorship Act
board will screen potential applications for promotional contracts with NASA. There will be established criteria to ensure that applicants are high caliber, reputable entities on par with the agency. The ability of the
board to set the appropriate requirements for entering into a contract is fortified by giving NASA veto power over applicants. All applicants will be required to submit three parts in their application: the monetary contribution, the content of the promotional program and an educational component.
As our country confronts more competition in the fields of math and science, my vision is that the legislation will reflect America’s need for more homegrown math and science students. It will require sponsors to participate and demonstrate a commitment to the education of our youth.
The IF would not simply be substituting private-sector dollars derived from sponsorships for dollars we in Congress would otherwise appropriate. That is a zero-sum game that
we do not want to play. Instead, the IF will be private-sector funding directed through the prism of Centennial Challenges, which NASA would not otherwise be able to fully fund for many decades, if at all. It would be private-sector sponsorship passing through NASA for use as prizes to focus and motivate private-sector teams. As opposed to funding a single contractor, prizes attract many teams, and while there may be a single winner the nation benefits from having all those teams of engineers, scientists
and inventors compete.
Since the reputation of NASA is of paramount concern, I welcome an open and honest discussion about the legislation from the wider space community. Much like NASA missions, the proposed legislation ventures into unknown territory.
However, the concept of private-public cooperation is entirely familiar. The National Park Foundation is an example of a government-sponsored enterprise, which benefits from private investment. The NASA Innovation Fund and Sponsorship Act will integrate
many of the same principles used by the National Park Foundation. The success of the National Park System – known and respected world
wide – is something in which the American people take pride. The public see the benefits of parks and how they enrich our American culture.
The purpose of the NASA Innovation Fund and Sponsorship Act is to create a new source of private-sector funding recycled to private-sector innovations, which will help maintain NASA’s leadership position in space, aeronautics and technology. However, just as importantly, the NASA Innovation Fund and Sponsorship Act is also an attempt to reinvigorate public interest in our civilian space and aeronautics agency. NASA powers the innovation that creates new jobs, new markets
and new technologies. Americans should know how they directly benefit from our space, science and aeronautics agency, whether it be the GPS in their car or a heart defibrillator that saves lives. The benefits are worth the investment and it is impossible to predict the daring innovations that may come from future missions. The creation of the IF will ensure that those missions – and the benefits – become a reality for all Americans but only if we in Congress dare to be innovative.
Rep. Ken Calvert is the former chairman of the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee.