Posted inOpinion

OpEd: Centennial Challenges – Don’t Let Them Die

W ith a roar and a cloud of dust and sand, the tiny spaceship fired its motors. Rising up over the New Mexico desert it hung there, mirage-like, a thirsty spacer’s dream, a vision of the possible — or even the impossible — made real. Several-thousand pounds of metal and explosives, hung in the distance for 30 seco nds, 60 seconds, then 90 seconds, as the gathered crowd at the Wirefly X Prize Cup Oct. 20-21 began to chant: “Go! Go! Go!” It was an amazing sight in a world of powerpoint pioneering and pie-in-the-sky promises. It was an actual flying spaceship, right there in front of us — a wonder to those of us who understood its meaning.

After about 90 seconds of hovering and maneuvering, the little vehicle attempted to land. Unfortunately, it missed its mark, and with it the first chance at winning the $500,000 purse for lunar landers and vertical landing that had been offered by the NASA Centennial Challenges and Northrop Grumman. W ithin the next 36 hours the Armadillo Aerospace team was able to fly its little lander three more times, but in the end success eluded them, and the prize went unclaimed.

But don’t worry, they and others will be back.

The mission: three flights of a full-up spacecraft in 36 hours, all meeting the time-in-flight and maneuvering criteria needed to win the $500,000 prize. The only problems for Armadillo were landing issues that appear to be easily correctable. And this was done by a team of pseudo-amateurs at a cost of under $250,000. Where else in our space program has anything like this ever occurred in so short a time with the expenditure of so little money?

The cost of the Lunar Lander Challenge is less than the cost of many NASA paper studies. And the return for this tiny pittance includes: new ideas that can be applied to our return to the Moon and the exploration of Mars; inspiration for a tired and dispirited space community; the excitement of competition; the drawing in of new talent to the field of space; and the inspiration of thousands of young minds to study math, science and engineering.

Although Armadillo’s flight ended with a bad landing, it showed a new path on the way to space. This was just as important — if not more so — than all the X Prize flights a couple of years ago. It showed that there are many different areas where the lure of relatively small amounts of money can draw out the best and brightest , and that space technology and development need not be the province only of governments and giant corporations. So what if no one won it the first time, that’s part of the deal.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Grand Challenge to build a robotic vehicle is a classic case in point. The first year, out of a field of more than a dozen competitors, not only did no one win, but most of them barely got out the gate before failing. One year later a team from Stanford University finished the entire 342-kilometer (132-mile) course in under 7 hours and walked away with the $2 million prize. Where else in aerospace do taxpayers get anywhere near this kind of return on their investment?

During the X Cup event thousands of schoolchildren and others were able to witness mainly student and amateur teams competing for $200,000 in the form of the Beamed Power Challenge. In this contest a tiny vehicle climbed a tether using beamed power sources — similar to those we might use to bring back power from space — to see who could climb and descend in the least amount of time. Again there was no winner — yet. But the challenge has created a new community of beamed power enthusiasts in schools around the continent as the field has grown from two challengers in 2005 to 13 this year.

The ripple effect is growing at a time when politicians are crying out for ways to inspire math, science and engineering students.

Even though no one has yet won these prizes they already are generating a vast return on their investment. So why is the program being killed? The funding for these two challenges is already allocated, and will remain in the pot until they are won. But why, after even the U.S. House of Representatives has agreed that we need more such prizes, is the budget for any more prizes languishing, unfunded and on the edge of extinction in the U.S. Senate?

Unfortunately, the concept of prizes breaks down in the face of how Congress funds government agencies. To be seen as credible , prizes need to have funds in the bank . Those trying to raise the money, teams and support to compete must be able to point at a real purse. Unfortunately, Congress can’t stand the idea of putting aside money for anything that isn’t going to deliver right now — and to their own districts. There is also a siege mentality at many NASA offices and center s, especially those not directly a part of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle program. They are being hacked to pieces as headquarters drives towards its congressionally mandated goal of keeping something flying after shuttle. To them the idea that some untested, non-agency-oriented project could have money it isn’t spending while they starve must be maddening.

But all hope is not lost. The House has approved funding for the Centennial Challenges program in the out years, so that new prizes already in the works can be funded. And the Senate Appropriations Committee hasn’t killed the request outright. In fact, there is still time to save the next Challenges before the House and Senate meet in conference to work out the differences between their two bills. But the idea needs a champion .

NASA needs to understand just how much there is to gain by keeping these sorts of activities alive. The agency needs to send a high-level team over to the Senate to explain just why the challenges are needed. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin should step up and use the opportunity to show how this sort of new thinking can raise the profile of math and science in education while helping our national space effort.

And the space community — long on talk and short on action — also must step up . Those pushing the concepts of New Space such as entrepreneurialism, innovation and low-cost ways to work in space need to put their actions where their mouths are.

So many of us tout prizes as part of our litany of solutions to the current moribund state of space, yet how many actually have contacted Sen s. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) to register our support for this important program? How many are going to call those new leaders about to take over Congress to tell them why doing things like prizes really matters? What kind of signal will we send the new Congress if one of the crown jewels of our philosophy is left to slowly wither in the congressional dead letter basket?

A few million dollars in a budget of billions is all we are talking about. Last year Congress allocated around a half-billion dollars to pork projects . Putting aside a measly $10 million to $20 million this year to seed a set of prizes that can return hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars in savings down the road, while generating excitement and inspiring tens of thousands of children to get involved in space, science and engineering is a not just a good idea, it is a great one.

The public relations and morale value alone is worth the cost, and when you add in the long-term savings in research and development to taxpayers it is an excellent deal for all involved. At a time when there is much gloom and pessimism, the Centennial Challenges represent a bright light of hope and excitement. Although embryonic, they are the stuff of which new space leaders, companies and ways of doing things will be born. We can’t let this good thing die.

Rick Tumlinson is a founder of The Space Frontier Foundation.