Cosmic Contests

NASA offers prize money to build a space elevator and more out-of-this-world inventions.

Pay a visit to Mountain View, Calif., in early autumn, and you'll wonder whether you've stepped right into the pages of Arthur C. Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise. The 1978 science fiction novel envisioned the construction of an elevator to space. In September, you'll see similar concepts being put to the test by more than 20 teams of rocket scientists.

It will be a day at the races. The track: a 4-inch-wide, 150-foot-long metallic ribbon suspended vertically by a crane. The racers: 50- to 100-pound machines that will climb the ribbon, propelled by nothing but the energy from a 10-kilowatt xenon gas searchlight. The goal: a speed of about 3.3 feet per second for about a minute. The purse: $50,000 from NASA.

Adding to the gee-whiz factor will be a tug-of-war with the elevator ribbon, called a tether, to see whose is the strongest, for another $50,000 prize. Space elevators will zip along a 60,000-mile tether one day, if the dreamers have it right.

These two contests, conducted by the nonprofit Spaceward Foundation of Mountain View, are the first under NASA's Centennial Challenges program, which offers cash prizes for innovations that could make space travel easier and cheaper. NASA sought nonprofit partners to run the challenges and got $10 million from Congress to spend on prizes. Three contests are in progress and the announcement of a fourth was imminent in late July.

"It might be the mad genius in his garage who has the answer we're looking for," says Brant Sponberg, a former White House budget analyst who manages Centennial Challenges.

NASA isn't interested in a space elevator so much, but the first two contests will demonstrate two things: the use of beamed, or wireless, transmission systems that could supply power to future settlers on the moon, and the manufacture of incredibly strong and super-lightweight materials that could be used in spacecraft.

A third challenge, to culminate in June 2008, offers $250,000 to the first team that can extract five kilograms of breathable oxygen from simulated lunar soil, called regolith, with hardware that meets certain mass and power limits. Conducted by the Florida Space Research Institute, the Moon ROx (Moon Regolith Oxygen) challenge is all about using extraterrestrial resources to produce the propellants, oxygen, water and other things that humans will need to sustain their presence across the solar system.

Moon ROx features the largest purse to date. Despite the fat bank account, NASA has not been allowed to spend more than $250,000 on each challenge. A bill passed in the House in late July would permit the agency to sponsor competitions with bigger prizes.

Sponberg says NASA has thought about offering up to $40 million to the first team to land a scientific payload on the moon. "If someone could do that for that kind of money, that's a huge improvement on the same kinds of robotic missions we sent to the moon back in the 1960s as precursors to the Apollo missions," he says.

With extra spending authority, NASA could take the challenges from the gadget level-such as a more dexterous spacesuit glove, an upcoming competition-to the system level. Future challenges might test automated technology to drill for water on Mars, or the accuracy of landing systems on planets that lack GPS navigation. The ultimate cost of the 18-month-old initiative isn't known, but Sponberg is confident his part of it-Centennial Challenges-won't fall victim to budget cutting.

Setting aside money for nontraditional providers has been a hallmark of NASA's exploration initiative, agency chief Michael Griffin said during a recent speech in Washington, "one of which I heartily approve."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.