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."

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