NASA exploration office charts new procurement territory

Rather than obtain innovative equipment the old-fashioned way--by purchasing it--NASA plans to send America to the moon, Mars and beyond on technological breakthroughs resulting from a series of contests with cash prizes.

Executives of the space agency's new Office of Exploration Systems detailed their plans in a briefing to industry representatives Wednesday. They said NASA wants to stimulate innovation in ways that standard federal procurements cannot.

"This is a very different approach from how NASA or any federal [research and development] agency has gone about technical innovation in the past," said Brant Sponberg, manager of what the agency calls its Centennial Challenge. The name is a nod to the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first powered flight.

"We're going to do business differently," acknowledged NASA's new exploration chief, Craig Steidle, associate administrator of the enterprise known as Code T to agency insiders.

Steidle is a retired rear admiral who won awards for his management of several Navy programs, including the Joint Strike Fighter. Steidle commanded the F/A-18 program, naval aviation's largest production, research and development program. The former test pilot also oversaw the service's largest foreign military sales program. When he retired in March 2000, he was chief aerospace engineer and vice commander of Naval Air Systems Command, which develops, acquires and supports naval aeronautical systems. He worked as an aerospace consultant until he joined NASA late last year.

The space agency established the office Jan. 15, one day after the president's vision statement, to set priorities and to identify, develop and validate exploration systems and related technologies. The office has technologists and users of their technology working side by side with the aim of keeping better control over requirements, program schedules and costs.

To a crowd of about 300, representing companies large and small, Steidle and several key managers explained the organizational framework and operating principles of enterprise. Everything is to focus on developing technology for human and robotic exploration and the transportation systems needed to carry out those missions. The officials did not offer specifics on contemplated contract actions and business opportunities. "We do not have a lot of products yet," said Steidle, "but we have an idea of where we want to go and what we want to do."

The office has taken over about 140 technology programs from across the agency and is reviewing them for realignment. Without giving specifics, Steidle said technology programs that do not fit the new vision will be refocused to fit, transferred to other NASA offices, or eliminated. He also said he expects to restart some old programs and start some new ones.

Although the Centennial Challenge is new, the idea of holding prize competitions for achievements in science, technology and engineering is very old.

In the 18th century, London clockmaker John Harrison invented the marine chronometer to win a British government prize for determining longitude on the high seas. In the barnstorming days of aviation in the early 1900s, Charles Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize for the first Atlantic Ocean crossing in an airplane. The private X-Prize Foundation brought the tradition into the 21st century by offering a $10 million prize, which it expects to award this year, for the first repeatable, sub-orbital human space flight by an entrepreneur with no governmental ties.

On March 13, teams of autonomous vehicle innovators will compete for a $1 million purse in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Grand Challenge. The winning vehicle must complete the 300-mile course from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in the fastest time less than 10 hours--without external communication or human control.

Using a similar approach, Sponberg said, NASA can find novel or low-cost solutions to its engineering problems. The contests would give the space agency access to innovators it may not reach otherwise as it strives to fill White House orders for a sustainable and affordable program of robotic and human missions throughout the solar system.

Instead of soliciting proposals for a grant or contract award, NASA will state its technical goals without prescriptions for achieving them. In each challenge, multiple teams will integrate, test and fly various approaches to a certain goal. "As multiple teams succeed or fail in going after a challenge, the competitive process will distinguish between those technologies that can be imagined and those that can be practically developed," Sponberg said.

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