NASA still hopes to put up $2 million in prize money this year for a number of contests aimed at knocking down some of the technical challenges that stand in the way of the U.S. space agency's exploration goals.
Earlier this year, the agency attempted to jumpstart the proposed Centennial Challenges program by redirecting $2 million of this year's $15.4 billion budget toward the prize initiative. However, U.S. lawmakers who oversee the space agency's budget shot down NASA's request to kick off the initiative on the grounds that Congress had not yet approved the new program.
NASA is making a second attempt in the hope that this time lawmakers will approve the request. However, the agency's 2005 budget request is not faring too well in the House and this once again casts a shadow on the program's chances.
On Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee cut $1.1 billion from the President's $16.2 billion request for NASA in 2005. If the House version of the bill becomes law, NASA would have a difficult to impossible time starting any new programs, including Centennial Challenges. The Senate has not even taken up NASA's 2005 budget request and won't do so until September.
Craig Steidle, NASA's associate administrator for exploration systems, said he has spent a lot of time explaining the prize initiative to lawmakers and their staffs and thinks he has made good progress selling the program. NASA spokeswoman Sarah Keegan said July 21 that the agency had yet to hear back from congressional appropriators on the June 28 reprogramming request.
"I think the concern was not fully understanding what we are trying to do, what we want to get out of it, and how it affects the vision for exploration," Steidle said. He said he has been back on Capitol Hill pushing the program and telling lawmakers about the big response NASA got to a Centennial Challenges workshop held here in June.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe sent Congress a revised 2004 budget plan on June 28 that, if approved, would provide Steidle the $2 million he needs to kick off the first Centennial Challenges competitions this year.
NASA officials want to use the $2 million for a handful of initial technical challenges that would pay out prizes as large as $250,000 -- the upper limit of NASA's prize making authority under current law.
At the same time, NASA is seeking authority from Congress to conduct larger and more ambitious contests with purses up to $50 million. NASA also wants the authority to hold on to the prize money for as long as it takes someone to win it. Under current law, government agencies normally have only two years to spend any money appropriated by Congress -- a problem if NASA wants to hold a contest it thinks would take someone more than two years to win.
The House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee held a July 15 hearing to find out more about the Centennial Challenges program and how it would work. The chairman of that subcommittee, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) has come out strongly in favor of giving NASA greater prize making authority.
But Democrats on the subcommittee, including Reps. Nick Lampson, Sheila Jackson Lee and Bernice Johnson (all from Texas), expressed reservations about relying on prize money to spur technological innovation.
"While establishment of a NASA prize program is certainly worth considering, we should not be lulled into thinking that it is any substitute for providing adequate funding for NASA's R&D programs," said Lampson, the subcommittee's ranking Democrat.
Lampson and Jackson Lee also raised questions about how the prize money would be treated by congressional appropriators and other budgeteers.
Congressional sources told Space News that appropriators on both sides of the political aisle are less than enthusiastic about the prospect of giving NASA so-called no year money. As one Republican staffer pointed out, Centennial Challenges would require lawmakers to chose between funding a concrete request and appropriating federal funds for a prize that might never be awarded.
Still, prizes appear very popular with industry, which sees the proposed program as a way to inject some much needed innovation into NASA's business as usual approach to technology development. Robert Walker, the former House Science Committee chairman and now a prominent aerospace lobbyist, has been calling for NASA to offer substantially larger prizes than the $50 million purses currently envisioned. Testifying at the July 15 hearing, Walker proposed prizes as large as $100 million or even $1 billion. "In my mind, these prizes should be big," he said.
Walker said such prizes would attract companies and individuals that would "never dream of going after a government contract.
Peter Diamandis, chairman and chief executive officer of the X Prize Foundation, testified that the $10 million purse he is offering to the first team to send three people into suborbital space and back two times in as many weeks already has attracted $100 million in investment and yielded a major space breakthrough -- the first privately-financed piloted space shot.
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Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and SpaceNews.com. He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.