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« Misleading Costs | Main | Anthropocentric »

Eyes On The Prize

The Bush administration has released its proposed budget for NASA.

It reflects the new policy that the president announced a couple weeks ago, and Keith Cowing, of NASA Watch, has spared us from having to plow through the turgid document ourselves, and interpreted it in that context.

As Keith points out, the budget increases for the first few years are modest, but they are real, and NASA, having been now told that Shuttle will no longer be available a decade from now, can truly focus on new things with the funding available. The agency budget will slowly grow to almost twenty billion dollars by the end of a second Bush term (should that occur), but given the dramatic growth of the federal budget in this administration, it will remain less than its historical one percent of the total, which this year will exceed two trillion dollars.

However, there's one little item in the budget also mentioned in Keith's report that, while tiny, may be a portent of huge things to come. The budget of the new Office of Exploration is about a billion dollars (less than ten percent of the total NASA budget), and buried deep within it is a twenty-million-dollar line item called "Centennial Challenges."

According to the description, the purpose of this is "to establish a series of annual prizes for revolutionary, breakthrough accomplishments that advance exploration of the solar system and beyond and other NASA goals...By making awards based on actual achievements instead of proposals, NASA will tap innovators in academia, industry, and the public who do not normally work on NASA issues. Centennial Challenges will be modeled on past successes, including 19th century navigation prizes, early 20th century aviation prizes, and more recent prizes offered by the U.S. government and private sector."

The latter reference is to a prize offered by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for the first autonomous robotic vehicle to navigate itself across the desert from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, in a race to be held next month. It's for a million-dollar purse.

As this article points out, the prize may not be won this year, but even if not, the teams will learn a great deal from the experience, and be ready to try again next year (the program is currently funded at least through 2007).

Why did DARPA do it?

DARPA was convinced that good ideas existed for overcoming some of the problems plaguing vehicles that drive themselves. But officials also suspect that they aren't hearing all those ideas because some people are unable or unwilling to run the bureaucratic paperwork gauntlet necessary to secure a DARPA contract.

"Who's out there in their garages, their bedrooms, in their labs, working on this?" Negron said. "We want to know." The race might appeal to some people who simply want to show what they can do, without all the red tape.

It's also a reference to the X-Prize, which may be won this year (and if not, it won't be won at all, because the prize expires on December 31st). This, a private prize, has spurred several teams to attempt to build vehicles that can take people out of the atmosphere, and repeat the effort within two weeks, proving out the concept of a reusable spaceship.

Both prizes are modeled on something else obliquely referred to in the Office of Exploration document ("...early 20th century aviation prizes...")--the Orteig Prize, which Charles Lindbergh won in his solo flight across the Atlantic over six decades ago, and both take advantage of the efficiency (at least to the prize offerer) and leverage provided by such prizes. For the DARPA prize:'s not a race likely to be won on the cheap. Whittaker estimates it will cost about $5 million to win the $1 million prize.

The Orteig prize similarly generated many times its value in net resources poured into the goal, and Burt Rutan's X-Prize attempt alone has reportedly already cost more than the ten million dollars on offer. More importantly, unlike many recent NASA programs, it achieved its goal, in a spectacular fashion (a fate to soon be hoped for with the DARPA and X-Prizes as well).

What's the down side? Again, looking at the Office of Exploration document, here's a key phrase: "...from 19th century navigation prizes..."

I'm not sure what they're referring to here, because the most famous navigation prize was the Longitude Act, passed by the British Parliament in 1714 (that is, in the eighteenth, not the nineteenth century). This was a 20,000 pound prize (worth millions in today's currency) for the ability to determine the longitude of a ship at sea.

As related by Dava Sobel in her best-seller Longitude, the prize was won by John Harrison. He invented the spring-powered clock, unaffected by the rolling of the waves as previous pendulum clocks had been, which allowed ship's navigators to know what time it was in England--necessary information to determine their position.

I should have used quotes around the word "won," because as hard as the challenge of achieving the goal itself was, it proved even more difficult to collect the full reward, an endeavor to which he devoted much of the remainder of his life. His thinking turned out to be a little too far "outside the box," and some used this as an excuse to try to deprive him of his rightful dues.

This should be a cautionary tale for modern government prizes as well. Anyone who's ever dealt with Congress knows that it can be most fickle, and ultimately, the greatest barrier to the utility of such prizes may be confidence of the contestants in the ability and willingness of the government to ultimately deliver.

The initiative in the new Office of Exploration budget is small--just two percent of its budget--and perhaps just the proverbial camel's nose under the tent, but that may be just as well. It could prove a useful pilot program to determine whether NASA is truly interested in true innovation, from previously-unknown talents, or instead in continuing to maintain the status quo.

The eyes of the alternative space community will be kept very closely on this prize.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 03, 2004 08:15 PM
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The $10 million funding for the X-Prize is currently guaranteed by an insurance policy the sponsors bought. They are trying to raise money to pay the prize if nobody wins it this year, but I don't know how much they have raised so far.

And I notice you didn't take any credit for the new policy of awarding prizes in the NASA budget Rand. I don't know how much your writings influenced that decision, but I suspect they had at least a little to do with it. At the very least, you were one of a few influential voices that promoted the idea.

Of course, as you said, we will have to wait and see how the program is administered to see if NASA can utilize prizes to actually promote valuable research.

Posted by Rocket Man Blog at February 4, 2004 06:01 AM

I suspect Rick Tumlinson of SFF (among others) had a hand in this. It's an excellent development. We (spacehounds) need to keep a close eye on how this initiative develops. NASA may well set up competitions which are unwinable or not worth trying for, due either to a desire to set this idea up to fail or due to just not "getting it."

Posted by Andrew Case at February 4, 2004 06:49 AM

WRT "However, there's one little item in the budget that wasn't mentioned in Keith's report, and while it's tiny, it may be a portent of huge things to come. The budget of the new Office of Exploration is about a billion dollars (less than ten percent of the total NASA budget), and buried deep within it is a twenty-million-dollar line item called "Centennial Challenges."

You did not read the entire article it would seem:

"Exploration Systems: In addition to the establishment of a new office, this effort gets $428 million for Project Constellation ($ 6.6 billion over the next 5 years); 438 million for Project Prometheus; $115 million for technology maturation; and $20 million for an interesting new approach for funding ideas that will use up to $20 million in prizes along the lines that the X Prize and DARPA have been using."

Posted by Keith Cowing at February 4, 2004 09:33 AM

Sorry, Keith, I did skim, and must have missed that. I'll fix it before Fox gets it.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 4, 2004 09:46 AM

qoute: "NASA has left open the possibility that it evolving exploration program's launch requirements might (probably will) call for heavy lift capability that that some sort of Shuttle-derived capability might be developed. Any funds required for that advanced use of Shuttle technology would be funded by the Office of Exploration Systems (Code T) according to Isakowitz. "

Is the idea of continuing to use Shuttle derived systems for heavy lifting really that good of an idea? My first thought jumps right at the use of the SRB's which we all know as being a rather dangerous and expensive part of the shuttle design. Also, my paranoid self believes that NASA may take the oppurtunity to just continue using the Shuttle, sans crew, and call that their "Shuttle derived heavy lift system" and we will still be stuck paying for an inefficient launcher well past the expected phase out period.

Posted by Hefty at February 4, 2004 09:54 AM

A Shuttle-C has the advantage, on Planet NASA, of keeping a good chunk of the shuttle workforce employed long after the orbiters are farmed out to museums.

I've considered the Energia a better idea for getting a heavy-lift capability up and running quickly and cheaply, but politically I have to admit it's not a winner, unless the administration decides to go into hyper-international mode (which is improbable). Shuttle-C is a concept that would satisfy NASA and congressional pork-eaters while requiring far less money than a brand-new HLLV.

OT, how about that round doodad in the latest Opportunity picture? Any geologists here who might care to enlighten us? (I'm hoping for "diatom" or "mushroom," but I'm sure I'll be disappointed. Pardon me if this is too off-topic.)

Posted by Patrick at February 4, 2004 10:48 AM

1/1000 of NASA's budget will go to prizes, in exchange for our encouraging congress to approve the other 999/1000 of it? How about bigger prizes, first?

Posted by NASAWatch.INFO at February 4, 2004 01:22 PM

As long as we are doling out credit for prizes in the NASA budget, lets tip our hat to the driving force behind the Xprize, Peter Diamandis.

A lot of folks expresed support for prizes, but Peter has managed to elevate a good idea into a reality, overcoming challenges along the way.

Props to Rand for vigorously supporting the idea through his writings.

Posted by Fred K at February 4, 2004 03:24 PM

Why is the title of the following article at "Aye on the Prize"?,2933,110483,00.html

Will anybody interested in competitive sourcing at NASA actually know that they should click onto that title to read the gem linked from it?

Posted by NASAWatch.INFO at February 5, 2004 10:59 AM

Back in 1997, the solid rocket boosters and ET construction appear to cost somewhere in excess of $100 million per launch. Over the "average" of seven launches per year, this appears to be about a third of the Shuttle's annual expenses back then. I don't know whether to consider that expensive or not. But you could get the per unit cost down with more launches per year.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at February 5, 2004 08:59 PM

"From small acorns do mighty oaks grow."

Posted by Mike Puckett at February 6, 2004 08:09 AM

It's important for space entrepreneurs to keep on their radar: 42 USC 2457 of the U.S. Code (available at: ). It basically says that whatever they invent with government money becomes property of the government UNLESS there's an adequate waiver by the government. Here's perhaps the most helpful provision for avoiding this potential socialist pitfall:

"and if such invention is patentable a patent therefor shall be issued to the United States upon application made by the Administrator, unless the Administrator waives all or any part of the rights of the United States to such invention in conformity with the provisions of subsection (f) of this section."

Posted by NASAWatch.INFO at February 6, 2004 11:29 AM

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