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Sunday, June 20, 2004

Centennial Challenges Workshop Summary
chabot imageI've received this text, from a person who asked to stay anonymous; he wrote:
I went to the recent Centennial Challenges workshop and had a blast! I typed up a report of the interesting things that happened there.

Centennial Challenges Workshop Summary

On June 15-16, engineers and scientists from all corners of the space industry converged on the Washington, D.C. Hilton to discuss the idea of NASA-sponsored prizes at the Centennial Challenges workshop. By making awards based on actual achievements, instead of proposals, Centennial Challenges seeks novel solutions to NASA's mission challenges from non-traditional sources of innovation in academia, industry and the public.

The conference comprised both plenary sessions, where the entire audience gathered in one large ballroom to hear various speakers such as rocket entrepreneur Elon Musk, Senator Sam Brownback, Presidential science advisor Jack Marburger, and Centennial Challenges program manager Brant Sponberg, and breakout sessions, where smaller groups brainstormed ideas for new prizes or hammered out possible rules for existing prize concepts.

The diversity of personalities – NASA employees, space entrepreneurs, academics, college students – led to numerous spirited debates. SpaceDev founder Jim Benson provoked much discussion when he told the audience that private industry could deliver the same products as NASA for one-fifth the cost. The soft-spoken but hard-hitting CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, assailed traditional contracting practices: “there’s a 100% chance the money will be spent.” Most present, however, agreed on one thing: prize competitions are a cost-effective way to generate innovation and excitement.

The afternoon of June 15 featured a lively panel discussion about past and current prize competitions. Colonel Jose Negron of the DARPA Grand Challenge brought action-packed videos showing the competing autonomous vehicles trying to avoid cliffs and rocks. Negron expects hundreds of teams to register for the DARPA Grand Challenge II to be held in 2005. X PRIZE founder Peter Diamandis, explaining the tortuous path the X PRIZE took before it became a success, at one point decided to “let CNN do the talking”; the monitor showed a CNN reporter praising the May flight of SpaceShipOne. X PRIZE Vice President Erik Lindbergh shared the story of his famous grandfather, whose pursuit of the Orteig Prize led to an aviation revolution. Although the panel’s discussion ran longer than expected, the speakers’ enthusiasm kept the audience captivated throughout.

During brainstorming sessions on June 15, moderators directed discussions of possible prize concepts in such areas as aeronautics, planetary systems, and bioastronautics. Every attendee of the workshop was given a chance to propose a prize concept. The diverse range of personalities contributed a diverse range of prize ideas: build an inflatable telescope, deflect an asteroid, create a 30-day unmanned aerial vehicle, develop the best material for human radiation shielding. Ten proposals were culled from the dozens of ideas generated and further discussed in Rules Development sessions on June 16.

Other breakout sessions were designed to fill in the blanks on ideas generated by an internal NASA study months before the workshop. Participants developed rules, definitions, judging methodologies, time limits, and possible purse sizes for each of 22 prize concepts. The prizes ran the gamut from a $100,000 purse for a precision lander to $20 million for an asteroid sample return. All ideas were recorded by the moderators present in each conference room.

The timing of the workshop could not have been better; on the second day of the workshop, the President’s Commission on Moon, Mars, and Beyond issued its long-awaited report, recommending that “Congress increase the potential for commercial opportunities related to the national space exploration vision… by creating significant monetary prizes for the accomplishment of space missions and/or technology developments.” The Commission also “strongly supports the Centennial Challenge program recently established by NASA.”

In the final hours of the workshop, Brant Sponberg detailed the next steps for the prize program. Sponberg and his staff of two will incorporate the volumes of suggestions generated by the workshop to develop detailed rules for various candidate prizes. Developing good rules is a crucial requirement for a successful prize, explained Peter Diamandis during the conference. In the next few months, Centennial Challenges hopes to issue the initial round of competitions, with purses of $250,000 or less. In the next fiscal year (2005), prizes of up to $20 million will follow. Judging by the enthusiasm of the workshop’s participants, Centennial Challenges will have no trouble getting people to compete for its prizes!


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