From the Archives: The Story Behind the Conrad Awards

Back before the Launch Pad existed, I blogged over on the main X PRIZE Foundation website. I was definitely a beginning blogger (not that I'm an expert now), and between not knowing what exactly to do, not having too much time to write, and not having any co-authors, the content on that blog wasn't enough to generate the kind of traffic we see here on the Launch Pad.

That said, there are a few posts there that I still like. I've picked out a few favorites, and I'm going to reproduce them here (not all at once, don't worry). So, fans of the old "Pomerantz Report" (I was never sure where that name came from... why not "Pomer-rants" or something?) can probably just skip these posts. But if you are relatively new here--well, forget what I just said! This is fresh material!

A few months before we launched the Archon X PRIZE for Genomics, I joined Peter Diamandis at a lecture being given by Dr. J. Craig Venter, an X PRIZE Foundation Board Member who was very influential in the creation of the Genomics prize. Dr. Venter was talking about sequencing and about the future of genomics—something I actually find quite interesting (my first published paper, oddly enough, was on a technique for extracting RNA from soil samples to identify the microbial organisms within). His talk also touched on extremophiles and the fact that life on Earth exists essentially everywhere we’ve looked, regardless of temperature, pressure, exposure to sunlight, et cetera. It was a fun talk.

Afterwards, there was a lively question and answer session. About halfway through, a woman in the audience asked Dr. Venter about those extremophiles. She began her question by saying: “I was quite interested in what you said about extremophiles, because, you see, when my husband walked on the Moon…”

As you can imagine, my head nearly popped off when I heard her say that. It’s simply not a statement that comes up in conversation very often—“when my husband walked on the Moon.” Amazing.

That woman turned out to by Nancy Conrad, whose husband, Pete Conrad, visited the lunar surface on Apollo 12, and brought back samples from the old Surveyor 3 probe that later proved to have viable microbes on them—and incredible story in its own right. Luckily for me, Peter knew Nancy already, so when the event ended, we made a beeline for Nancy and he introduced me.

Throughout the course of that day, Nancy and I talked about the possibility of combining her efforts with ours to create some sort of award that would encourage people, especially young people, to think about space in ccreative and entrepreneurial ways. We left that event charged with excitement about making something happen.

Shortly afterwards, I introduced Nancy to Josh Neubert. Josh is a stellar team member here at X PRIZE, who has run our New Mexico office for the last several years, and who has developed a truly phenomenal educational program associated with the Cup almost single-handedly [Update: Josh has since left X PRIZE to work on the Conrad Awards full time]. I know that this idea was in good hands with Josh, and he quickly clicked with Nancy to further develop the idea. I’ve asked Josh to write here to talk about where the idea went from there:

In our tag team of a story I was introduced to Nancy sometime in the spring of 2007. My first impression was “Wow! This woman has some amazing fire in her!” … I guess you have to in order to be the wife of an Apollo astronaut. We quickly found that her fire fit perfectly in with our X PRIZE Cup team and led us to some very interesting ideas very quickly. We didn’t really know much of what we wanted to do at first. As Will mentioned, we just wanted a program that would help get young people jazzed about space in creative and entrepreneurial ways.

Initially we wanted to tackle everything out there. And in our realm of space exploration we all know that there is a LOT out there. So we quickly had to narrow our focus a bit. It was key to use momentum that the X PRIZE Foundation has already built. Ideas were thrown around considering everything from doing a youth version of the Lunar Lander Challenge, to just doing another innovative company challenge, to doing a “create something neat” challenge. After several months of iterations we settled on doing a two part challenge that was left fairly wide open. Our challenge question was “Design an innovative concept to benefit the personal spaceflight industry within the next 50 years.” We planned to do both a student and professional version of this challenge, but quickly realized that we did not have the capability to take both on at first. Given that a professional version would be more tricky to arrange, and that the real goal was to get youth excited about spaceflight, we decided to focus on the student version of the challenge.

The X PRIZE Cup provided a truly unique opportunity to connect students directly to the industry through this award. This provides the real bread and butter for everyone. I remember one conversation with Nancy where I don’t think I could get a word in edgewise for almost 15 minutes because she was so excited about the possibilities for students. Luckily I was just as excited myself and that’s when we knew we were onto the right idea.

Over the next few months we refined our rules and began the process of getting the first “Pete Conrad Spirit of Innovation Award” out to the public. With 25 entries we were able to find ten finalists who all had amazing submissions, and were all thinking of completely different ideas. At the X PRIZE Cup in October, our ten finalists were able to present their concepts to the industry and general public. By the end of the event three great teams were chosen as our first second and third place teams.

As part of their award, the winning teams were given a trip to Washington, DC, to be recognized at NASA's headquarters in a ceremony that was broadcast on NASA TV and attended by the Deputy Administrator and Associate Administrator Doug Comstock. That event was largely coordinated by Becky Ramsey here in our DC office. Becky came to the X PRIZE Foundation from NASA HQ, so she was the perfect one to help us plan a great event for the students. She's also the best person to tell the rest of the story!

Even though we had announced the winners at the X PRIZE Cup in October, we decided we wanted to extend the Conrad Award program into a year-round activity. To help us kick off 2008, we invited the top three teams to Washington, DC to unveil a traveling exhibit.

Here’s the thing – the NASA Headquarters building in downtown DC is about as far from futuristic as you can get. It’s just another beige office building in a city full of them. But inside that building are a bunch of people who truly believe in their mission. Part of that mission is to inspire kids to pursue careers in science, math, technology and engineering, and these people work very hard at creating opportunities for students to experience what it might be like to work for the space industry.

The Innovative Partnerships Program, led by Doug Comstock, has been generous with both time and financial support, attending the X PRIZE Cup and putting together last week’s event, and supporting the Conrad Award with grant money that went to the winning students’ schools. Other NASA officials, including Deputy Administrator Shana Dale, also showed their support by attending and speaking.

This kind of active engagement gets the attention of teachers and schools. Students get it, too, but usually it’s the teachers who see a project like this first and encourage their students to get involved. One of our goals for 2008 is to get the Conrad Spirit of Innovation Award in front of more teachers and help them get their students involved.

The four students I met last Friday are among the best and brightest. I expect great things from them in the not so distant future. And I look forward to meeting more students just like them in 2008!

If you haven't already, surf on over to the Conrad Awards website and cast your vote for the current crop of finalists!

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