Lessons from NASA's Centennial Challenges

Last week, NASA held an all day technical symposium at its Washington, DC headquarters to discuss the agency's incentive prize program, Centennial Challenges. The session provided a unique opportunity to learn lessons from NASA's first generation of incentive prizes.

As a quick history primer for those new to the program: right around the time that the Ansari X PRIZE for Suborbital Spaceflight was coming to a close, various parts of the US government realized that incentive prizes could be a nice part of the research and development toolkit for a variety of high-tech agencies. DARPA proceeded to move forward with the Grand Challenge program, followed by the Urban Challenge. NASA rolled an entire prize program called Centennial Challenges--so named because the main brainstorm session that led to the prize concepts Centennial Challenges would developed took place around the time of the 100 year anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk. Once authorized and appropriated (to the tune of about $10 million in funding) by Congress, Centennial Challenges proceeded to roll out a total of seven incentive prizes:

Each one of these prizes was an example of a public-private partnership, for each prize was a partnership between NASA (prize purses), a non-profit 'Allied Organization' (prize management), the sponsors and donors of that Allied Organization (funds required for prize management), and the competing teams. Now, after about five years, this first generation of NASA prizes is coming to a conclusion.

With that history lesson aside (Editorial side note: Centennial Challenges' Wikipedia page is in desperate need of an update!), we can move to this past week's events. Last Thursday, NASA hosted a panel on each of these first generation prizes (with the sole exception of the MoonROX Challenge). On each panel were representatives of the Allied Organization, the winning team(s), and, in most cases, a NASA scientist or engineer to whose work the prize was relevant. It was a really fantastic opportunity to hear from a unique, interesting, and talented group of individuals. Though I encourage all of you to read through the various live-tweets of the event (or, if you can find it, to watch the video that should be archived somewhere by NASA TV), I did want to call out a few recurring themes from the session.
  • Leverage: Although some of them are still on-going, it looks as though all of these first generation NASA efforts will match the historical levels of leverage exhibited by incentive prizes dating back to the 1700s: cumulatively, the competing teams will contributed approximately ten times the prize purse's value in cash expended and in in-kind contributions in pursuit of the prize.
  • Massively Parallel Innovation: The prizes discussed at this event each had between ~5 and ~25 teams competing for the relatively low amounts of prize money. In each case, these competing teams encompassed a broad range of technical solutions, and in many cases, individual teams pursued multiple different research and development avenues, and built multiple vehicles / gloves / tethers. As a result, the competitions generated a massive amount of research along a broad range of roughly parallel lines of thought--providing extremely useful data in both the positive and the negative cases.
  • Jobs: Job creation is a metric all of us watch closely in these days of global economic concern. I was struck by how many new jobs were created by the Centennial Challenges program. In almost every prize, the prize money helped convince former hobbyists and amateurs to become professionals, resulting in multiple jobs each a multiple companies for each prize. I don't have an exhaustive amount of hard data, but based just on the data presented last week, I'd wager that the $4.5 million awarded to some 13 teams already by the Centennial Challenges program has led to the creation of ~30 jobs--in addition to the impressive new technologies and the ~$50 million in privately financed research and development.
  • Collaboration and Openness: As most readers of the Launch Pad already know, the teams that competed for the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X PRIZE Challenge were fantastically open with each other and with the public. In addition to extensive blogs (and Twitter accounts, et cetera), the teams often relied on each other as a second set of eyes to analyze every problem, and to suggest potential suggestions. Indeed, if our teams had not been so open with the public and with each other, we certainly would have had different results. But listening to the stories of the other prizes, I was shocked by how often this theme came up. Indeed, on the basis of what we heard last week, a simple trend could be observed: in every case, without exception, the teams that shared the most information with the general public eventually won the competition.
  • Government space, NewSpace, and traditional space can all play nice: The relationship between these three groups is a bet testy at the moment, on the heels of President Obama's budget request. Regardless of what becomes of that, though, one thing was clear: all three of those groups like prizes. We had several examples of 'traditional space' players--companies like Northrop Grumman and ILC Dover--so enthusiastic about these prizes and the technologies and the talent that emerge from them that they became sponsors or the prizes. As mentioned above, these competitions are great examples of Public/Private Partnerships.

I welcome any other suggestions for Lessons Learned in the comments. Capturing all of these will be particularly important as NASA Centennial Challenges moves forward with converting the enormous number of suggestions they've received into the new competition that will make up NASA's second generation of prizes. Given our observations of this first batch, I think we are in for an impressive treat!

Image Notes: Representatives of prize winners and Allied Organizations stand on stage with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, NASA Innovative Partnership Program Director Doug Comstock, and NASA Centennial Challenges staffers Andrew Petro and Patrick Connell. Photo Credit: NASA

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