Convert moon rocks to oxygen and other ways to earn $250,000
May 6, 2006 5:04 PM   Subscribe

The NASA Centennial Challenges: Inspired by the X-Prize, NASA has begun a series of challenges to private inventors with cash prizes for things ranging from extracting oxygen from moon rocks to building better astronaut gloves to improving personal aircraft. Thanks to Congressional approval, NASA will be launching larger challenges of up to $50 million in value, including a new multi-million dollar lunar lander contest. With government space efforts criticized by private entrepreneurs, is this the right direction for NASA?
posted by blahblahblah (10 comments total)
I'd like to see a bit more low hanging fruit - challenges that an individual could tackle in a home workshop without needing a vast consortium and funding to match.

OTOH, some well-funded consortium would probably aim to scoop those catagories too :-/
posted by -harlequin- at 5:24 PM on May 6, 2006

i think if they were easy, there'd be no point in offering prizes to get people to do them.

great post bbb!
posted by sergeant sandwich at 5:28 PM on May 6, 2006

"The lion's share of this flight will be devoted to the study of the effects of weightlessness on tiny screws. Unbelievable, and just imagine the logistics of weightlessness. And of course, this could have literally millions of applications here on Earth -- everything from watchmaking to watch repair."
posted by Rhomboid at 5:45 PM on May 6, 2006

i think if they were easy, there'd be no point in offering prizes to get people to do them.

How so? A prize is just a payment (be it money or glory :), better than a payment from an employers point of view, because you only pay one - it allows for most of the "employees" to work without getting paid at all!. There are plenty of "easy" things that people get paid to do. Drive a taxi, assess an insurance claim, develop code to solve a simple problem, etc etc.

A prize means you attract more people to solving the problem, and generally raise the level of effort made, and so hopefully get a better solution.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:50 PM on May 6, 2006

Or to put it another way, offering a prize is what companies do when they want a design but can't afford to pay for a real designer. And it often gets good results. NASA has limited budget in context of their goals, but a fair amount of romance/prestige in some circles, so maybe they should farm out problems for which they couldn't afford a real engineer.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:54 PM on May 6, 2006

Offering incentive to drive better results is really "in" these days, from t-shirts to spaceships. I think it's fantastic, and the competition absolutely improves the result. I think NASA will definitely profit from working outside a regular stable of contractors.
posted by Isabeau Sahen at 6:21 PM on May 6, 2006

What's really good about this kind of approach is that it's entirely performance-based. You succeed and get the money, or you don't. Most government work pays the contractors whether or not they actually deliver a damn thing.

The contracting is probably going to provide more RELIABLE results, but the prizes cost nothing if nobody can do them. NASA can only benefit.
posted by Malor at 6:47 PM on May 6, 2006

The only problem is, if you spend $x amount of money, do what needed to be done, but then someone else did it as well, or did it slightly quicker, and got the money.

I mean several people came up with workable space ship designs in order to win the x-prize, but only one person was able to collect.

A better prize would be 'everyone submit designs, and we pick the most likely to succeed, everyone who succeeds gets paid, and the first/best get double the money'.

There would be a lot more incentive in either of those situations, IMO.
posted by delmoi at 8:21 PM on May 6, 2006

Since contests like this generally put the prize money well below what the actual value of the final product is (X-Prize is a prime example), looking at this from a monetary standpoint is pointless. Two things drive these contests: 1.) The prestige of winning. Seriously, how cool would it be to be able to say "You know the gloves the astronauts wear? Yeah, i designed those."

Of course the kind of person who would have the skills to pull any of these things off is clearly a geek and has a malleable concept of what is prestigious, so for all you haters, this is not why you would try.

2.) A chance at being the firm that produces the final product. i didn't see it in the links, but i would assume that whomever makes a working final product would have the opportunity to continue producing them at contractor costs. [and i'm fully willing to be wrong here] but it was common practice in the military for developers to become contractors, i can see NASA following this scheme. This is where the big payout would be for someone clever enough to develop a product and then continue making them for the continuation of the space program.

And while you almost never see a true backyard inventor taking home the prize in situations like these (and by backyard inventor i mean someone who spent $10,000 as opposed to $1,000,000) They do seem to be more commonly frequented by a smaller group who spent a million on something that had a real passion for than a company who spent ten million and destroyed a good concept in focus groups and corporate bureaucracy.

All in all, i applaud this idea.
posted by quin at 9:34 PM on May 6, 2006

I think everything about this is good. If private enterprise can get me into space in a few years, awesome.
posted by spinifex at 3:32 AM on May 7, 2006

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