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NASA Challenges All Scientists to Join the Race for Space

Attention all physicists, mathematicians, and anyone, really, with an interest in science: there is a new competition in the world. A new set of competitions, actually. Called the Centennial Challenge, it has been launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA is looking for a few good geniuses to help the agency solve the problems it is facing, as it prepares to explore the planet Mars and some of the deeper recesses of outer-space. NASA plans to reward the innovators it seeks with cash prizes. In doing so, the U.S. space agency becomes part of a long-standing tradition.

NASA was challenged to come up with something like the Centennial Challenge back in 1999, when the National Academy of Engineering published a report emphasizing the role prize contests have played throughout history in the development of vital technology. The so-called Longitude Problem, for example, was complicating trans-Atlantic navigation in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was solved only after the British Parliament offered a staggering 20,000 pounds to anyone who could develop a way to accurately measure longitude. Napoleon Bonaparte offered 12,000 French francs to anyone who could come up with a reliable method of preserving food for the French army. And just last year, the first privately designed plane was flown into space after the Ansari X Prize Foundation offered $10 million to anyone who could do it.

"It's largely driven by the past success of prize competitions," says Brant Sponberg, program manager for NASA's Centennial Challenge. He says the first set of competitions will focus on the development of two different innovations that NASA desperately needs. First, the agency is looking for a strong, lightweight material that can be used to make ropes and tethers. And second, it is looking for a wireless way to transmit energy from one point to another.

"Although we're still going to tap all the university researchers, all the contractors and NASA field centers that we normally work with," says Mr. Sponberg, "we needed a way to reach out to the professor in another field who may have a solution to our problem but may not be thinking of NASA as he goes about his work, or the smart hobbyist who may have a neat way to do something, or the pioneer who normally doesn't like to do NASA kind of work, maybe doesn't like to work with the government, who would love to have his name go down in history as making a great achievement."

But what is it about a competition that gets people thinking innovatively? Certainly the prize money is an incentive. But the $100,000 first place award in the Centennial Challenge pales in comparison to what the winning inventor will make later from the sales of his invention. He would not have had to enter the contest to get that, so participating in the competition must be about more than just the money.

"The contest just gets people thinking," says Karen Walsh, assistant dean at the University of Wisconsin's College of Engineering. For the past 11 years, the university has been holding the annual Schoofs Competition, which is similar to the Centennial Challenge. "Without the encouragement of a competition like this (and) the support of the educational seminars that we wrap around it," she says, "I think probably very few of those students would move forward to create their invention, and to really try to carry it out."

That may be true, but some historians are skeptical that prize contests can really spur the sort of innovation that NASA is looking for. Robert Post is curator emeritus at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History. He says success stories like that of John Harrison (who won Britain's 20,000 pound prize in 1773 for inventing an accurate marine chronometer) are really quite unusual. "Particularly in this country," Mr. Post says, "there's continual interest in fostering the notion that sort of the lone, isolated, classical inventor still makes a difference, and it's really not true. Almost without exception, inventions of any significant merit come out of R and D [research and development] labs, or military research, or out of big organizations, and they can't really be credited to one person."

Not only that, but creating truly innovative technology can be very expensive - which is why most inventors choose to look for grants, rather than compete for prize money, says Arthur Molella, who heads the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the History of Invention. "You don't get the money until you win the prize," he says. "Whereas the grant process, of course, gives young investigators money right up front to pursue certain kinds of technology."

Still, Arthur Molella says competitions cannot really hurt the innovation process - and it is possible… even if it is not likely… that NASA just may find what it is looking for through the Centennial Challenge. Mr. Molella also notes that there is no shortage of prize contests designed to get people thinking of new ways to solve old problems. A cursory search on the Internet yields hundreds of private and government-sponsored websites that are chock full of information about cash awards for people who invent new technology.