Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Space Access '07 - Centennial Challenges

Ken Davidian – NASA Centennial Challenges

(Note: Select "Space Access '07" below for all posts related to that conference.")

This talk opened with a backdrop of a computer screen background of an inspirational photo of Earth clouds from space. The photo is credited to Brian Binnie, courtesy of Scaled Composites.

As I noted in other posts I’m doing my best to represent what was said during the Space Access talks I’m posting on, but I couldn’t always hear or keep up with the speakers. I took notes with a pen and a little notebook, so I could only go so fast and put things in my own, briefer words. Ken Davidian is a rather high-energy speaker, so I probably missed more on this talk than the others. Ken actually had an earlier talk on how the branch he works for is interacting with New Space companies. This, second talk (exchanged from the original Space Access schedule) itself was broken into 2 talks. Ken gave the audience a choice of having the planned talk of “Orbital Prizes: a Discussion on ARocket Listserv”, an overview of Centennial Challenges, or both talks. The audience chose both talks.

For the Orbital Prizes talk, Ken gave background on an orbital prize that was investigated by NASA. One internal study and 2 external studies were done. Some ideas from the studies were that bigger is better, since there would be more sponsors and more market transformation from a major prize challenge. Having more competitors is better too. One thing they decided on for the prize is to not specify reusability, and to not specify a high flight rate like 50 flights in 1-3 years. One concept was $10 Million for the 1st 100 people in orbit.

In 2004 Ken did a study on the prize. NASA was contacted by Bigelow Aerospace. They discussed an idea for a shared $25 Million/$25 Million NASA/Bigelow prize. The study wound up having issues with authorization. The NASA human rating board medical officer and safety officer had issues with the prize. Because of the issues they decided they could not cross the hurdle this time.

Major variables considered with the prize were number of crew, mission length, and repeatability. They could minimize the require crew number, mission length, and repeatability requirements to maximize the number of competitors and the chance that someone would win. They could also try to increase the benefit of the challenge by increasing the number of crew. They did first order mass calculations on what the challenge would involve. The studied docking, which added a lot of complexity to the challenge. As a result they were not going to require docking, they would require a crew of only 1-2, the mission would only have to be for 6 hours, or something similar like 1 crew member at 12 hours. They would require a U.S. launch system. If they decided to go with 2 prize purses, they would divide it into something like $75 Million for first prize and $25 Million for second prize. They presented this to Bigelow. Bigelow wanted 4 crew, docking, etc to help satisfy their business needs.

They had the X PRIZE Foundation and Paragon also do studies on the orbital prize. The X PRIZE Foundation called people in a survey type study. Paragon took a design/analysis approach.

The X PRIZE Foundation emphasized that they define their goals up front. Do they want innovation? Do they want the cheapest possible system? They felt that tiered prizes were important, and that the X PRIZE should have had a 2nd prize to keep the competition going after the initial prize was won. They considered that $50 million was too low, $100 million was borderline, and $250 million would be ideal for the prize purse. $500 million would be too much because it would result in political issues, since it would be a tempting target. The X PRIZE Foundation suggested that the prizes be tax free, but that, although it sounds nice, is not realistic since it would require innovative arrangements with the U.S. Treasury on top of all of the other hurdles.

Paragon estimated $200 million to be needed for a competitor to compete, so the orbital prize should be at least $100 million. Other factors such as markets should close the gap. A market is also needed to inspire investment. They thought the prize would probably be won in about 6 years.

All of these studies had a ballpark agreement with the discussions in the ARocket list, which gave some credibility that they were reasonable. However, as mentioned above, NASA did not actually offer the orbital prize. Bigelow of course offered the $50 million America’s Space Prize. (Ray’s note: many commentators are still saying that they don’t expect this prize to be won, suggesting that it’s too ambitious and the prize is too small. One wonders what would have happened if NASA’s funding augmented that amount, NASA’s conclusions about the needed prize amount boosted it some more, and NASA’s assessment that the requirements should be less ambitious all factored into a different orbital prize. Even if the $50 million prize isn’t won, I suspect that Bigelow will be able to make effective use of the unawarded prize money.)

At this point Ken moved on to the Centennial Challenges discussion. Centennial Challenges provides benefits to NASA, including new sources of innovation and leveraging taxpayers’ dollars. (Ray’s Note: Personally I don’t consider the benefits to NASA – other than helping NASA do what it’s supposed to be doing to solve problems external to NASA in areas like commercialization, education, security, economics, and actually getting into space in a profound and sustainable way - as one of the more important rationales for Centennial Challenges, but I guess if you’re selling the idea inside NASA it might be easier to use that approach).

Ken mentioned that the Centennial Challenges program is lean. Out of $12 million appropriated so far over the years, $10.9 million went to prize purses. About $250 thousand went to administration. (Ray’s note: Congress was concerned about the overhead costs for Centennial Challenges a year or 2 ago, but this makes that concern sound extremely unfounded compared to other government programs.) The rest were for taxes. (Ray’s note: I’m not sure how taxes within the government work, but it seems like just shifting money from one account to another, and not a real government/taxpayer expense.)

The prizes enhance awareness of science and technology, and Ken expects a lot of media coverage during prize events to enhance this benefit.

Ken mentioned 5 organizations that are actually running the prizes for NASA (so NASA has virtually no prize administration costs). These organizations include the X PRIZE Foundation, the CAFÉ Foundation, the California Space Education and Workforce Institute, the Spaceward Foundation, and Volanz Aerospace/Spaceflight America. Why do these organizations administer the prizes for NASA? One reason is “exposure with the meatball”. (Ray’s note: that’s the affectionate reference to NASA’s logo).

Ken showed a chart of upcoming competitions:

May 2-3, 2007 (very soon!) Astronaut Glove Challenge in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. Hamilton Sunstrand is helping with this challenge. $250K is up for grabs. $50K of this is for the Mechanical Counter Pressure glove demonstration. They aren’t sure how they’re going to test the MCP challenge.

May 11-12, 2007 (also very soon!) Regolith Excavation Challenge. They just got 2 tons of simulated regolith, and they will get 6 more tons soon. They are compressing it, etc. They don’t expect a winner on the first try, but who knows? They are wearing masks, etc, because of safety rules. This challenge also comes with a $250K purse.

August 4-12 Personal Air Vehicle Challenge. (Ray’s notes: I wrote “where?” in my notes, but I looked it up. The rules say at the “CAFÉ Flight Test Center at Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa, California.”)

October 2007 Beam and Tether Challenges. This time the purses for these challenges are both $500K. Last year at the X PRIZE Cup the Beam challenge went down to the wire. The best team was 2 seconds slow. Four teams got to the top. The previous (first) year no team made it to the top. This is an example of how leaving the prizes out there year after year mightily increases the chances that the innovation will happen.

The time for some of the challenges is 3 years for the glove challenge, 2 years for the regolith challenge, and 5 years for the personal air vehicle challenge.

Ken didn’t talk much about the Lunar Lander Challenge, but the Centennial Challenges overview was in part to inform about the other challenges that people at “Space Access” might not be as familiar with than the LLC (which many in the audience were closely involved with).

Ken discussed the Tether Challenge at the X PRIZE Cup. He stressed reading and understanding the rules. Three out of four teams couldn’t compete in 2006 because the tether was not the right size. He also noted that the house tether that the competitors must beat can be 3 grams (not 2 grams for the challenges) which is how the house tether gets an advantage that requires innovation to beat.

The MoonROx challenge may be held in 2008. This one is for $250K.

Overall 6 challenges will be held this year, which means that the time of Centennial Challenges has hardly begun yet.

Ken found out about funding issues and decided to shore up the existing challenges so there would be prizes in outgoing years. He gave a chart that showed how the prizes are spread over the years. Note that if a challenge is not won in a given year, the prize funds for that challenge are moved into later years. He gave the following chart (that I hastily copied, and hopefully got right - the originally nice chart is depicted unelegantly because of constant width formatting issues):

Total: Glove (1M), Regolith (750K), PAV (2M), Beam (2M), Tether (2M), LLC (2M), MoonROx (1M)

2006: Beam (200K), Tether (200K), LLC (2M), MoonROx (250K)
2007: Glove (250K), Regolith (250K), PAV (250K), Beam (300K), Tether (300K), MoonROx (750K)
2008: Glove (350K), Regolith (500K), PAV (300K), Beam (400K), Tether (400K)
2009: Glove (400K), PAV (400K), Beam (500K), Tether (500K)
2010: PAV (500K), Beam (600K), Tether (600K)
2011: PAV (550K)

For the MoonROx challenge, he just got the administrator’s signature on the $1 million prize. (Ray’s note: I think this might be because the 250K in 2006 didn’t happen, so the funds go to $1 million which is a threshold that requires the signature. At least that’s the sense that I got although it’s not in my notes).

NASA is asking for $4 million per year over the next couple years for Centennial Challenges. At any rate the rollout of the current prizes keeps the doors open for the next few years in case of new opportunities.

There was a question and answer session.

Question: Other prizes shouldn’t have medical issues, so are you looking for collaborators actively? (referring to the earlier discussion on Orbital Prizes)? There should be lots of potential collaborators. Answer: Yes, they are looking into it. He recommends leaving NASA out of your prize if you need to control it, since naturally if you collaborate you will need to work together with NASA and you may encounter issues like they did on the Orbital Prize.

Question from Henry Vanderbilt (major Space Access force): If NASA got more money for Centennial Challenges, could they put it to good use? Ken: Yes. Henry (to the Space Access audience): This seems like a non-controversial topic. Just about everyone here can agree that more money for Centennial Challenges would be good. This is the kind of thing we can get out of Congress if we try, since we are talking about a small amount of money. (Ray’s note: This is a similar theme to one that is often heard. The Coalition for Space Exploration, Space Frontier Foundation, National Space Society, etc all support this, but so far it hasn’t happened).

Question: What prizes were cancelled when the funding stopped? Answer: There were 6 prizes, including a micro reentry prize, rapid reflight, and human lunar ATV. They try to pick prize that support the Exploration group in NASA. They also looked at a lunar lander 5K payload actually reaching the moon. They decided that a 45KM purse would be needed for that challenge.

Question (follow-up to Henry’s comment above): The Space Frontier Foundation plans a roundup on the Hill soon on Centennial Challenges.

More references:

NASA Centennial Challenges

2007 Astronaut Glove Challenge

2007 Regolith Excavation Challenge

Personal Air Vehicle Challenge

2007 Beam Power and Tether Challenges

Lunar Lander Challenge

Moon Regolith Oxygen (MoonROx) Challenge