Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Ramblings About Centennial Challenges and Politics

I have a few thoughts about the trouble getting Congress to fund new Centennial Challenges for several years. You can see some of the recent history of this effort by checking the "Politics" tag below, and if you want going back to older posts with that tag. You'll see the struggle as the Space Frontier Foundation, the National Space Society, ProSpace, the Space Exploration Alliance Space Budget Blitz team, and others made efforts to support space prizes, but so far no new funding has resulted, in spite of plenty of money for expensive and duplicative rockets like Ares I as well as lots of earmarks.

I tend to agree with Rick Tumlinson's position that

If we can’t win something this relatively small in the battle to change our national space agenda, it bodes extremely ill for our chances not only to force NASA to implement a pro-frontier strategy, it also is an ill omen for our ability to defend the newborn child of NewSpace and our chance to move beyond governments into space.

(from Transterrestrial Musings). That was during last year's Centennial Challenges budget setback, and already it seems we've got to look to next year.

I'm not sure what the level of support for Centennial Challenges is in the space interest world like the members of the organizations that form the Space Exploration Alliance. Certainly they support the prizes, and many of the organizations have fought for them and done their own work in the prize area - you can see evidence of that on this site. However, each group has it's own focus, and the generic concept of prize competitions may not get many members politically active compared to each group's main focus area (Mars missions for the Mars Society, etc). Perhaps support for space prizes in these communities is like support for space in the general population: "a mile wide and an inch deep". It's hard to say from here - I'm not very politically minded myself, other than being interested in the actual results of the political process, and have little sense for such things.

I'm not sure what kind of response there would be in 2008 if the space interest groups tried to not only continue the Congressional face-to-face discussions of prizes, but also to, as a group, gather petitions, start letter-writing campaigns, present discussions in emails or magazines, and the like in support of Centennial Challenges, sort of like the Planetary Society Save Our Science campaign. Would the members respond, and if they did would Congress respond in turn? It seems that more of an effort is needed than we've seen in the past, but is the will there? Such a campaign might need to involve not only the space interest groups, but also the Centennial Challenges Allied Organizations, the competitor teams, and the sponsors and partners of these participants. Less than that might not be noticed by Congress.

One thing that may be missing is widespread knowledge of what new Centennial Challenges are at stake. RLV News gave some insight into this early in the year's budget process. From the budget document:

With the FY 2008-2012 funding request of $4M/year for Centennial Challenges, new prize
competitions will be initiated to support NASA's science (e.g., the Station-Keeping Solar Sail
Challenge), aeronautic (e.g., the Micro Reentry Vehicle Challenge), and space exploration (e.g., the Human Lunar All Terrain Vehicle Challenge) goals. Centennial Challenges is continually working with each of the NASA Mission Directorates to ensure that competitions selected are addressing the current set of NASA's technology priorities.

You can get more ideas on the kinds of prizes they've considered here. That's an old Centennial Challenges document that considers future prizes like a fuel depot demonstration, a micro reentry vehicle, a station-keeping solar sail, a human lunar ATV, a low-cost space pressure suit, a non-toxic RCS engine, and a lunar night power source. Here's another old document from New Scientist. My gut feeling is that most people, even those actively interested in space, don't have an idea what new prizes are being considered.

What would be good to see is an up-to-date idea on the top few prizes that Centennial Challenges is considering, what kind of funding they'd need, and what their priorities are. The idea is for these potential, but currently unfunded, future prizes to be discussed in magazines, web sites, and so on. A single prize idea could be featured in detail in an article, of course with the point that it's currently unfunded presented up-front. Fancy artist's impressions of winning entries for the new prize being discussed could be featured in articles - and even made part of contests akin to NSS's calendar art contest. It's not as if other as-yet unfunded ideas have never been presented before. It would be good to see some kind of web site set up by some dedicated advocate for each top-ranking Centennial Challenge prize idea under consideration. To be honest, I've seen very little discussion of specific new prizes, so I'd have to bet most other folks in the general public haven't, either.

To be clear, what I'm talking about may involve some additional communication work from the NASA Centennial Challenges folks, but virtually all of the effort I'm suggesting might be needed has to come from outside - for example from the space advocates.

This type of publicity would give space advocates an idea of what they would be fighting for, or not fighting for, if they choose, or do not choose, to speak up for the prizes. A Moon Society member may not care in particular about the abstract concept of prizes, but they may be a lot more interested in supporting a human lunar ATV prize or a lunar night power source prize. On the other hand, they might not care about some other, non-lunar prize. The same might be true of a space business like SpaceHab deciding whether or not they want to advocate for a micro reentry vehicle prize that could be used to return experiments from the ISS. If they know the prize under consideration would be of business use to them, they might be a lot more interested than if it's irrelevant to their planned business. The same goes for potential prize competitors.

All of this also applies to non-space constituencies. If Centennial Challenges comes up with a plan for a suborbital rocket prize pushing specific capabilities (such as high altitude, large payload, or reusability), space advocates made get interested if the plan is publicized and discussed in their information sources. If the suborbital prize requirements include capabilities of interest to other constituencies, like high quality Earth imagery or other measurements for environmental, military, disaster relief, urban planning, science, or intelligence interests, and these capabilities can be publicized in the information sources those constituencies use, there may be a much bigger push for the prize than if only space interests were involved. Selecting a prize with appeal inside and outside the space community may involve a lot of up-front investigation, but it may be worth the effort.

The publicity of specific prize ideas that are seriously in consideration by Centennial Challenges would give the public a better, more concrete way to decide whether or not they're interested in supporting the prizes.