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I recently talked to Sam Ortega, manager of the Centennial Challenges Program at NASA‘s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, about the program and how makers have participated in the past during the series of technology prize competitions—started in 2005 to stimulate innovation in technologies of interest to NASA—and how they might participate in current and future challenges.

The Centennial Challenges Program offers significant prizes for innovation. Do small amateur teams, or even individual makers, really stand a chance of winning?

Certainly; in fact, it is the citizen inventors, hobbyists, makers — whatever label one cares to use — that make up a majority of our competitors and prize winners. They often go on to create a company to market and sell the technology they competed with. Our Astronaut Glove Challenge first prize was won by Peter Homer, a one-man team, who created his entry at his dining room table in Maine. The second prize went to Ted Southern and Nikolay Moiseev, two men who went on to form a commercial spacesuit company.

The Winning Astronaut Glove from the 2007 challenge

Probably the most noteworthy of the Centennial Challenges to date has been the Lunar Lander Challenge? What did NASA learn from that?

The Lunar Lander Challenge is an excellent example of how we develop a challenge, ensuring that there are multiple uses for the technology being developed — not only space applications, but terrestrial ones as well. In 2005, when NASA began to develop the Lunar Lander Challenge, the moon was one of our exploration destinations. As our exploration goals changed, the technology was still applicable for use closer to home.

Lunar Lander Challenge Recognition Ceremony

The two winning teams received follow-on contracts as commercial space suppliers to further develop their vehicles for sub-orbital flight research. Masten Space Systems continues to fly their vehicle to higher altitudes to provide a research platform for experiments.

After the Challenges—what’s it like to participate in a NASA Centennial Challenge?

Has any of the technology demonstrated in the Lunar Lander Challenge, or the other completed Centennial Challenges, fed back into day-to-day operations in NASA?

Many of our challenges are developed to provide us with solutions for technology needs that may be incorporated into future programs. While there are some instances where the technology would be used by NASA soon after a challenge, like the Lunar Lander and Astronaut Glove challenges, there are other times, such as the Power Beaming Challenge, where the winner went on to sell their technology in the private sector and provided services for the Department of Defense.

Has any of it flown in space?

While none of our current challenge winners to date have flown their technology into space, they have flown into the record books. Our Green Flight Challenge developed aircraft that were capable of flying 200 miles at more than 100 miles per hour with two passengers using less than one gallon of gas equivalent. I say equivalent, because they were electric aircraft. It has helped to open up a whole new area in general aviation. This particular challenge was interesting because many in the aviation field felt that it was not possible to achieve the technical goals established to win the challenge. In two years competitors were able to not only prove them wrong but they double the what was required to win the $1,650,000 prize purse.

There are three current challenges, are any of these obviously going to be more suited for individual makers?

Two in particular are highly suited for the maker. The Sample Return Robot Challenge, conducted by Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Air Operations Challenge, conducted by Development Projects Inc., are both focused on the development of sense-and-avoid hardware and software systems. Sample Return Robot requires a competitor to make a robot that can find samples on a competition field and return them back to the starting point without hitting stationary objects or going out-of-bounds. What makes it a challenge is that the robot cannot use GPS or a magnetic compass. We have seen some very unique designs ranging from LIDAR and infrared sensors to a Kinect camera to see objects. The Unmanned Aircraft System Challenge, in a similar fashion, requires the competitor to develop sense-and-avoid technology that will allow the aircraft to fly safely without affecting other vehicle flight patterns.

There’s a big DIY Drones community, a lot of it based around Ardupilot, are you seeing interest or participation from them in the Unmanned Aircraft Systems challenge?

We recently completed a public review of the rules for the challenge and had great feedback from many interested parties. There seems to also be quite a bit of buzz in the DIY community. We will be opening the challenge for competitor registration sometime in mid to late September. Having teams register to compete will provide a true idea of where these competitors will come from, but I am very optimistic that we will have quite a few makers in the running.

Where do you see the Centennial Challenges heading after the current challenges are completed? Are there more on the horizon?

We have quite a few on the horizon, ranging from advanced manufacturing technologies to developing an extreme environments survivable system for science experiments that we would be able to send to Venus. Venus is a very harsh planet, with temperatures above 900 degrees Fahrenheit and an atmospheric pressure of 1300 psi. Add to that the high concentration of hydrochloric acid in the atmosphere. The longest a science package has survived is two hours. We would like to have the technology for something to survive for more than 10 hours at surface conditions.

NASA is investigating 3d printing, both on the ground, and for in-orbit construction. How do you see that developing?

We are developing an additive manufacturing challenge right now. The process of developing a successful concept is challenging in its own right. We don’t want the rules to be too complex or restrictive. We want them to be clear and concise and very objective to ensure a fair competition. We also want to make sure that there is a back-end business model possibility after the challenge so all of the competitors — those who win prize money and those who don’t — can take their technology into other sectors. I anticipate it will be sometime in 2014 before we starting looking for public comment on our ideas for an additive manufacturing challenge — just enough time for makers to hone their skills in that field. Keep an eye on our website.

What other technologies from the maker world [are] filtering back into NASA? For instance is the Arduino much used by NASA?

Two in particular that have come from the Maker world are; 3D printing in Zero G and Arduino. The first 3D printer to leave Earth’s surface is critical to enable us to go beyond Low Earth orbit.

A 3D Printer created by Made in Space will be flown to the ISS in 2014

There is a big push for the miniaturization of satellites. The cubesat classification is such that a 1U cubesat is just 10cm cubed, a 2U is 10x10x20cm, and a 3U is 10x10x30cm—you get the idea. That really isn’t much room for all of the control systems, electrical systems, propulsion systems, etc., and don’t forget to leave room for the payload science. The use of Arduino, cell phones and custom miniaturized systems are in high demand. The neat thing is that the cost to build a satellite has shrunk dramatically. College students are building them as senior design projects. We hope to see a reduction in launch costs and an increase in launch opportunities so that all of these satellites can fly their science.

Why is the challenge model used by NASA, rather than just awarding contracts or assigning projects internally?

The challenge model provides NASA the ability to obtain numerous solutions to a single problem. Seeing solutions from people with all kinds of different skills, knowledge, interests and imagination gives us a very different insight than what can be accomplished by traditional NASA contracts and internal studies. There will always be another technology riddle to solve, and we believe there are people out there with revolutionary answers who just need the right opportunity to make them happen.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Centennial Challenges Program then you can listen to Sam talk at Maker Faire New York this weekend. He’ll be talking on the Make: Live Stage on Sunday at 11:30AM.

Alasdair Allan

Alasdair Allan is a scientist, author, hacker, tinkerer and co-founder of a startup working on fixing the Internet of Things. He spends much of his time probing current trends in an attempt to determine which technologies are going to define our future.


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