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NASA retains a power unique in federal government: a capacity to enter into “contracts, leases, cooperative agreements, or other transactions as may be necessary […] with any person, firm, association, corporation, or educational institution.” The agency’s overseers have used this to launch special entrepreneurial programs, small business contracts, cash incentive prizes, and volunteer opportunities for the community.

The Centennial Challenges program is one of NASA’s shining stars, and frequently has incubated the cash-winning contestants into government-contracted entrepreneurs such as the winners of the Astronaut Glove, Lunar Lander, and Power Beaming challenges.

A tetherman prepares to catch LaserMotive’s climbing robot at the 2009 Power Beaming Challenge. They were awarded $900,000 for first place.

A tetherman prepares to catch LaserMotive’s climbing robot at the 2009 Power Beaming Challenge. They were awarded $900,000 for first place.

NASA announced two new challenges in 2015:

  1. 3D Printed Habitat Challenge: Revealed at Maker Faire Bay Area, this competition offers a $2.25 million total purse for the design and construction of printable habitations for deep space exploration.
  2. CubeQuest Challenge: This competition awards $5 million to teams that can design and build flight hardware capable of various operations around and beyond the moon. One contest, called “Last Cubesat Standing,” will be won by the maker of a cubesat that can communicate back to Earth from the farthest distance in deep space.
First-place (and $200,000) winner Peter Homer demonstrates his glove at the 2009 Astronaut Glove Challenge.

First-place (and $200,000) winner Peter Homer demonstrates his glove at the 2009 Astronaut Glove Challenge.

Some challenges have been proven especially difficult. The Sample Return Challenge is a competition to develop a fully autonomous robot capable of sensing its environment and avoiding obstacles without compass or GPS navigation, and identify and collect rock samples to be returned to its starting point. It is in its fourth year of competitive trials and no prize money has yet to be awarded.

NASA also offers smaller-scale programs as well.

The NASA Tournament Lab is an actively updated portal with opportunities to solve software code-based problems.

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The International Space Apps Challenge is a very popular, irregularly scheduled hackathon where remote teams solve a range of exploration-themed projects. One notable winner converted NASA proprietary formatted “VICAR” image files from deep space probes into more common formats — entire databases of previously unshared pictures were instantly available for public consumption!

And the agency has many more entrepreneurial-based programs, including Small Business Innovative Research Grants — used recently by the private group that put a 3D printer on the International Space Station. Citizen space Makers can find these programs on the NASA website.