The Games NASA Plays


I've got a story in today's New York Times on NASA's Centennial Challenges -- the contests designed to lure innovators and innovation into the space agency. Here's how it starts:04nasa.2.190.jpgSteve Jones doesn't have a workshop, exactly, for his miniature space elevator; he is designing it in his dorm room and in four labs scattered across the University of British Columbia. He doesn't have a staff, either; a collection of friends and fellow space enthusiasts volunteer to help. And his budget, in the low five figures, comes mostly from the school activities fund, although Red Bull is donating some energy drinks.But he might soon have a chance to join the ranks of the aerospace establishment -- getting money from NASA and, in his own way, helping explore the solar system. To get ready, he is spending 60 hours a week on his elevator, which is meant to haul people and gear into orbit without a rocket. He has even put off graduation until the project is done.Until recently, the chances that a college senior like Mr. Jones would contribute to the NASA space program were remote. Contracts belonged mostly to the Boeings of the world. Tinkerers and students were kept at the far edge of the periphery. But with budgets tightening and the obstacles to human space exploration looking more daunting, NASA is enlisting the expertise of outsiders.For example, the agency is offering 13 contests, which it calls Centennial Challenges, that anyone can enter. The prizes range from $200,000 to more than $5 million, for building gear as diverse as solar sails, lunar excavators and the tiny elevators.But more important than the cash prizes, contestants and administrators say, is the opportunity to sidestep the traditional ways NASA has done business and bring some fresh faces to its ranks."With a regular contract, a small group of students like us wouldn't have a chance," Mr. Jones said. "This way, anyone with a good idea can contribute."Click over here to read this rest. And if you're interested in space, be sure to check in regularly at Alan Boyle's Cosmic Log. When I want space news, it's the first place I click.UPDATE 04/08/06: has a sweet photo montage of the challengers.

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