Competitive Prizes Regarding Space as a Waste-Reducing Means of NASA Procurement

     One can derive an explanation of what competitive prizes are from the following quote from a former NASA prizes director:

  "Instead of soliciting proposals for a grant or contract award, NASA will state its technical goals without prescriptions for achieving them. In each challenge, multiple (competing) teams will integrate, test and fly various approaches to a certain goal. As multiple teams succeed or fail in going after a challenge, the competitive process will distinguish between those technologies that can be imagined and those that can be practically developed..."                
                          Brant Sponberg, former program manager of NASA's Centennial Challenges

See: &

Why aren't more, and bigger prizes available there though? NASA's annual budget is around $20 billion. Nevertheless, its space prizes still amount to merely a few million, right?


For an interesting analysis at, feel free to click here.   Meanwhile, isn't it puzzling how tax-subsidized and supposedly innovative NASA still only aspires to allocate about 1/1000 of its (frequently-growing) budget to competitive prize offerings?    After years of government contracting-related failures, DARPA subsequently offered a $2 million dollar competitive prize which has already achieved the desired results.   In contrast, NASA still offers relatively small prizes despite having a much larger overall budget than DARPA's.   NASA's Centennial Challenges remain inadequate even as NASA now has the Congressional authorization to make them worth millions of dollars or more.   Why do we let this happen in our democracy?   Shouldn't NASA be eager to adequately fund prizes, considering how section 102 of NASA's charter requires that NASA "seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space"?  To comment on this to your elected officials, please click here.

VentureBeat article: With still existing  NASA prizes already won, $4 million are allocated for NASA prizes in 2010 (out of NASA's annual $18 billion dollar budget).  Will Congress nix that funding allocation again, though?

NASA's 2008 budget request (.pdf, page 460): requested prizes funding declines drastically during future years...  In contrast, the Department of Energy is poised to offer relatively larger competitive prizes.  Are your elected officials supporting this healthy paradigm shift?
       Since the White House's budget proposal for NASA's Centennial Challenges  competitive prizes program is so meager, it would seem that additional funds will apparently have to come from other NASA programs.  Might you have any in mind that you'd like to democratically recommend for cuts?

NASA's prizes program has its share of problems, as one can see here and especially here (where it says what follows):

     "The Committee does not provide any funding in fiscal year 2007 for the Centennial Challenges program. Funding provided in previous fiscal years for this program is sufficient for NASA to run a prize based competition, as well as to verify that NASA will see tangential benefits from running such a program. Providing additional funds to a program based on prizes only creates a pot of unused funds while other aspects of NASA's mission are being cut or delayed due to a lack of funds."


The White House requested $20 million for NASA prizes for FY 2005. Congress consequently directly appropriated $9.7 million. Undaunted, the White House admirably requested $34 million for FY 2006. (pages 153-154 of 389, or SAE 7-16, 7-17).

Apparently Congress allocated nothing though, perhaps because much of the tax dollars that NASA previously allocated for competitive prizes still had not been committed to any actual prizes.  Now under new leadership, NASA has requested far less for FY 2007.   Should the space entrepreneurial community be pleased?  Here's an interesting quote:

 "We congratulate NASA for spending one-eighth of one percent of its budget on what it says will be actual accomplishments rather than proposals," said Foundation Founder Rick Tumlinson. "If this trend continues, we foresee a day that when NASA gets new technologies, it might spend one-quarter or even one-half of a percent on real, proven hardware, instead of paper studies and pork. Although we are glad some people of vision at the agency are trying to do the right thing, the project is too small, and its goals are too limited. Meanwhile, NASA will continue to pour billions into dead end studies and projects while not opening space to the people. As taxpayers, however, we think NASA can do better than that.”

                                                                                                                                                                                      Rick Tumlinson
                                                                                                                                                                     Space Frontier Foundation co-founder

And here's another:

  "A true competition, like the British Royalty Prize (see the book "Longitude"), the Orteig and Kramer prizes is something that absolutely will work. These approaches just define the goal. They do not try to define how to reach the goal, but merely put up the money and stand aside.  Then, and only then can true competition come to life and produce results.  This approach has often attracted prize-pursuing investment by competing teams that collectively amounts to as much as 40 TIMES the cost of the prize, itself.   Why won't NASA put up a billion dollars as a competitive prize for attaining a difficult goal, sort of like the X-Prize Cup is doing with far less money?  Then the taxpayer could get as much as  a 40:1 leverage on his or her tax dollars.   Additionally, at least most of it would be spent efficiently, not thrown away like it is now in the traditional government contracts setting."
                                                                                     World record-breaking Ansari X-Prize winner & Scaled Composites´ CEO Burt Rutan

     In the absence of such NASA-funded competitive prizes, is it surprising that innovators have not been able to significantly lower the cost of accessing space?   After all, the government procurement process can be flagrantly corrupt, as this Washington Post article helps document.   Unsurprisingly, though, the sponsorship-seeking, NASA newsleak-coveting space media outlets typically do not provide any particularly significant coverage of subversive actions which potentially serve to thwart the long overdue potential creation of far more adequate space prizes.  

NASA Watch.INFO tells it like it is!  Why won't other media outlets, despite their need for sponsorship from government contractors?

It would be nice if we could get NASA to offer more significant competitive prizes, but there's still a lot of procurement reforming left to do there.  Why is it worth pushing in favor of this paradigm change though?   This article lists various reasons.     

"A major advantage to the competitive prizes procurement approach is that you know in advance how much taxpayers will have to pay if the goal is achieved.   If it's not achieved then taxpayers don't have to foot the bill."  

                                                                                      Dr. Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society and CEO of Pioneer Astronautics

        If Congress ultimately keeps from fortifying the competitive prizes part of NASA's proposed budget, then it's most likely due to unpatriotic pork barreling, and enduring gratitude for recently criminalized corporate campaign contributions.  Do our elected officials (and their political parties) not deserve to be held politically accountable though?  Of course, purported "justifications" for insisting upon sticking with the typically inefficient (yet lucrative for contractors) government contracting status quo predictably abound.   They usually do when taxpayers are being taken advantage of.   Do we really have the government that we deserve though (to paraphrase Ben Franklin)?  

"If pro is the opposite of con, then what is the opposite of progress?"       

      Fairly recently enacted campaign finance reforms should change the status quo as time progresses.   We will be enduringly publishing any information we come across regarding precisely who the specific culprits are for any potential sabotaging of this new NASA-funded prizes endeavor.   Unfortunately, we remain unpersuaded that any other space media outlets (which paradoxically seek support from aerospace government contractors even as they're supposed to scrutinize them...) will adequately cover this nevertheless highly important story regarding how a long overdue reform at NASA is potentially getting sabotaged.   The internet 's prevalence erodes the influence of corrupted media outlets, though...   Please feel free to contact us with any relevant information that you want us to have.  As this page is maintained by a licensed attorney volunteer in Washington D.C., confidentiality will be vigorously guarded if requested.  

      Meanwhile, for an additional analysis regarding why larger prize-offerings could help numerous competing entrepreneurs finally bring about cheap access to space even as governments have repeatedly failed, please read the following excerpt from an article by Newt Gingrich:

    "For much of this country's history, prizes motivated sharp minds to innovate quickly while avoiding the dual demons of massive paperwork and entangling bureaucracies. Offering prizes expands the number of minds that will be working on a specific problem at the same time, thereby likely shortening the time before breakthroughs occur.   If the government funded more prizes, Americans could stop cheering for television contestants and start rooting for amateur and professional scientists and researchers as they race toward meeting the challenge of a national scientific or technological need, such as profitable space travel, or finding a cure for AIDS, or cancer, or coming up with a breakthrough in the national defense realm.  
      Why not offer a prize of $1 billion to the innovator of a working system that would get people and equipment into orbit for 10% of the current, bureaucracy-plagued, cost?   If no one produces the breakthrough, no one gets the money.  That could dramatically lower the cost of all future space flight." 

Newt Gingrich, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and former speaker of the House

[Newt published a very relevant OpEd in USA Today, which is maintained here.    Here's a discussion forum dedicated to it.].

Meanwhile, here is an interesting excerpt from an interview maintained at "I am for a dramatic increase in our efforts to reach out into space, but I am for doing virtually all of it outside of NASA through prizes and tax incentives. NASA is an aging, unimaginative bureaucracy committed to over-engineering and risk-avoidance which is actually diverting resources from the achievements we need and stifling the entrepreneurial and risk-taking spirit necessary to lead in space exploration."

[Incidentally, some space entrepreneurs have started congregating online, in this forum, to discuss Newt's potential significance to humanity's finally opening the space frontier.]

       Far below in this article is a list of the known space-related prizes available thus far.   To our knowledge, none receive any government funding and many U.S. government agencies don't offer competitive prizes (yet).   This is predictable, though.   After all, prizes do not subsidize lots of bureaucratic red tape and possibilities for opportunistic behavior which often keep government employees and members of their pet contractors relatively luxuriously employed.  Instead, adequate prizes potentially empower smaller yet more innovative companies to come up with technological breakthroughs that could help fix the USA's presently troubled launch industry.   Offering a prize rewards the most efficient companies, instead of the ones that are merely the most effective at lobbying Congress to preserve bloated and wasteful government programs that compete against a budding private industry.   Did you know that a prize is what financially empowered Charles Lindberg to privately and profitably make the first trans-Atlantic flight nearly a century ago?

"The history of aviation advances is marked by competitions, such as the 1909  $2,500 London Daily Mail Prize for the first powered flight across the English Channel, the Guggenheim prizes in the late 1920s to promote air safety, and the $25,000 Orteig Prize that Charles Lindbergh won in 1927 for flying the "Spirit of St. Louis" from New York to Paris, the first nonstop solo transatlantic flight."    
                                                                                                                -Source:  Washington Post, Dec. 5th, 2001.

       The resistance to NASA's offering adequate prizes goes back to well before the current Administration.   For example, while Lori Garver headed NASA Headquarters´ now discontinued Office of Policy & Plans during the late 1990's, her inspired efforts led NASA to make an apparently pioneering, playing field-leveling request of Congress to fund prizes with which to inspire & empower privately owned breakthroughs regarding space.   However, Congress did not authorize prizes for NASA that year, and it is not clear how much institutional backing Ms. Garver received from the Clinton Administration.   Apparently the space activism groups were not notified in time to lobby Congress, either.   Lori has since returned to the private sector (Avascent Group).   Fortunately NASA sort of repeated her prizes request.  

      Have you noticed how NASA has space shuttle and space station programs that compete against previously existing and / or potentially existing private ventures such as MirCorp or thwarted launch ventures?  

    Editor's note: we have absolutely NO formal relationship, whatsoever, with any prize-offering foundations and we certainly have never accepted any funds from any.   Simply put, we are persuaded by the concept,  and by the data that's already available.  

      As mentioned above, according to Ansari X-Prize winner Scaled Composites´ CEO Burt Rutan, an adequate prize (or "guaranteed market") generally leverages a collective investment made by the private sector pursuing it that is 40 times greater than the actual amount of the prize.   Admittedly, perhaps the larger the prize is, the lower that  40:1 multiple becomes.   Nevertheless, anything better than a 1:1 ratio like what we presently get from NASA's self-perpetuating and tired government contracting policies is still an improvement, is it not?

    "Once [DARPA's Grand Challenge] was announced, energizing people was definitely not a problem: More than 100 robotics teams applied. Realizing that 100 robots racing across Southern California might be hard to manage, the agency cut the field to 25 (including one team with $3.5 million invested in pursuit of the 1 million dollar prize)..." article

 "The defense agency spent $13 million on the race. It estimates competitors laid out four to five times that amount developing their entries, which rely on global positioning satellites as well as a variety of sensors, lasers, radar and cameras to orient themselves and detect and avoid obstacles."                                                                                 article

 Here's an additional quote that is worth considering:

     "When money is delivered in expectation of results, rather than for the results themselves, the decision makers have an obligation to put the money where they think it will likely accomplish something. This almost guarantees that nothing too far outside the norm will be funded, because it could make the decision-makers look very foolish. There would certainly be backlash if the government gave $50 million to a crackpot anti-gravity research company.   However, if they offered a $50 million prize, and it was somehow actually won by a crackpot anti-gravity research company..."
John Carmack
                                                                                                                                               CEO, Armadillo Aerospace

        Maybe if NASA offered the $10 billion or so dollars presently designated for the highly criticized Crew Exploration Vehicle program  as an adequate prize instead, then perhaps as much as $200 billion might be collectively invested by all the companies that pursue it.    Contrast that with the CEV program, itself, which is plagued with meddlesome centralized planners and which resembles the failed $1.3 billion dollar X-33 program, as well as the bureaucratic former Soviet Union.  CEV, like the wasteful and discontinued X-33 program, heavily funds huge companies pretending to innovate but which actually have little incentive to bring down the cost of launching because the quantity of government-sponsored launches would likely not increase, regardless.   As  NASA's "cost-plus" means of compensating corporate contractors involves giving them a percentage of their overall expenditures as some sort of "profit", there are presently still astonishing incentives for contractors and their bureaucrat allies to make things as expensive as the political process will tolerate.   With our record high $8 trillion dollar national debt though, can we continue to let this happen in our democracy?  

“The advantage of a free market is that it allows millions of decision-makers to respond individually to freely determined prices, allocating resources -- labor, capital and human ingenuity-- in a manner that can't be mimicked by a central plan, however brilliant the central planner.”                                                                                                                                                                  -- Friedrich A. Hayek

       In contrast with NASA's CEV procurement scenario, companies competing for a prize, contingency contract or guaranteed market would refreshingly not have to disclose (or sign over) their intellectual property secrets to a government agency that ironically has a vested interest in keeping its own competing Space Shuttle and Space Station fully funded by our democratically elected Congress.   Meanwhile, companies failing to win a particular prize might nevertheless encounter other means of deriving income during their quest, such as the sale of  sponsorship rights or patents (as long as they are protected from otherwise inevitable government ownership, pursuant to 42 USC 2457 of the U.S. Code).    New markets, more jobs, and more innovative approaches could all result.  

In 2007, advertisers in the U.S. reportedly spent nearly $150 billion in advetising of different sorts.

"The $26 billion that [U.S.] marketers will spend in 2010 in online display ads, email, search, and classified ads will represent [merely] 8% of all advertising spending - rivaling spending on cable/satellite TV and radio."

                                                                                                                                                         Forrester Research report

Why won't the NASA clique more greatly embrace this approach using more of its $17 billion dollar annual budget?  

      Some might claim that prize-offerings could somehow result in discrimination against those potential entrepreneurs who supposedly couldn't get investment despite the existence of an adequate prize.   However, if
the way that NASA treats minority-owned small businesses, let alone small businesses, is supposedly so appealing to them then why hasn't space succeeded at attracting the investment of capital and talent by the aeronautically-inclined U.S. Airways board member and former owner of Black Entertainment Television, Robert Johnson?  Is that pioneer not a billionaire, and also an aeronautics enthusiast who made a bid for the potential D.C. Airways venture?   Nevertheless, has anybody noticed his deafening silence in terms of expressing any tangible entrepreneurial interest in space?   Why would this be, if NASA is genuinely good for small and minority-owned businesses?   The same can be said regarding Donald Watkins, a billionaire Alabama-based attorney who owns two planes, part of a third, is buying a Boeing 737, and says "I actually care more about my airplanes than my cars."   Can anyone blame Donald for aspiring to become the first black baseball club owner instead of a pioneer in space who would have to try and co-exist with a potentially very jealous NASA?   Indeed, Mr. Watkins views with disdain "government handouts" such as those which NASA uses to purchase potential critics' silence.  Isn't it remarkable how NASA pretends to offer certain ethnic minorities a racial spoils system in exchange for their political support, while actually keeping them down & dependent on the "NASA plantation"?   What if NASA started funding adequate competitive prizes though?  

    NASA could, for example, offer prizes for Mars sample returns, rather than spend the money on job-creating paper studies and meetings upon meetings which often just delay matters while probably missing the fossils.   Can´t the safety issues be resolved in ways that still allow for the massive involvement of all sorts of companies and competing approaches? Are we really that comfortable with NASA´s playing the king-maker role after bloated contractor Lockheed Martin's 1999´s Mars failures helped lead to the commercial failures of various potentially helpful and certainly expensive Mars movies from Hollywood?   Already the 2001 Mars Odyssey's radiation measuring instrument has failed, and the 2001 lander was scrapped altogether.   2004 successes have come at enormous cost, too.   Our current procurement system seems broken.  Why don't we democratically try to fix it?

"If NASA finally offered Mars-related competitive prizes instead of contracts then at least we'd stand a far better chance of getting to compete on a team that can outperform the likes of Lockheed Martin, which has puzzlingly had a stronghold for years regarding obtaining NASA's Mars-related dollars despite its less than reliable track record."
                                                                                                           Max Solis, CEO of BST Systems

Editor's note:   BST Systems provided the battery for NASA's 1997 Mars Pathfinder Mission, which impressively lasted 3 times as long as NASA had contracted for it to last.  Surprisingly though, BST's batteries have not been included in any subsequent Mars endeavors.   And yet NASA simultaneously brags about being a friend to ethnic minorities such as that Puerto Rican American?   Some quietly say that NASA's self-perpetuating bureaucrats hold  the prospect of  future sub-contracts out for minorities in order to try and encourage them NOT to let anyone whom they can influence speak out against the status quo.   But as Benjamin Franklin once said, "the people have the government that they deserve."  

      Can you imagine how many different approaches, and also jobs, would result from an adequate prize´s or contingency contract's finally being offered by our tax-supported government, the leaders of which almost constantly depend upon our votes?   With the availability of adequate prizes, the cost of access to space would probably finally come down considerably for everyone.   But then again, wouldn´t the NASA clique lose its monopoly if that sort of development came about?   Throughout the course of human history, what monopoly has ever voluntarily given up its privileged status, despite the possible existence of inspired reformers inside of it like Lori Garver tried to be?    We are not aware of any, but perhaps you know of an exception?    If so, please let us know.   We would also be fascinated to learn of any ongoing initiatives to get NASA to spend more of its exorbitant $16 billion dollar annual budget on funding adequate prizes.  

Here are some discussion threads devoted to this subject:;; TransterrestrialMusings;; HabitableZoneSlashdot.


PRIVATELY funded (but still relatively small) rocketry prizes:

Ansari X Prize Foundation
Armadillo Aerospace's High Performance Propulsion Award

"Babylon 7 Micro Shuttle Contest"

Bigelow Prize / America's Space Prize

Bowery prize

Google Lunar X Prize

HobbySpace´s guide to rocketry prizes

Stark Draper Open Source Rocketry Award

X Prize Cup
World Technology Network / X Prize Foundation

Any others?


Additional space-related contests:

Heinlein Prize

HobbySpace´s contest directory

Any others?

Additional high tech. prizes

Aerospace Industries Association's
$59,000 model rocket contest.

DARPA offered a $2 million dollar prize
for a breakthrough pertaining to transportation
and artificial intelligence.  It was a roaring success.
[Grand Challenge website]

Defense Department's prizes page

DOE's H Prize

Google contest 1: while the judging process was more
subjective than it perhaps ought to have been, the
contest was not altogether different from a prize.  

Google contest 2: Google Code Jam

International Robot Racing Federation's
million dollar robotics prize

Odyssey Of The Mind

PETA's In Vitro Meat Production Prize

RSA recently awarded a prize
and here are the details regarding the winners.

RSA Laboratories Factoring Challenge
("to encourage research into computational number theory
and the practical difficulty of factoring large integers."


External sources:

Has NASA been stifling commercial space ventures that could otherwise outperform it?

     Has NASA paid $2.3 million dollars for loyalty from Prospace, the supposed "Citizen's Space Lobby," while taxpayers continue getting ripped off?    Will ProSpace be engaging in its usual government contract-seeking, deceptively secretive shenanigans in the wake of its latest "March Storm" charade conducted at volunteers' and congressional staffers' expense?  For an analysis of what ProSpace typically does, please click here.  Meanwhile, here's an analysis of the parasitic corruption that plagues nearly all U.S. space lobbies.

To comment on any of this to your elected officials, please click here.