A Guide to NASA's Upcoming Grand Challenges

The U.S. space agency is looking for a few good ideas. Got any?

Photo: NASA

11 October 2010—NASA is looking for a few good ideas. This fall, the Office of the Chief Technologist, Robert Braun, is opening its doors to the best and the brightest to help take its long-term space missions to the next level. Braun, who joined the organization in February as NASA administrator Charles Bolden’s principal adviser, is soliciting cutting-edge, disruptive technologies through a new series of competitive "grand challenges." Optimally, the technologies developed would enable a range of Earth observation missions, as well as robotic and human exploration voyages to the asteroids, Mars, and beyond.

The grand challenges address three areas: accessing space more routinely, managing space as a natural resource, and future quests. Achieving these goals mostly boils down to improvements in spacecraft propulsion, energy use, and safety; advances in astronaut health, communication technology, and artificial intelligence; a better understanding of near-Earth environments, such as meteors, solar wind, and cosmic rays; observations of climate change and predicting natural disasters; and searching for extraterrestrial life and Earth-like worlds.

NASA says it will take ideas from anywhere in the world—academia, government research agencies, private aeronautics and spaceflight firms, global conglomerates, or even the lone inventor tinkering in the basement. The most useful ideas, which will be winnowed by a technical peer-review process and ultimately chosen by Braun’s office, will receive grant and prize money ranging from US $500 to $1 million for future development. The inventors of new technologies will retain their intellectual property rights for commercial applications.

"I’m talking about an open competition model from an open community of innovators," says Braun. "Not where we say, ’Here’s a solicitation, and if you work for the government or a university, you can compete for this award.’ I’m talking about strategically defining the technologies needed over the next 10 or 20 years, putting those capabilities on the street in a competitive bid, and then having the community—folks in government, academia, industry, and citizen innovators working in their garages—form ad hoc teams on their own."

The grand challenges will be listed later this season on the Office of the Chief Technologist’s web site, complementing the previously announced Centennial Challenges for space technologies by American teams. Last July, Braun’s office outlined $1.5 million to $2 million prizes for a low-orbit satellite, a solar-powered robot, and a rough-terrain sample-gathering robot. Other NASA prize competitions are listed here. Applicants can also e-mail Braun directly.

Part of this new mandate will also involve resurrecting the defunct NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts—a program that encouraged revolutionary aeronautical and space concepts for NASA missions—which fell victim to budget cuts in 2007.

Braun suggests applicants pore over the National Academies’ decadal surveys—10-year road maps for various science departments. "You’ll find there are some technologies for human exploration, robotic exploration, or aeronautics that come up over and over again," he says. "Besides those small number of technologies, we’re also looking for innovations." The most recent road map—for astronomy and astrophysics—came out in August, and Braun is developing one for the space technology program, expected early next year. He will tweet occasional announcements at @NASA_Technology.

Braun also hopes this new access will encourage young people to go into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. "It’s good for our economic competitiveness and technology leadership position in the world," he says.

And if you’re really at a loss for technological ideas, you can always help pick a wake-up song for the shuttle’s last mission.

About the Author

Susan Karlin is a frequent contributor to IEEE Spectrum. For the September 2010 issue, she interviewed engineers who have turned to comedy.

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