Space-Elevator Contests Lure With Big Money, NASA Glory

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
November 16, 2005

In the space-technology race, NASA is welcoming some dark horse candidates.

The space agency's prize competitions inspire enthusiastic entrants from around the U.S.—most recently in a contest to design an elevator from Earth to space.

"Usually when we do development of new space systems we get a bunch of proposals and have to pick one or two to fund," said Brant Sponberg, manager of NASA's Centennial Challenges program.

"The nice thing about a competition is that folks like me at NASA don't have to be smart enough to know which proposal to pick," he said. "We set a goal, and whoever is the best will win."

In the space-elevator games held October 21 through 23, competitors tested their mettle in two events at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

A pair of U.S. $50,000 prizes drew university teams, private companies, and other groups. Their eclectic ideas reminded onlookers that the winner is not always the obvious candidate.

"Teams or individuals you might not bet on can prove to you that they are right," Sponberg said. "In the history of prize competitions, some of the folks out of right field tend to win these things."

One such success story was Centaurus, a Logan, Utah-based start-up business.

"We're coming from nowhere, and it gives us a chance to show what we have to offer," said team leader Flint Hamblin.

"We're so small right now that the games give us a chance at a little funding—but they were also extremely fun."

That fun was backed by a lot of hard work in the six-month run-up to the games.

"I can't count the number of hours I put in. It was a very cost effective way for NASA to get people to look at this problem," said Steve Jones, one of the leaders of Team SnowStar, a student team from the University of British Columbia in Richmond, Canada.

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