Incentive Competitions and the Challenge of Space Exploration

To foster innovation in human spaceflight, governments and industries have often looked to the public for input and expertise, and awarded them handsomely!
Matthew S. Williams

Bill Joy, the famed computer engineer who co-founded Sun Microsystems in 1982, once said, "No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else." This has come to be known as "Joy's Law" and is one of the inspirations for concepts such as "crowdsourcing".

Increasingly, government agencies, research institutions, and private companies are looking to the power of the crowd to find solutions to problems. Challenges are created and prizes offered - that, in basic terms, is an "incentive competition."

Outside-the-box thinking

The basic idea of an incentive competition is pretty straightforward. When confronted with a particularly daunting problem, you appeal to the general public to provide possible solutions and offer a reward for the best one. Sounds simple, doesn't it?

But in fact, this concept flies in the face of conventional problem-solving, which is for companies to recruit people with knowledge and expertise and solve all problems in-house. This kind of thinking underlies most of our government and business models, but has some significant limitations.

Incentive Competitions and the Challenge of Space Exploration
SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnight One flying in 2004, Source: Smithsonian/NASM

Incentive competitions, therefore, could be considered an example of "outside the box" thinking. With the digital revolution and the invention of the internet, the possibilities for crowdsourcing innovation have become much more varied and lucrative.

Exponential Growth

Another benefit to crowdsourcing is the way it takes advantage of the exponential growth in human population in the past few centuries. Between 1650 and 1800, the global population doubled, to reach about 1 billion. It took another one-hundred and twenty years (1927) before it doubled again to reach 2 billion.

However, it only took fifty-seven years for the population to double again and reach 4 billion (1974), and just fifteen more for it to reach 6 billion. As of 2020, the global population has reached 7.8 billion, and the growth trend is expected to continue for some time.

This growth has paralleled another trend, the rapid development of new ideas in science and technology. Between 1650 and 2020, humanity has experienced multiple technological revolutions, in what is a comparatively very short space of time.

Since the mid-17th century, humanity has gone through the Scientific Revolution, the "Age of Discovery", the Industrial Revolution, the Second Industrial Revolution, the Atomic Age, the Space Age, and the Digital Age. We've gone from exploring our world to exploring the Solar System, and from contemplating the atom to splitting it and smashing it.

We've also gone from a world where the majority of people lived in rural communities, worked as farmers, and burned wood for fuel, to living in mega-cities, working with computers, and using a combination of fossil fuels, nuclear reactors, and renewable sources for energy.

Derek de Solla Price, the author of Science Since Babylon (1961), and the father of the science of studying science (aka. scientometrics) is believed to have encapsulated the opportunities that this presents with the famous words:

"Ninety percent of all the scientists that ever lived are alive today."

However, despite all the advances made in the past few centuries, hosting an incentive competition and tapping into external pools of talent is no easy task. To get the word out and attract the right kind of people requires considerable effort, know-how, and resources on behalf of those issuing the challenge.

Emergence of HeroX

It was for this reason that three luminaries came together to launch the crowdsourcing platform HeroX in 2013. These were none other than Peter Diamandis (co-founder of the XPRIZE Foundation), XPRIZE developer Emily Fowler, and entrepreneur Christian Cotichini.

Between the three of them, Diamandis, Fowler, and Cotichini brought a wealth of experience in terms of crowdsourcing, development, and inspiration to the table. Put simply, the purpose of HeroX was to provide a platform that could connect those who had problems with those who might have solutions. 

Incentive Competitions and the Challenge of Space Exploration
The Space Shuttle imaged from the ISS, Source: Singularity University

While this organization has leveraged modern technology to facilitate a new kind of problem-solving, it builds on a tradition that is centuries old. At the same time, it addressed one of the biggest issues with crowdsourcing - i.e. how to establish connections. As Cotichini recently told Interesting Engineering:

"When crowdsourcing got hot and exciting in about 2007/2008, probably around when the Ansari XPRIZE was won, a lot of startups were launched, and they all fell short. We didn't get our wonderful dream of this powerful collaboration. So we started HeroX to solve that problem, to start with the question of: 'Why is crowdsourcing not going mainstream? Why is it not taking off?' And so, from the beginning, we realized that the current generally-accepted approach to crowdsourcing was broken, somehow, and we needed to figure out what the right model is."

Cotichini compares the organization's journey to the story of Airbnb, which didn't actually invent the idea of an online marketplace where people could find places to lodge. WhenAirbnb began, people had been using the internet to book accommodations for some time, and there were several websites that already allowed for peer-to-peer booking.

What Airbnb did, Cotichini says, was bring this process into the mainstream by creating a platform where people seeking services and those offering them could connect easily. HeroX was created for the same purpose, but with crowdsourcing and collaborative problem-solving in mind, rather than accommodation.

Cotichini summarized this vision by raising the example of social media marketing:

"Crowdsourcing will be as commonly used by the organization as social media marketing is now. There's a real parallel there because social media marketing is really about using the internet to connect with consumers, and crowdsourcing is using the internet to connect with producers using a social network model."

When they started HeroX, Cotichini and his colleagues experimented with a lot of different approaches. After about three and a half years, they found the right model, which Cotichini describes as "Crowd 2.0". As he explained, this model differs from other crowdsources approaches:

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"Most crowdsourcing platforms end up creating a two-sided market, like a stock market, with talent on one side and then companies that want access to that talent on the other side - 'seekers and solvers' - and it creates this transactional model where they try to standardize the exchange, standardize the projects, create a common taxonomy for everything. And that model just doesn't work for 'knowledge-work' because [it] is broad and complex and diverse. There's no common shape to it.

"What we realized is that we needed to create a general-purpose platform that allowed companies to use one platform for the vast majority of their crowdsourcing needs... HeroX is the only platform that really is designed this way that lets each brand launch their own crowdsourcing projects [and] recruit their own crowd. The platform itself is an aggregate of crowds."

Incentive Competitions and the Challenge of Space Exploration
The ‘Sky For All’ challenge logo, Source: HeroX

In short, incentive competitions are a time-honored way of finding solutions to challenging problems. This is especially true when it comes to aerospace and space exploration, which have historically relied on public input and expertise.

In the past decade, organizations like HeroX and the XPRIZE Foundation have made competitions like the Google Lunar XPRIZE, the Space Poop Challenge, and the Sky-For-All-Challenge possible. These and other incentive competitions have allowed producers and problem-solvers to come together to create solutions.

With all that in mind, a little retrospective on the history of incentive competitions and the breakthroughs they fostered seems in order. Where they come from is just as important as where they are today, because it can give us vital insight to their role and future development.

A question of roots

One of the earliest known example of an incentive competition comes to us from the so-called "Age of Discovery". Beginning in the 16th century, European navigators began traveling all across the globe, conquering nations, exploring new frontiers, and establishing trade networks.

This presented a serious challenge, since navigators had no reliable means of pinpointing a ship's exact location at sea. While a ship's latitude (the distance north or south of the equator, and measured as an angle from the centre of the Earth) was relatively easy to determine, by measuring the Sun's position in the sky at noon, determining longitude was much more difficult. This is because there wasn't a set reference point to measure from. In order to determine longitude, it was necessary to the know the exact time at a particular point on Earth, and the exact distance from that point. (Since longitude is a distance in the direction of the Earth’s daily rotation, the difference in longitutde between two places can be thought of as the difference between their local times, as defined by the Sun’s position.)

Knowing the exact longitude became especially important as ships began to regularly traverse the vast Atlantic and Pacific oceans. During these voyages, weeks or months could pass before sailors had a landmark to navigate by. This led Spain, the Netherlands, Britain, and France to offer rewards for solving the "longitude problem."

Britain formalized the process with the passage of the Longitude Act in 1714, which stated:

"Whereas it is well known by all that are acquainted with the act of navigation, that nothing is so much wanted and desired at sea, as the discovery of the longitude, for the safety and quickness of voyages, the preservation of ships, and the lives of men..."

This act established a set of rewards for improved methods of determining longitude, which increased based on the level of accuracy. Officially, the Longitude Rewards would remain in effect until 1773, when John Harrison collected the largest reward issued for the invention of his "sea timekeepers."

Another notable example is the Food Preservation Prize established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1795. Since the French Revolution in 1789, France was engaged in a series of wars with most major powers in Europe. These wars involved mass-mobilizations and long campaigns on foreign soil.

Faced with the possibility that supply lines would be extended over great distances and foreign lands would be unwilling or unable to provide food, Napoleon offered a reward of 12,000 francs (around $35,000 USD today) for the invention of better food preservation techniques.

In 1809, the prize was finally claimed by a confectioner named Nicolas François Appert for his method of heating, boiling and sealing food in airtight glass jars. This process became the basis for modern canning and allowed Napoleon's forces to successfully march across the continent. 

Incentive Competitions and the Challenge of Space Exploration

Volumes of the 2nd Edition of the OED, Source: mrpolyonymous/Wikipedia Commons

Another interesting example has to do with the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language and how it came to be. In the late 19th century, Professor James Murray undertook the monumental task of creating a compendium of all known English words and their definitions.

To do this, Murray asked all willing contributors to scour the literature they owned, and write down all the words beginning with the letter they were assigned and their respective definitions. The work began in 1878 and took 70 years to finish, eventually producing the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) with 414,825 words and precise definitions.

Several challenges and prizes followed, the most notable of which emerged with the science of flight.

The challenges of flight

During the early 20th century, the emerging technology of aviation drew some of the best and brightest minds in the world. While lighter-than-air flight (involving balloons) had existed for more than a century, experiments in the 19th century proved that heavier-than-air flying was also possible.

However, it was not until the 20th century that engine technology and a greater understanding of aerodynamics allowed for the emergence of powered flight. At first, aviators were pleased to simply prove that their inventions could fly and land safely. But in time, pioneers in flight began pushing the envelope, hoping to go faster, farther, and higher.

This led Alfred Harmsworth, the 1st Viscount of Northcliffe and proprietor of the British circular Daily Mail, to announce a new series of prizes for achievements in aviation. These were known as the Daily Mail Prizes, which were awarded between 1906 and 1930.

The most notable award was the English Channel Crossing Prize, which was announced in 1908 and offered a reward of £500 (around $75,000 USD today) to the first pilot to fly an airplane across the English Channel - from the Calais region of France to Dover, England, a total distance of 38 km (21 mi).

Incentive Competitions and the Challenge of Space Exploration
The Blériot Memorial above Dover in Kent, England, Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain

By 1909, no serious attempts had been made, prompting Harmsworth to double the prize money to £1,000 ($150,000 USD) and extend the offer to the end of the year. By July 25th, French aviator Louis Blériot made the crossing using a monoplane of his own design (the Blériot XI).

For this accomplishment, Blériot collected the £1000 prize and was also awarded a supplemental 50,000 francs by the French government, equal to about $250,000 USD today.

This accomplishment was followed a decade later by the Orteig Prize, which was established in 1919 by French-American hotelier, aviation enthusiast, and philanthropist Raymond Orteig. Orteig offered a prize of $25,000 to the first person who could accomplish a nonstop flight between New York and Paris.

The total distance, 5794 km (3,600 mi), was twice that achieved by the previous trans-Atlantic flight in 1919 (which flew from Newfoundland to Ireland). While the prize remained unclaimed by 1924, it spurred on innovation, encouraging Orteig to extend it for another five years.

In 1927, the prize was won by aviator named Charles Lindbergh, who made the trans-Atlantic flight using his custom-built plane, the "Spirit of St. Louis." The flight also bolstered public awareness in aviation and led to an exponential increase in the number of people interested in flying.

Three decades later, incentive prizes began to be issued for innovations that would help send humans into space.

NASA takes the prize into space

By the late 1950s, the "Space Race" between the Soviet Union and the United States had officially begun. The Soviets had taken an early lead with the launch of the first artificial satellite (Sputnik 1) and the first man (Yuri Gagarin on the Vostok 1 mission) into space. But NASA quickly followed suit.

Incentive Competitions and the Challenge of Space Exploration
 Replica of the Sputnik 1 satellite, Source: NSSDC/NASA

In addition to recruiting rocket science experts from the U.S. and Germany  (such as Wernher von Braun), NASA also began looking for expertise among the general public. To this end, NASA established the Inventions and Contributions Board (ICB), which in turn launched the NASA Space Acts Awards in 1958.

Established by the original National Aeronautics and Space Act in 1958 (which also established NASA), the ICB was entrusted with offering awards of between $350 and $100,000 for technological developments that would contribute to NASA space programs.

The program continues to this day, with over 98,000 awards and millions of dollars issued over the past 50 years. The technologies that resulted have including everything from improved solar panels and airfoil designs to food preservation techniques and environmental cleanup technology.

In 2005, NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) built on the tradition of the Space Act Awards by launching the NASA Centennial Challenges program. The purpose of this program was to engage the public directly in the development of advanced technology. As STMD states on the program website:

"The goal of the program is to stimulate innovation in basic and applied research, technology development, and prototype demonstration that have the potential for application to the performance of the space and aeronautical activities of the administration."

Over the past fifteen years, multiple challenges have been hosted that were specifically designed to foster innovation in a particular field of research. They include the following:

3D Printed Space Habitat Challenge:

With prizes totaling $3.15 million, the aim of this competition was to design and build habitats that would assist with the exploration of Mars and locations in deep space. The challenge consisted of three phases. These focused on design, materials, and fabrication, respectively.

These areas were chosen to take advantage of recent improvements in additive manufacturing (aka. 3D printing) and allowed building using local materials - a process known as in-situ resource utilization (ISRU). Winning entries were those that best emphasized sustainable living in a hostile environment.

Cube Quest Challenge:

Inspired by recent advancements in micro-satellites (aka. CubeSats), this competition offers a total of $5.5 million for the design, construction, and delivery of flight-qualified, small satellites capable of conducting advanced operations near and beyond the Moon.

In addition, teams participating in this challenge will have the chance to win a secondary payload spot on NASA's Orion spacecraft. Later this year, this spacecraft will be integrated with the Space Launch System (SLS) for the sake of the first crewed Orion mission (aka. Artemis 1).

Space Robotics Challenge:

For this competition, which has a prize pool of $1 million, participants are required to develop fully-autonomous operations, navigation, and decision-making capabilities that will be tested in a simulated environment.

Phase I of the challenge (which ended in June of 2017) involved teams using software they developed to operate a NASA R5 humanoid robot in a virtual Mars environment. The purpose was to advance software and autonomous systems that enable robotic explorers to operate on extra-terrestrial bodies.

Vascular Tissue Challenge:

This competition, hosted by NASA and the nonprofit Methuselah Foundation’s New Organ Alliance, will award $500,000 to three teams for successfully creating functioning models of vascularized human organ tissue in a laboratory environment.

These tissue models will act as organ analogs that will be used to study the effects of long-duration spaceflight, which include exposure to radiation and microgravity. The ultimate purpose here is to develop strategies to minimize the damage to healthy cells.

CO₂ Conversion Challenge:

The CO₂ Conversion Challenge is a $1 million competition to convert carbon dioxide into sugars such as glucose as a step to creating mission-critical resources. Such technologies will allow the manufacture of products using local, indigenous resources on Mars and Earth, by using waste and atmospheric carbon dioxide as a resource.

Astronaut Glove Challenge:

Between 2007 and 2009, NASA sought to engage the public in the creation of newer and better gloves for astronauts. This builds on a 50-year tradition where astronauts benefitted from successive generations of gloves that were developed with the help of external input.

As NASA described the challenge on its website:

"The Astronaut Glove Challenge sought improvements to glove design that would reduce the effort needed to perform tasks in space and improve the durability of the glove. In this challenge, competitors demonstrate their glove design by performing a range of tasks with the glove in an evacuated chamber. The gloves are also tested to ensure that they do not leak."

Of course, no discussion of incentive prizes would be complete without mentioning the many non-government entities that have sought to crowdsource solutions, especially in recent decades. One of the best-known examples of which is...

The XPrize Foundation

Founded in 1994 by engineer, physician, and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, the XPRIZE Foundation was created to spur development and breakthroughs in the domains of space, ocean science, education, health, energy, the environment, transportation, safety, and robotics.

Since then, it has hosted seventeen competitions that have awarded $140 million in prizes. The first competition (and perhaps the most famous) was the Ansari XPrize, which was launched in 2004. This competition offered a prize of $10 million to the first company that could build a piloted spacecraft that could travel twice to space and back, safely.

The overall aim was to inspire designs that incorporated recent advancements in miniaturization and materials science to reduce the costs of going into space. In short, the goal was no less than to foster the development of commercially-viable space travel.

The winning entry was Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne, a piloted spaceplane that would be flown to deployment altitude by a conventional airplane, engage a hybrid rocket engine to reach space, and then glide home using a set of modulated wings and tailfins.

Shortly before their entry won the competition, Virgin founder Richard Branson announced that he was partnering with Scaled Composites to start a brand-new space tourism company.

Known as Virgin Galactic, this company and Scaled Composites have since developed the SpaceShipTwo spaceplane and WhiteKnightTwo jet aircraft, which are expected to offer flights into orbit in the near future.

Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander XPrize:

Between 2006 and 2009, the XPRIZE Foundation also partnered with NASA and the aerospace manufacturer Northrop Grumman to incentivize the development of a lunar exploration vehicle. This competition offered a total of $2 million for the creation of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) craft that could make multiple landings.

The overall aim was to make lunar exploration more accessible by creating the necessary hardware and software for a cost-effective mission capable of making soft-landings on the Moon. As the competition website describes the challenge:

"Manned lunar exploration used to be the exclusive purview of governmental agencies until the $2M Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander XCHALLENGE paved the way for a new class of lunar vehicles. Through a unique public-private partnership between Northrop Grumman, NASA, and XPRIZE, the winning teams proved that private industry could build, fly, launch, hover and land spacecraft suitable for lunar exploration for a fraction of what the government spends.

In 2009, the prize was claimed by Masten Space Systems and Armadillo Aerospace for their innovative lander concepts. 

Google Lunar XPRIZE:

A year after launching the Lunar Lander competition, the XPRIZE Foundation partnered with Google to create the Google Lunar XPRIZE. With a total purse of $30 million, the challenge called for privately funded teams to be the first to land a robotic spacecraft on the Moon, travel 500 m (1640 ft), and transmit high-definition videos and images back to Earth.

By January of 2018, after multiple extensions, the XPRIZE Foundation announced that none of the participants would be able to make a launch attempt by March 2018 and the Lunar XPRIZE would continue as a non-cash competition.

However, by April of 2019, a spacecraft developed by the SpaceIL team managed to make a hard landing on the Moon. For this, they were awarded the $1 million "Moonshot Award" by the Foundation in recognition of their partial success.

HeroX and space innovation

Beyond the XPRIZE Foundation and NASA's incentive competitions, a great deal of credit goes to HeroX for the way it has brought crowdsourcing into the mainstream. In so doing, a number of incentive competitions have been launched that have fostered more innovation in commercial aerospace.

In 2015, HeroX hosted the Sky-For-All-Challenge, which was sponsored by the NASA Safe Autonomous Operations Systems (SASO) project. This competition offered a prize purse of $15,000 to teams who could design airspace navigation systems, by the year 2035, that would allow flying vehicles to safely navigate dense and diverse airspace.

In 2016, HeroX hosted the CineSpace 2016 challenge, a collaboration between NASA and Houston Cinema Arts Society (HCAS) that offered filmmakers around the world a chance to share short films inspired by (and using) actual NASA imagery. The winners were awarded from a purse of $26,000 and their films screened along with all finalists at the 2016 Houston Cinema Arts Festival.

Between 2016 and 2017, HeroX hosted the Space Poop Challenge, a $30,000 incentive competition sponsored by the NASA Tournament Lab. This competition awarded prizes to three teams for their invention of spacesuits that could dispose of human waste.

Most recently, HeroX joined the Experimental Rocket Sounding Association (ESRA) and Spaceport America to host the 2020 Spaceport America Cup. For the competition, student teams from around the world are tasked with building sounding, or sport rockets, which they will test-launch from Spaceport America's facility in New Mexico.

This year will be the fourth annual competition and the largest one to date. In total, some 1,500 students from 70 institutions around the world will be converging on the Mojave Desert between June 16th and 20th to test their designs.


Looking to the future, it is clear that public participation is going to be a significant aspect of space exploration. However, thanks to the invention of the internet and the accelerating pace of technological development, space exploration is becoming open and accessible like never before.

Citing examples like Wikipedia and the development of the open-source code Linux, Cotichini asserts that the most successful crowdsourcing models have relied on a combination of experienced directors and the crowd. This model could very well become what space exploration relies on to solve its challenges.

"A small core of highly-specialized, highly-focused, dedicated people collaborating with a large crowd," he said. "That core plus crowd mode, it really works well, and we think that's the future... In the realm of space, I think that is what is going to be a huge part of what going to get us into space at scale."

Combined with the undeniable role played by private aerospace (aka. NewSpace) companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, Bigelow Aerospace, and others, the future of space exploration is likely to be a lot more open and accessible than it was just a few decades ago.

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