NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate connects the public to the agency’s activities and explores creative opportunities to address the agency’s research and technology development needs through awards, challenges, and crowdfunding opportunities. These challenges bridge NASA’s institutional expertise with the expertise of industry, universities, and the wider community, resulting in collaborations that help develop space technology solutions. For many astronauts, success doesn’t stop when NASA’s challenge ends. Past participants have gone on to work with NASA in other ways and take their expertise to the next level in the commercial field.
Commercializing Challenge-Supported CO2 Technology
The Air Company of Brooklyn, New York, was one of three teams that won NASA’s final round CO2The Challenge of Conversionwhich was completed in August 2021. The challenge asked the community to develop ways to transform carbon dioxide (CO2 ), the most abundant resource on Mars, is sugar, which could be used by astronauts to make products including plastics, adhesives, fuels, food, and medicine. The Air Company received a $700,000 prize in the final stage of the thermochemical sugar production competition. First, CO2and the hydrogen is combined to form methanol, and the hydrogen is removed so that the methanol becomes formaldehyde. The third chemical reaction produces a simple sugar called D-glucose.
Since participating in the CO2 Conversion Challenge, the Wind Company has marketed its CO2 conversion technology in unique ways, producing hand sanitizer, fragrance oil, and even vodka. The CO2 used is derived from biogenic emissions – reducing the emissions emitted into the atmosphere from ethanol fermentation sites.1 The company also continued to compete with NASA The Challenge of Deep Space Food and developed a system and processes to convert air, water, electricity, and yeast into food. In May 2023, the Air Company was named the winner of phase 2 of the challenge, receiving a $150,000 prize from NASA and the opportunity to compete in phase 3 for a grand prize of $750,000 for a total of $1.5 million.
Cross-Program Competitors Advance Lunar Power Solutions
Astrobotic Technology, a small business based in Pittsburgh, has been named a major winner of NASA’s Phase 1. Watts on the Moon Challenge in May 2021. The company is no stranger to NASA — in fact, John Thornton, Astrobotic’s CEO, credits NASA’s early Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding as the “lifeblood of the company,” dating back to its first award in 2009. Astrobotic also received funding through NASA’s Tipping Point program and was selected to deliver a scientific and technological payload to the Moon as part of the company’s Commercial Lunar Payloads Services (CLPS) program.
In the Watts on the Moon Challenge, teams were asked to submit ideas for three parts of a hypothetical mission scenario: generating energy in a plant to harvest water and oxygen from the Moon’s South Pole black hole. Astrobotic won the big prize for answering the first part of the situation, proposing an array of small rovers that run electrical cables between the solar array’s power source and the rover operating inside the crater. The team also received an award for collaboration with Montreal Eternal Light Photonics Corp. with a solution to the power of the mobile phone.
According to Astrobotic, the awards contribute to the company’s development of lunar energy infrastructure.2 In August 2022, the company was selected by NASA to receive $6.2 million to help develop Vertical Solar Array Technology (VSAT) under the agency’s Game Changing Development program.3
Foreign and International Printing Houses
In November 2022, small business ICON, based in Austin, Texas, received a $57.2 million contract from NASA to develop construction technology that could support infrastructure such as landing pads, habitats and roads on the Moon. This effort supports NASA’s Moon to Mars Planetary Autonomous Construction Technologies (MMPACT) project. Before this, the company participated in NASA The 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, which started in 2015 until 2019. The challenge asked the contestants to design, develop, and test several 3D printing environments that could contribute to the potential security of humans on Mars. ICON partnered with the Colorado School of Mines for the Phase 3: Level 1 challenge. The team was selected as a top ten winner for its digital representation of a house on Mars using building information modeling software tools.
ICON’s technology that was originally created through a NASA challenge has helped pave several paths for the company. In addition to designing extraterrestrial infrastructure, ICON also impacts global housing by building 3D printed homes on Earth. The company created the first 3D printed community of homes in Nacajuca, Mexico.4 Taking its challenge journey full circle, ICON has once again released its global architecture competition to the public.
Global Participation Leads to Mini Rover Missions
Based in Budapest, Hungary, Puli Space Technologies is an example of global collaboration possible through reward, challenge, and crowdfunding opportunities. In 2020, the company participated in Honey, I Cut My NASA Pay the competition, which sought designs for small scientific instruments – about the size of a bar of soap – that could help explore the lunar surface, gathering valuable information about the Moon, its resources, and its environment. The challenge is sponsored by NASA’s Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative to cultivate new ideas, encourage innovation and promote the development of lunar surface exploration capabilities. The challenge received 132 entries from 29 countries. Puli Space won first prize in the first iteration of its Puli Lunar Water Snooper (PLWS) concept challenge to detect hydrogen and all hydrogen-carrying solids, such as water ice, on the Moon.
After the challenge, NASA was releasedHoney, I Undercut the NASA Billing Challenge, The Sequel, a two-year challenge that asked teams to develop, build, and prototype their small rover payload. Out of the 14 finalists in the first competition, four teams were selected to advance to stage 2 of the next challenge. As part of the challenge, NASA provided $675,000, which was divided between four groups to finance the development. Puli Space came second in the next PLWS development challenge. According to Puli Space CEO Tibor Pacher, the connections made in preparation for the challenge led to the placement of PLWS in at least two planned commercial activities for the Moon.5