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Space laundry among prize challenges featured on new site

spacelaundry260.jpg Like US college students going home for the weekend, astronauts on board the International Space Station must bring their dirty laundry with them when they return to Earth. They wouldn’t have to if there was a clever way of washing clothes in a microgravity environment. If you can figure out how, NASA is offering a $25,000 prize for your winning solution.

The problem—and the posted reward for solving it—is one of many that can be found on Challenge.gov, a website launched this week by the General Services Administration (GSA), a branch of the US federal government. On the website, agencies such as NASA can post their challenges and have participants compete for cash prizes and other awards.

The platform was launched in response to President Barack Obama’s Strategy for American Innovation, a white paper released in September 2009 calling for agencies to promote innovation through prizes and challenges.

“Prizes empower new, untapped talent to deliver novel solutions that accelerate innovation,” writes Tom Kalil of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in a blog post for the website’s launch.


Advocates of the approach say challenges can generate good ideas with relatively small investments. In an 8 March guidance memorandum, Jeffery Zients of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) states that one of the benefits of prizes is they only pay for results, not for the lengthy and potentially costly research and development required to get them.

The new site features nearly fifty competitions, about one third of them in the Science and Technology category. Along with space laundry, the problems include wireless power transmission, high performance lighting, and digital forensics. Across the site more broadly, there are a number of challenges aimed at children or educators.

While it remains to be seen if the website will become a catalyst for high-tech innovation, there’s no doubt that prize incentives are growing in popularity. The privately funded X Prize Foundation is set to announce a new round of prizes 16 September aimed at creating bionic legs, autonomous cars, artificially intelligent doctors for diagnosis, and more. Last week’s neuron-mapping DIADEM challenge at the Janelia Farm Research Campus in Virginia might also serve as a model for future federal competitions.

Meanwhile, if you’ve got the solution to NASA’s clothes-washing conundrum there’s no time to waste. That competition closes in less than a week–though one imagines that if a solution is found, the race to develop a space dryer that doesn’t lose astronauts’ socks can’t be far behind.

Photo credit: NASA (background image only)

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