Forget big government contractors. NASA is setting its sights on "tinkerers and students" to help it innovate. A recent New York Times article highlights how, amidst tightening budgets and other obstacles, the government agency has begun a series of contests to "bring some fresh faces to the ranks" and inject some new ideas into the agency.

While it won't ignore the stalwarts like Boeing, it does see the need to get a bit more entrepreneurial about R&D. NASA has robotics research through Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, but the series of contests is inspiring a whole new set of inventors, who might have found the grant process intimidating, to take a chance at inventing, such as Steve Jones, a college student who is developing a space elevator as an entry in the agency's Beam Power Challenge.

With the private space industry expected to grow, forums such as the recent Space Billionaires: Educating the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs popping up, and the likes of Burt Rutan striving to make space travel routine, it would seem NASA has tapped a very rich resource for its next--and possibly best--ideas for its space program.