NASA once looked to the moon to secure US global power. Now the agency is searching earth for its next giant leap for mankind.

From its inception in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration led the world in innovation: from aerospace engineering to Teflon frying pans.

Last week’s landing of Atlantis marked the end of an era, but the beginning of a new kind of launch. With Nasa’s Shuttle missions now grounded, the government agency has now joined forces with the Department of State and NIKE to source innovation and unlock private sector capital.

For more on energy innovation, read: Making Energy Entrepreneurial.

The Launch initiative is part of NASA’s recalibration and aims to attract the world’s most impressive ideas on how to tackle the world’s most pressing problems such as health care and water.

Last November’s water forum selected a number of impressive innovations such as an inexpensive subsurface irrigation technology that can turn filthy or salty water and make it usable for farmers in the developing world or semi-desert environments.

This year’s Launch: Energy Challenge aims to find a portfolio of 10 “game-changing” innovations that could transform the way the rich and poor worlds are powered.

Innovators will be matched with influential government and business leaders to accelerate their development, deployment and commercialization faster than they could achieve on their own.

Launch kick started its Energy Challenge this week by inviting proposals in the following categories: Energy generation; Energy harvesting and storage; Community applications; Financing; Education; and Deployment

Sales: The Final Frontier

Breaking Energy took part in a Launch: Energy Challenge roundtable discussion earlier this year. If the ideas generated in that short session are typical, it is likely not all the “gamechanging” solutions will be rocket science. Innovation can be simple.

NASA’s mission has traveled light years over the past 53 years. Its progress is mirrored by the burst in innovation since the Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Act of 1980, which unshackled the country’s federally funded labs and allowed them commercialize their innovations.

NASA was always the exception to that, of course. But the agency is still a federally funded, quasi-military department, and its administrators are usually drawn from the ranks of former military servicemen and astronauts. Charlie Bolden, the current incumbent, is a retired major general in the Marine Corps and former astronaut.

But to safeguard its enviable annual budget of $18.724 billion for the future, NASA must itself go in search of new frontiers for innovation.