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MIT Technology Review: Eyes on the Space Prize

Published by Robin on Tue Aug 10, 2004 7:57 am
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Fat cash awards may be just the ticket to privatize the space industry. Many wonder what took so long.

By Deborah Asbrand
Technology Review 8/6/2004

Does prize money make for good technology policy?

Yes, members of the da Vinci project would probably agree. The project is the 500-volunteer strong Canadian team vying for the $10-million Ansari X Prize. Yesterday, the team debuted the privately financed vehicle it plans to loft into suborbit on October 2 and eventually win the multimillion-dollar purse.

The idea of prize money as sound space policy received a surprising boost from Washington a few weeks ago when the President’s Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy officially endorsed the idea. In a 60-page report, the panel made weighty recommendations that included an internal overhaul of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as well as the privatization of much of NASA’s unmanned space program. And, oh yes, cash prizes.

To find the source of NASA’s new outlook, one need look no farther than the X Prize. The much-ballyhooed contest has done what NASA couldn’t in the 35 years since Apollo 11 touched down in the Sea of Tranquility: make the commercialization of space travel a topic of business discourse. All it took was the promise of a multimillion-dollar bounty for the first privately financed, suborbital three-seat vehicle that safely launches twice within a two-week period—and a payload full of positive media coverage.

Cash prizes have a history of stimulating private-sector investment in innovation. Charles Lindbergh made his transatlantic flight in successful pursuit of the $25,000 Orteig Prize. More recently, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the arm of the Pentagon that looks for leading-edge technology, has sponsored contests in the search for new technologies. In March, the agency held a contest it hoped would help it meet a Congressional mandate that one-third of all military vehicles be autonomous by 2015. The task? Contestants had to propel a robot 150 miles through the Mojave Desert in 10 hours or less (see “The Great Driverless Car Race”). Though no entries traveled further than seven miles, DARPA was undaunted. It announced it would double the original $1 million purse and stage the event again next year.

The X Prize’s success has prompted a rethinking about the privatization of space travel and exploration. As for NASA’s jumping on the prize bandwagon as a way to stimulate private-sector interest in the space industry, the only surprise is that the agency didn’t do it sooner, says Brian Chase, vice president of Washington operations at the Space Foundation, a nonprofit space advocacy group. “It’s something we think NASA should pursue vigorously,” says Chase. “It’s a change of policy for them that came directly from the X Prize. The activities of SpaceShipOne have validated for policymakers that this is a good idea.” SpaceShipOne is the X Prize entry that made its first and widely publicized suborbital flight in June. It expects to launch on September 29.

Suborbital flights make just a quick brush with outer space, reaching an altitude of only 100 kilometers. SpaceShipOne’s speed was still six times short of what’s needed to get into orbit, points out Andrew Barber, manager of space operations for the Aerospace Industries Association, which represents major manufacturers of spacecraft equipment and materials. Still, he says of the venture, “it’s a fantastic early step, and it gets people excited.”

Marco Caceres, senior space analyst for the Teal Group in Fairfax, VA, thinks the suborbital emphasis encouraged by the X Prize is a critical opportunity that the space industry has so far missed. “We’ve been approaching it backwards,” he says of the strategy of expanding the commercial space market through the production of reusable launch vehicles, or RLVs. That strategy never worked because the RLVs’ launch costs remained far too high to allow the kind of frequent takeoffs needed to build a market, says Caceres. But suborbital vehicles’ potential for weekly launches could draw from new pools of interested parties. Caceres envisions wealthy tourists willing to pay $50,000 for a joyride as well as universities, private institutions, and foreign countries that need to do small amounts of research in space but can’t afford to sponsor a launch. “Now you’ve created a boom market,” says Caceres.

Speaking of booms, it has been estimated that X Prize teams have invested $400 million in their development efforts. With a $10 million purse, that means the contest will have spurred a 40:1 payout in terms of generating investment dollars. Why such an effort for a financial prize that in most cases won’t repay the investment? Because the money doesn’t matter, says Peter Russo, director of Boston University’s Entrepreneurial Management Institute. The innovators attracted to the contest embody competitive, entrepreneurial instincts. “Most important to people like that is the ability to compete with the best of the best,” says Russo. “Seeing themselves against other people they respect, and who push them to do their best.”

With the potential to draw from that pool, it’s no wonder space policymakers are rethinking their approach.


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