Everybody has won and all must have prizes

Prizes for specific accomplishments have been proposed as the solution to the problem of a moribund space program. Are they?

The Dodo awards Alice her prize after the caucus-race

In space circles, the idea of offering incentive prizes to develop complex technology has some currency.  Most notably, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich recently advocated a prize-based incentive model coupled with a leaner NASA as an alternative to our currently stalled, government bureaucratic model of space operations.  The incentive idea is behind the current Centennial Challenges program of NASA, which offers money for the demonstration of certain specified technologies or procedures.  Presumably, Gingrich is speaking not of this existing program but about a vastly expanded prize structure, funded by the federal government, for significant milestones in humanity’s expansion into space.

This model structure harkens to early days of aviation when prizes for specific aeronautical achievement proliferated.  Notable was the $25,000 Orteig Prize offered by New York hotelier Raymond Orteig for the first non-stop air flight between New York and Paris.  Charles Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize in 1927 in his specially built Spirit of St. Louis.  After this flight, probably due more to celebrity culture and the frenzy of fame rather than actual flight accomplishment, commercial aviation enjoyed a boom of popularity with the public and industry.  In short, the prize offering succeeded in producing a PR stunt; the design features of Spirit of St. Louis were specifically optimized to permit Lindbergh to win the prize, not to advance aeronautical technology or establish commercial transatlantic flight operations.

Currently, the most visible prize structure for spaceflight is Peter Diamandis’ X-Prize Foundation, a private funding group that awards prizes for specific space-related goals.  The first and most famous, the Ansari X-Prize founded in 1996, was offered to the first non-government group that could (within two weeks) twice launch and safely return to Earth a reusable, manned spacecraft.  In 2004, the $10,000,000 X-Prize was won by Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, funded by Microsoft’s Paul Allen.  This vehicle used an innovative airborne launch system, a hybrid solid-liquid rocket engine and a “wing feathering” method for re-entry and return flight.  Plans were immediately made to construct a commercial version of SpaceShipOne, to be sponsored and operated by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic organization.

However, since that prize-winning flight almost eight years ago, things have not proceeded smoothly.  An explosion in 2007 destroyed the rocket fabrication facility and killed three workers.  Virgin Galactic established an operations base in New Mexico on October 17, 2011.  There is a passenger manifest backlog of 455 subscribers but as of this writing, not a single commercial passenger spaceflight has occurred.

Another current space prize is the Google Lunar X-Prize, offering a $20 million award for successfully landing a spacecraft carrying a high-definition imaging system and roving on the Moon at least 500 meters.  Since its announcement in 2007, over 30 companies have registered to participate in the competition.  Additional prize increments are awarded for other accomplishment, such as long range (> 5 km) roving, survival over a lunar night, and documentation of the presence of water in lunar soil.  No lunar mission has yet been launched nor has any launch date been announced.  The original expiration date for the lunar X-Prize was 2012 but was extended to the end of 2015.

An alternative incentive approach is milestone-based contracting.  NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program awards government money to companies that meet specific milestones on previously announced timescales.  That money is to be spent developing specific capabilities required for government needs.  The reward at the end of this cycle is a performance-based government contract for launch services.  However, under this government-sponsored incentive program, a commercial human spaceflight industry has yet to develop.

Bigelow Aerospace, a builder of private, “For Lease” space stations, recently laid off over one third of their workforce.  Part of the problem is the lack of assured, commercially available access to their orbital stations.  In 2004, Bigelow himself established and funded a $50 million prize to develop a commercial crew vehicle for orbital transport; the prize expired in 2010 without a single attempt at flight.  Although rumor has it that Boeing is developing a spacecraft to serve private space stations, nothing has yet appeared, even in prototype form.  Due to some unidentified technical issues, SpaceX has delayed the launch of the first flight of their Dragon cargo vehicle to ISS from early next month to an unspecified future date.

The simple glaring fact is the United States has no commercial human spaceflight industry.  NASA’s attempt to encourage the development of such through COTS is floundering against some unpleasant realities:  it is both very difficult and very costly to get into and back from space.  The former drives up the cost, severely limiting potential markets.  The latter stops not only imagined demand (such as space tourism) dead in its tracks but also real demand, such as government contracts for ISS crew access.

The hope of space prize enthusiasts for explosive growth in space similar to that seen in aviation innovation and industry following the winning of the Orteig Prize is unlikely to be realized.  The problem is that spaceflight is a vastly more difficult field in which to participate than aviation.  Many amateurs could and did fabricate aircraft in their garages and barns in the early decades of the last century.  The First World War made surplus aircraft widely available at low cost, furthering the development of a robust early aviation industry.  In contrast, no one has flown a surplus government space vehicle and “barnstorming” rockets do not exist, despite some imaginative depictions in Hollywood films.

Unfortunately, this is the space program we now have.  No American human spaceflight flight systems exist and their development is dependent on the advent of a demand that has not yet materialized.  Meanwhile, we comfort ourselves with fantasies about human missions to Mars.  I appreciate and applaud Gingrich’s enthusiasm for space, a visionary attitude sorely lacking in most politicians.  He needs to think carefully about how to incentivize the development of space and about the critical national needs served by our civil space program.  Prizes seem attractive because of their historical role in stimulating a nascent aviation industry.  But significant differences between aviation and spaceflight and our primitive level of development of the latter suggest that what worked before may not work now.

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