TCS Daily


Private Space: Blazing a Trail?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - April 14, 2004 12:00 AM

Fans of space tourism, and commercial space flight in general, were very excited at reports that Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites had been issued the first license for a manned suborbital rocket flight. There's been talk of such things for years, and space insiders had wondered whether the FAA would issue a license to Rutan in time for him to compete for the X-Prize, a $10 million private award for the first team that:

"Privately finances, builds & launches a spaceship, able to carry three people to 100 kilometers (62.5 miles); Returns safely to Earth; Repeats the launch with the same ship within 2 weeks."

The X-Prize approach is based on the historic role played by privately-funded prizes in developing aviation (Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize). Its founders and organizers hope that private initiative, and lean budgets coupled with clear goals, will produce more rapid progress than the government-funded programs organized by space bureaucrats over the past five decades or so. (Full disclosure: I was a pro bono legal advisor to the X-Prize foundation in its early days).

In particular, they're interested in bringing down costs, and speeding up launch cycles, so that space travel can benefit from aircraft-type cost efficiencies. And so far it looks as if they're having some success. On the same day that the license was awarded, Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne made its second test flight, reaching an altitude of 105,000 feet, and a speed in excess of Mach 2.

That's an altitude of roughly 20 miles, less than a third of the way to what is, for X-Prize purposes, outer space. But it's a very impressive performance for a purpose-built civilian craft, and another step toward the prize for Scaled Composites.

Scaled Composites, though, isn't the only competitor. In fact, 27 competitors, from a number of different countries, are competing for the prize, and according to the X-Prize website, a dozen are currently building full-sized competition vehicles. The ten million dollar prize has generated a lot more than ten million dollars worth of investment.

Which is, of course the point. Ten million dollars in a government program won't get you much. (By the time paper is pushed and overhead is allocated, it may not get you anything). A ten million dollar prize, however, can attract much more -- driven as much by prestige as by the chance of making a profit.

Unlike a government program, too, a prize-based program allows for a lot of failure. By definition, if 27 teams go for the prize, at least 26 will fail. And that's okay. Government programs, on the other hand, are afraid of failure. The result is that they're either too conservative, playing it safe so as to avoid being blamed for failure, or they're stretched out so long that, by the time it's clear they're not going to do anything, everyone responsible has died or retired (it's okay not to succeed, so long as you aren' t seen to fail).

Since we usually learn more by taking chances and by failing than by playing it safe or avoiding clear outcomes, in the right circumstances a prize program is likely to produce more and faster progress. This isn't by accident. As X-Prize cofounder Peter Diamandis noted in recent Congressional testimony:

The results of this competition have been miraculous. For the promise of $10 million, over $50 million has been spent in research, development and testing. And where we might normally have expected one or two paper designs resulting from a typical government procurement, we're seeing dozens of real vehicles being built and tested. This is Darwinian evolution applied to spaceships. Rather than paper competition with selection boards, the winner will be determined by ignition of engines and the flight of humans into space. Best of all, we don't pay a single dollar till the result is achieved.

Bureaucracies are good at some things, but doing new things quickly and cheaply isn't one of them. Prizes like the X-Prize offer a different approach. I wonder what other government programs could benefit from this kind of thing?

NASA wonders too, and is establishing its own prize system called Centennial Challenges. At the moment the program is new and relatively small, but I hope that we'll see other government agencies -- and private philanthropists -- consider the prize approach. It's not a panacea, of course, but it's a way of bringing many minds to bear on a problem, and trying out many different approaches in parallel. I suspect that many of the 21st Century's problems will benefit from this sort of approach, and I hope that the X-Prize example will break new ground, not only in terms of spaceflight, but in terms of all sorts of other problems.

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