Monday, January 10, 2011
The ISS X Prize
Charles Lindbergh won the $25,000 Orteig Prize for his 1927 flight across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis.
In 1919, after the end of the first World War, New York City hotel owner Raymond Orteig attended a dinner honoring flying ace Eddie Rickenbacher, who spoke of his hope that the United States and France would one day be linked by air. Inspired by this speech and his friendship with French military aviators, the hotelier conceived a contest that was dubbed the Orteig Prize.
The challenge — to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, or vice-versa, in a fixed-wing aircraft. The prize — $25,000.
Before Charles Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize in 1927, others tried and failed. Some died. According to Wikipedia:
Although advancing public interest and aviation technology, the Prize occasioned expenses many times the value of the prize and cost six men their lives in three separate crashes. Another three men were injured in a fourth crash. During the spring and summer of 1927, 40 pilots would attempt various long-distance over-ocean flights, leading to 21 deaths. In August 1927 alone, the Orteig Prize-inspired $25,000 Dole Air Race to fly from San Francisco to Hawaii would cost ten lives before it was over.
The Orteig Prize was the inspiration for the X Prize Foundation, which according to its web site is "an educational nonprofit organization whose mission is to create radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity thereby inspiring the formation of new industries, jobs and the revitalization of markets that are currently stuck." XPrize.org lists several prize challenges over the centuries designed to spur technological development.
In May 2004, the X Prize was renamed the Ansari X Prize after a multi-million dollar donation from the Ansari family. The first Ansari X Prize was awarded to Scaled Composites for the flight of SpaceShipOne. To quote from the X Prize web site:
To win the prize, famed aerospace designer Burt Rutan and financier Paul Allen led the first private team to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the earth's surface, twice within two weeks.
Spaceflight was no longer the exclusive realm of government. With that single flight, and the winning of the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE, a new industry was born.
That success led to the creation of more X Prize challenges. One is the Google Lunar X Prize, "a $30 million competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit video, images and data back to the Earth."
NASA nears the completion of the Internationl Space Station, fulfilling the promise of a space program dedicated to science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act lists the objectives of NASA. Nothing in the Act requires NASA to send humans into space, to explore other worlds, or to own its rockets. Much of NASA's intended purpose was scientific research, but that got lost in the Space Race of the Cold War, when President Kennedy redirected NASA into prioritizing a Moon mission not for scientific purposes but to show the world American technology was superior to the Soviet Union.
To this day, we still hear politicians claim that NASA's purpose is national security and/or jobs, not scientific research.
Now that it's complete, it's time to show the world the International Space Station can fulfill its promise.
NASA's web site describes the scientific research on the ISS, but how many of us could name any experiment currently being conducted, or any results?
So let's have a series of X Prizes for ISS research.
The X Prize Foundation is an independent non-profit organization, but NASA has has created similar competitions before. One example is the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. According to the NASA web site:
NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program is investing financial and technical resources to stimulate efforts within the private sector to develop and demonstrate safe, reliable, and cost-effective space transportation capabilities. The Program manages Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) partnership agreements with U.S. industry totaling $500M for commercial cargo transportation demonstrations and is investing $50M towards commercial crew development initiatives.
The recent success of SpaceX is one example of how these challenges can spur technological development with a modest investment of government funding.
Whether it's the X Prize Foundation or the federal government or a combination thereof, I'd like to see $1 billion set aside for five X ISS challenges ($200 million each). What would those challenges be? That can be debated, but here's my list:
(1) Research that significantly contributes to a cure for cancer.
(2) Research that leads to a significant advance in computer technology, e.g. increased processing time or data storage.
(3) Research that leads to a new propulsion sytem resulting in less travel time from Earth to Mars.
(4) Research that leads to a significant improvement in solar energy that lessens the cost of using that technology here on Earth.
(5) The first photo of either a new planet within our solar system, or a planet in orbit around a nearby solar system.
Because the ISS is owned by a consortium of spacefaring nations, obviously that group would have to approve use of the ISS for such purposes. But we're already talking about using private launchers such as SpaceX to send private researchers to ISS or the Bigelow Aerospace inflatable space station. If the ISS doesn't want to participate, then do it with Bigelow.
The Obama administration has proposed extending the ISS lifespan to at least 2018, and possibly to 2028. An ISS X Prize might inspire the world to use this facility in a way the world was inspired by the Apollo program in the 1960s — or by Charles Lindbergh in 1927.