SpaceShipOne, the sleek combination of rocket and glider designed by Burt Rutan and financed by the billionaire Paul G. Allen, reached a record altitude of 368,000 feet, or 69.7 miles, blasting past the 337,600-foot altitude reached by the same ship last week.
The prize, which required two flights in two weeks, will be paid by a special "hole-in-one" insurance policy, a common method of financing prize contests in which an insurance company essentially bets against success. The premium for the policy was paid by Anousheh Ansari, a telecommunications entrepreneur in Texas and a board member of the X Prize Foundation; she said that it cost "in excess of a million" dollars.
And so Diamandis and his backers found a Bermuda insurance company that was willing to underwrite the prize as, essentially, a bet it expected never to be collected. Even then, it took a major contribution from Anousheh Ansari, a young engineer who made $180 million in the telecom boom, to get the premiums paid up.
My guess is that it will be a lot harder in the future to find insurance companies willing to insure against the achievement of aerospace prize goals.
Allen put up all the cash for developing the spacecraft, but said he'll share the prize with Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, which built it. Rutan, in turn, said the company will distribute its share of the winnings among employees.
But the more important story here is not about space flight or human exploration. The more important story is that prize money can very efficiently speed the rate of technological advance in targetted areas. If NASA's entire budget was shifted over into prize money it would do far more to accelerate the development of space technology than the current set of programs that NASA funds.
The success of the X Prize is spawning imitators. A $50 million dollar prize may be offered for an orbital vehicle.
Bigelow Aerospace is reportedly on the verge of offering a $50 million American Space Prize to any private American company that can develop a reliable orbital vehicle. There's a good reason for that. Bigelow has been working on orbiting space habitats - and needs an orbital rocket for people to get to them.
Raymond Orteig emigrated to New York from France in 1912. He worked as a bus boy and café manager and eventually acquired two New York Hotels which were popular with French airmen assigned to duty in the United States during the Great War In 1919 Raymond Orteig offered a prize of $25,000 for the first nonstop aircraft flight between New York and Paris. By the mid 1920’s, airplanes had finally developed enough to make such a flight possible.
. The Orteig Prize stimulated not one, but nine separate attempts to cross the Atlantic. To initiate the flights, competitors raised and spent some $400,000, or 16 times the amount of the prize. As a result of these early aviation prizes, the world’s $250 Billion aviation industry was created. The ANSARI X PRIZE hopes to spur the creation of a vibrant commercial space industry through the $10M competition.
Designer Burt Rutan said what makes his SpaceShipOne so robust is its lightweight materials of graphite and epoxy (it weighs about 6,000 pounds and can be towed by a pickup), its safer propulsion system fuel of rubber-nitrous oxide fuel, and its ability to fold and open its wings, which stabilizes the craft. With the exception of refueling its rocket motors, 97 percent of the spaceship was reused for the two X Prize flights.
But what is amazing in this story is the low cost for SpaceShipOne's development. Estimates for the cost of development range between $20 million and $30 million. What prizes for cutting edge technological achievements do is they give America's and the world's many multimillionaires and billionaires entertaining and ego gratifying ways to use their their cash to push the envelope on what is technologically possible. Putting up technological goal posts and declaring contests with large money prizes is a great way to spur incredibly cost-effective competition. We need more prizes for more more technological goals.
The research and development area most in need of funding for prizes is aging rejuvenation therapies known as Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS). There is now one prize aimed at this topic which is called the Methuselah Mouse Prize. The goal of this prize is to provide researchers an incentive to develop biotechnologies that will double the life expectancies of lab rats from 3 years to 6 years. Currently the prize has a half million dollars in funding.
Note that academic researchers already have large funding agencies to which to apply for grants and the agencies are to some extent led in directions based on which topics researchers decide to apply for to get funding. If top researchers in many fields started applying for research grants to explore the development of various SENS therapies then some of those grants would get funded and more SENS research would get done. Financial incentives in the form of prize money could sway a lot of existing research money in the direction of rejuvenation research. So prize money for the achievement of SENS research goals could potentially sway the allocation of literally orders of magnitude more money than was used to win the X Prize.
For more on the topic of SENS research and prize money the Fight Aging! blog has 3 posts on the X Prize, the Methuselah Mouse Prize and how the fight against aging can be accelerated with prize money. See here and here and here for more.
How much investment the X Prize has spurred won't be known until next year, after all the various teams have wrapped up their work on prototype space taxis for tourists. Most contenders have been scrimping along on shoestring budgets, so the X Prize isn't likely to reach the 16-to-1 payback ratio of the Orteig Prize. Rutan's Mojave (Calif.) company, Scaled Composites, chewed through some $25 million of the fortune Allen earned as a founder of Microsoft.
However, there is a positive spin that can be put on that news: The Orteig Prize was there for 8 years before its goal was achieved. That gave plenty of time for a succession of teams to come along, spend money, and fail. The X Prize was announced in 1996. But it didn't become fully funded until some time in 2001 when an insurance policy was negotiated to fund the prize for a limited period of time.
Bermuda-based insurer XL Capital took the wager. The firm required regular payments of $50,000 to $100,000 from Diamandis and a deadline in 2003 for someone to make it to space, a date that later was extended to Jan. 1, 2005.
It was a risky move. The contract with XL stipulated that if Diamandis missed even one premium payment, the deal was off and the firm got to keep whatever had been paid in."
Prizes with more certain funding and funding for much longer periods of time could produce much larger multiplier effects in terms of dollars spent. Also, prizes aimed at researchers who can write grant applications to get money to pursue prize goals could produce even larger multiplier effects.
|Share |||Randall Parker, 2004 October 05 03:06 PM Airplanes and Spacecraft|