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Wednesday, June 25, 2008


John McCain has said that as President he would put up a $300 million dollar X-Prize:

“I further propose we inspire the ingenuity and resolve of the American people,” Mr. McCain said, “by offering a $300 million prize for the development of a battery package that has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars.”

He said the winner should deliver power at 30 percent of current costs. “That’s one dollar, one dollar, for every man, woman and child in the U.S. — a small price to pay for helping to break the back of our oil dependency,” he said.

I'm for that. I don't think it is as useful as a prize for a reusable shuttle just because the immediate profits to be made on a battery are much clearer but $300 million would still help - indeed for the effect this would have it is probably too low a prize

Up till now I haven't been able to see which candidate I could feel strongly about (except Hilary but not in a nice way). McCain struck me as dangerous, in that he had supported bombing Yugoslavia & generally any sort of military action against anybody. Obama seems to be a complete chancer with lots of image, no sensible policies & unworthy of trust. On that basis, since our minimum interest is more that the US should do no harm than that it be run competently I inclined towards Obama. However if America can play a positive role in human development then that tops everything. By going for this system of encouraging innovation, even though a battery isn't my best target, McCain has shown that he gets the idea.

It is a much better target than Alex Salmond's £10 million ($20M) prize for a commercial sea turbine about which I waxed lyrical though I would like to think McCain had heard of & been influenced by it.

JunkScience rubbished it on the grounds that McCain, at the same time, suggested a massive tax break for electric cars, which is a true criticism but I think ignores political realities.

Jerry Pournelle said

The purpose of prizes is to focus attention on a goal. Lindberg fly to Paris alone for a prize. Prizes did a lot for early aviation. The X Prize got a lot of attention for commercial space. Heinlein left much of his estate to be used for prizes in advance of commercial space. The only obligation the winner of a prize should have is to win it: prize money does n0t purchase the rights to the invention.

Now it is probably true that anyone who wins this McCain battery prize will make a great deal more money for that technology in the market place. Probably true: but the market is uncertain, and raising capital always has to compete with other places to invest. One of the problems we have always had with commercial space is that there are both technical and market risks, and those who understand the one kind of risk generally don't comprehend the other; so they invest elsewhere.

Prizes reduce market uncertainties by providing a floor. If the US were to offer a $1 billion prize for the first American company to fly a ship to orbit and bring it home 6 times in one year, we would probably have reusable space ships within five years, possibly sooner: a billion is a pretty good market incentive. And if the US were to offer $10 billion prize for the first American company to put 31 Americans on the surface of the Moon and keep them there alive and well for 3 years and a day, we would have a Lunar Colony within 7 years and probably sooner.

The neat thing about prizes is that we spend no money unless someone wins. Now surely it would be worth far more than $300 million to have any capitalist have the battery technology McCain describes. Indeed it would be worth far more, and the only real criticism of the McCain prize might be that it wasn't large enough. On the other hand, how does it harm us to have the $300 million offered? This is a very good move on McCain's part, and makes me a lot happier to support him than I was. It makes him something more than the lesser evil...

Which seems to cover all the bases

While Obama said

"When John F. Kennedy decided that we were going to put a man on the moon, he didn't put a bounty out for some rocket scientist to win -- he put the full resources of the United States government behind the project and called on the ingenuity and innovation of the American people -- not just in the private sector but also in the public sector," he said at an event in Las Vegas.

Which shows he just doesn't get it. That is precisely what went wrong with America's space programme. When they got back they were left with no mission & a massive bureaucracy called NASA which has absorbed money ever since.

Now if only he would turn 1/4 of NASA's $16 billion annual budget into funding an X-Prize Foundation for space development. The very worst that could happen is that nobody would win any prizes which would leave a lot of money lying around but there is no way some wouldn't be won. Obama is already on record as saying he would take part of NASA's budget for early education so McCain would certainly have a free run if he decided to do this.

Note also that it is proper to maximise the use you get out of such prize money. Assuming that the first prize would take 4 years (Jerry assumes 5) an initial grant of $4 billion & 4 more annual ones, assuming 10% growth a year which is only slightly above inflation plus economic growth, amounts to $24.4 billion but assuming 6% interest on the money held would increase it to $27.2 billion. If Burt Rutan could get into space on a $10 million prize I think $27 billion would move the world.

What is needed is another Bjo Trimble get people writing to him, indeed to both candidates, to say so.

Jerry has posted in full the except of the above I sent him & replied:

Actually, Congressman Rohrabacher was interested in setting up a US Prizes Foundation to hold prize money. This was when we had lunch perhaps 3 years ago before the forseeable election disaster. And Mrs. Trimble was the recoding secretary of the Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy back in 1980. We did a bit of campaigning then but SDI took over. The Cold Was was still on...

Further on he gives an expansion of the Obama quote I reproduced. The sentence before what I quoted goes "But I don't think a $300 million prize is enough." which considerably ameliorates his apparent objection to X-Prizes & makes at least a large part of the objection merely to it being to low a figure with which I have can agree.

JFK particularly called on the ingenuity and innovation of the German people. von Braun!
To be fair to McCain - I have several issues with him - he opposed intervention in Somalia (90s) and Lebanon (80s). Although he has tended to support anything since!
Nice one Dearieme.

I hadn't realised that Ewan - that shows better judgement on making war than I had thought. He was wrong on Yugoslavia but if we excluded everybody who was, NATO's Parliaments would be pretty empty.
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