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Tuesday, October 05, 2010


Excerpted from a valuable letter from Freeman Dyson et al calling for the US Congress to be supportive of free market space development rather than leaving it all up to NASA
For good reasons, government developed transportation has been costly and uncompetitive. A classic case is Samuel Langley’s government funded attempt to invent the airplane. Langley spent one hundred times as much money as the Wright brothers did. They succeeded, and he failed. Another example is the British government-funded effort to build passenger dirigibles between the world wars. The government-funded R101 crashed on its maiden voyage, but the commercially developed Vickers R100 dirigible flew successfully. NASA’s failures at every new launcher program in the past two decades are more recent examples.

... Prof. Freeman Dyson, President
Prof. John S. Lewis, V.P., Research
Dr. Lee Valentine, Exec. V.P.

This reminded me of what the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) said of their use of $3 million of prizes (& possibly as much as $7 million to administer them which shows the bureaucracy problem even here) to develop an automated driving system
For less than $10 million in prize money and expenses, the Department of Defense has created new technology that would have otherwise cost more than $100 million, and taken a lot longer to perfect."
That is 2 data points which is enough to start assuming a trend. The Wrights had 1/100th as much money & the driving programmers had 1/33rd & in both cases achieved much better results than direct state control could have done. Averaging them we should expect prizes to be more than 66 times more cost effective than conventional funding.

Of course evidence in such cases is difficult to get because both systems being used in such parallels are rare. However that just means we must accept this evidence as the best we have till something better comes along. It may be that refining it would show that prizes are only 30 times more cost effective or that they average well over 100 times. It does show that the prime reason for having direct control must be the power of patronage it gives to government leaders & workers, which is far more important to them than value for money.

Taking it at 66 times we would only have to spend £4 million a year on space prizes to match £260 million space budget we currently give to the European Space Agency (though that organisation seems so particularly inefficient that I suspect £400,000 could do it). Equally if we put all of that £260 mill into prizes it would provide a boost to our space industries, already growing at 10% annually, equal to £17 billion ($27 bn) well above the entire USA's NASA budget.

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