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Thursday, October 11, 2007


Currently the British government spends about £450 million on space - this being our contribution to the European Space Agency. A recent report from a committee of MPs strongly recommended that we increase our space budget. I doubt if anybody in the space advocacy movement would disagree but the real problem is not the amount of money being put into space development but how well, or rather badly, it is spent.

There has been legitimate criticism that NASA, which gets $16 billion (£8 billion) annually, has not been very effective at actually getting into space. By comparison the Russians spend about £800 million annually & are the only nation which currently has a capacity to continuously man the space station. NASA is regularly described as a jobs creation programme for bureaucrats & the southern states masquerading as a space programme. However compared to ESA they are a model of efficiency & success. ESA, combined with the nominally separate German & French space agencies, has a budget of £4.5 billion, half of NASA's & yet is still in the Sputnik era, not having yet managed, or even come close to, launching a single human into space. It is almost openly admitted that the only reason we contribute to the ESA gravy train is to ensure a significant share of the lucrative contracts it hands out - like most European projects it is more important that each nation get a share of the goodies than that it actually achieve anything.

If there is the constituency for more space spending, & the MP's support proves that there is, then the role of space advocates must be to ensure that it is actually spent on space & not co-opted to the EU gravy train. To allow such co-option would discredit any future spending on space in the public eye as it would be seen to achieve little or nothing.

Fortunately there is an alternative - the X-Prize.An X-Prize is a prize awarded for a specific technological achievement, with no strings attached but with no payment made until the goal is achieved. It is thus left up to private individuals & companies to to decide how & whether to compete, without government committees having to say whether sufficient investigation had been made to prove one project sufficiently superior to the previous government project to actually try it, This has been spectacularly successful in the case of Burt Rutan & Spaceship One, where a $10 million prize enabled the first private sub orbital launch, which in turn is being parlayed into Richard Branston's Virgin Galactic space tourism business. $10 million being 0.0006th of NASA's annual budget. Historically similar prizes funded Lindberg's first crossing of the Atlantic & John Harrison's development of a way of measuring longitude. Such prizes have a record of achieving spectacular results at orders of magnitude less cost than conventional projects organised by government bureaucracy - which may explain why government bureaucracies tend not to be keen on them. Another advantage such prizes have is that if they don't succeed they don't cost a single penny - unlike most government projects where failure means increased budgets.

Dr Jerry Pournelle, who has the experience to know, has gone on record to say that he could solve the space access problem with the following government X-Prizes:

"Be it enacted by the Congress of the United States:
The Treasurer of the United States is directed to pay to the first American owned company (if corporate at least 60% of the shares must be held by American citizens) the following sums for the following accomplishments. No monies shall be paid until the goals specified are accomplished and certified by suitable experts from the National Science Foundation or the National Academy of Science:
1. The sum of $2 billion to be paid for construction of 3 operational spacecraft which have achieved low earth orbit, returned to earth, and flown to orbit again three times in a period of three weeks.
2. The sum of $5 billion to be paid for construction and maintenance of a space station which has been continuously in orbit with at least 5 Americans aboard for a period of not less than three years and one day. The crew need not be the same persons for the entire time, but at no time shall the station be unoccupied.
3. The sum of $12 billion to be paid for construction and maintenance of a Lunar base in which no fewer than 31 Americans have continuously resided for a period of not less than four years and one day.
4. The sum of $10 billion to be paid for construction and maintenance of a solar power satellite system which delivers at least 800 megawatts of electric power to a receiving station or stations in the United States for a period of at least two years and one day.
5. The payments made shall be exempt from all US taxes.
That would do it. Not one cent to be paid until the goals are accomplished. Not a bit of risk, and if it can't be done for those sums, well, no harm done to the treasury.

My suggestion is that Britain should set up an independent X-Prize Trust with a small board consisting of suitably qualified engineers, scientists & business people respected within their professions for ability & innovation (definitely not the retired civil servants, politicians & compliant judges, lacking a scientific qualification between them, who normally receive such appointments). This Trust should be funded with the £210 million presently given to ESA & matched by 3 times as much of new money, totalling £840 million - not a serious drain on a government budget of £552 billion but enough to exceed Russia. To ensure stability the government should also guarantee to increase the annual funding in line with GNP, including inflation with, for the first 3 years, 5% above that. Thereafter the rate of increase should be 2% above the increase in corporation tax paid by companies registering an interest in the prize, which I am confident not be less. This would mean a 10% annual rise in the funds given to the trust enabling it to rely on being able to disburse £13 billion within 10 years. This is almost exactly what Dr Pournelle has said would be enough to ensure cheap orbital flight for anybody, a permanent Moonbase & the start of a solar power satellite programme. NASA & certainly not ESA, are not going to provide such a future & though the Russians, Chinese & Japanese are spending their money more effectively they are still running monolithic government programmes. Britain certainly could achieve this - the time is long overdue - 50 years after the Wright Brothers first flew we had transatlantic jet travel & we could have made similar progress 50 years after Sputnik. all That is needed is for the space advocacy movement here to push hard enough for it.

(This was originally written for the 4th Oct anniversary of Sputnik)

Hey, hey where have you been! I thought you were dead, or at least in close confinement with strong drugs...
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