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Saturday, September 26, 2009


Spaceship One & its team - winners of the first, £6 million, X-Prize

I have been requested to contribute here as a result of making an FoI enquiry which found that the government had made no investigation whatsoever of a method of funding which recent evidence suggests would provide a minimum of 33 times better value for money than contemporary methods of funding innovative technology. Thus according to the US government "For less than $10 million in prize money and expenses, [actually only $3 million in prizes] the Department of Defence has created new technology that would have otherwise cost more than $100 million",

I am doing this as a private citizen. Although I run a relatively popular blog & have blogged extensively on this & other technology related subjects. I would not claim that my thoughts represent reader's.


That the £268 million annually currently put into ESA should instead be given to an X-Prize Foundation

ESA is an ineffective bureaucracy in which far more attention is given to ensuring contracts are divvied out to each country than to even putting a man in space - something competitors did nearly 50 years ago. There is no likelihood that anything related to ESA will ever be at the cutting edge of any sort of space development.

X-Prizes are prizes given for new achievements in technology. That's it. One puts up a prize & the first eligible person or group (in this case a British company or citizens) to achieve it gets the money. This does not effect their patent rights. Cutting edge technology often has little immediate non-military payback though in the long tern whole industries grow out of it. The value of achievements usually far exceed anything government programmes could do. Indeed government programmes, precisely because of the mindset, are very poor at producing products which can be utilised at commercial rates as the $1 billion a launch NASA shuttle, compared with a flight to Australia which, in theory at least, requires a comparable amount of energy, shows.

Prizes have a long & successful record of spurring technological progress from the time the King of Syracuse offered a prize to anybody who could develop a way of measuring the purity of gold, through the Spanish longitude prize not being won but nonetheless giving the world modern maps; the British longitude prize won by John Harrison; the prize put forward by a billiard ball company for a substitute to elephant ivory, which started the plastic industry; Lindbergh's winning of one for the first solo flight across the Atlantic. The world X-Prize Foundation funded the $10 million prize that produced Spaceship One & kickstarted Virgin Galactic.

Space precludes a fuller description of the long & overwhelmingly successful record of funding technological progress by prizes but certainly it has worked & does work much better than any other method of government funding. See;
Recent success,
NASA assessment paper,
h More historic examples ,
Gingrich on X-Prizes ,
BT funding X-Prize Foundation going worldwide,
John McCain's X-Prize for a better battery,
X-Prizes in history ,
proposed small scale prize,
SNP's sea turbine prize

A British X-Prize Foundation should be funded with the money currently given to ESA guaranteed to grow proportionately with the growth in Britain's current £6.5 billion space industry plus 5%. British space industry is currently growing at 5% annually which is clearly a matter of pride for the ministry. America's is growing at 17.6%. This would therefore have no immediate net cost to the Exchequer & the long term increase would be merely a very small part of the gain from the concomitant expansion of the industry. Such a long term commitment to an independent body would provide security to all parties & allow the Foundation to offer prizes on the basis of assets several years in advance since even the most enthusiastic supporters would not expect it to produce a commercial British orbital craft in under 3 years. The body should consist of about 5 commissioners drawn from successful engineers, scientists & technology venture capitalists to decide on what prizes to institute. It would require only a very small staff to determine that applicants counted as British & the achievement had indeed been made.

The first prize offered should be for an orbital space vehicle.

Robert Heinlein said "When you are in Earth orbit you are half way to anywhere." The point being that the energy cost & difficulty of achieving orbit is at least as great as getting from orbit to ANYWHERE in the Solar System.

Consequently achieving an inexpensive commercial orbital craft is at least as important now as all other possible space projects put together.

NASA have clearly failed to do that with the Shuttle. ESA are not even in the business of trying. China & Russia, possibly in combination, may well manage it. However the best way to produce a commercial launcher is a commercial X-Prize.

To quote Dr Jerry Pournelle (former NASA scientist & chair of the Citizen's Committee that persuaded Ronald Reagan of the utility of the SDI programme:

"I am rapidly reaching a conclusion, confirmed by a number of those in the rocket entrepreneurial community, and also several Pentagon people: if we stay outside NASA, the technology exists to build a reusable orbiter for under a billion dollars; probably far less than a billion.

This could be done by prizes, and at the moment there are two prize schemes to consider: a single prize of $1 billion (£600 million), or a first and second prize of $500,000,000 for first and $250,000,000 for second (£300 m & £150 m
. The notion of a second prize is intriguing but harder to sell. A second insures that more than one firm can raise capital to compete. "

That is 2 years worth of what we put into ESA, though personally I would suggest a little more. When we are discussing access to the Universe there is no point in cheeseparing. It should be noted that if this does not work then, such is the nature of prizes, no cost is involved. Thus even the most sceptical, indeed arguably specially the most sceptical, can have no objection to it.

Here is a link giving the fully run of proposed prizes as originally stated by Dr Pournelle

I am willing to answer any further questions on the subject or assist in any other way.

As pointed out in my FoI enquiry BNSC has a legal duty to "help industry maximise profitable space based business opportunities." I do not think it can credibly be denied that X-Prizes will do more, indeed many orders of magnitude more, to provide such opportunities than funding ESA. If anybody wishes to say otherwise I will be very interested to read & hopefully get a chance to respond to an argument which I have never seen specifically made anywhere else. There may be arguments that it is politically useful to fund ESA but that would not be part of the BNSC's brief & other departments, probably particularly the Foreign Office should certainly be allowed to fund ESA form their own budgets, if they so desire, so long as it does not impinge on the British space budget.


This is the submission I have sent to BNSC following my FoI enquiry. It was sent to
Anybody else with suggestions should do the same by Oct 14th when the consultation ends.

See also &

Any reader who feels that the BNSC should consider this option seriously is invited to send a short email simply saying that to the given address. If you would like to CC a copy to me on crgn143@aol that would be appreciated. I have no doubt whatsoever that X-Prizes would be orders of magnitude more useful at promoting British space industrialisation than giving the money to ESA & that any impartial investigation will find this to be the case.

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