For flit: What Do You Think of the X-Prize?

>> Sunday, January 10, 2010

(Photo created by Armadillo Aerospace/Matthew C. Ross)
flit asked: Ross & I have been watching a lecture by Peter Diamondis ...about the X Prize stuff... how do you, as a safety geek, feel about the X Prize competitions as a way of pushing innovation? How are the safety issues handled...especially when it comes to space exploration, of course, and is it good enough?

It's a good question. I'm torn in several ways. First, an artificial incentive is not as good for building and maintaining a long-term space capability. There must be another incentive behind it or either the prize will go wanting or people will build something that barely meets the requirements and then let it go. Enthusiasts will be attracted, but that is not guarantee of long-term involvement.

Secondly, a prize that stipulates too much by way of needs (like demanding a reusable craft that can land horizontally) can restrain innovation, having people focus on a particular solution rather than figuring out the best solution.

Having said that, I do believe, quite strongly, that an artificial incentive is certainly better than none at all. Just because one doesn't have a profit motive to begin with doesn't mean you can't find one if you have a viable design solution. Truthfully, most of the competitors for the X-Prizes spent more in development than the prize itself, hoping to leverage success into more opportunities. That does speak well of hte future. Let's face it, we all know what commercial human space innovation has accomplished in the 50+ years since this business really got cooking. Not much. If an incentive kick-starts it, that's not a bad thing.

However, as a safety person, I' concerned, particularly in the commercial world, not because of the X-Prize but because the FAA has been mandated (by Congress) to stay out of the space safety business until at least 2012 (other than making sure no one drops bit o' rockets on the unsuspecting public). That means, if you step on to a rocket or space tourism vehicle, you are completely dependent on your provider, with no oversight, to ensure your safety. The rationale behind this to compare this to the early days in aviation where the attrition rate of pilots was astronomical. As a space safety person, the mind cringes.

I'm not sure that's a valid line of reasoning, but that's politics for you. Does that answer your question?


  • Jeff King

    answered my question before i even knew i had one...


  • flit

    thanks for taking the time ....I figured there were likely to be safety concerns.... people can be so dumb sometimes - even the smart, innovative ones

  • Aron Sora

    But what is the X Prize ends the same way that Apollo did? Apollo's motivation was artificial (fear) when the fear was gone, people stopped going to the moon. I think the same thing will happen with the X Prize, once it is gone, the competitors will dissolve their companies.

  • Stephanie B

    I think that's a real possibility, Aron, and I share your concern. But there's a chance that we can move forward as well. Post-Apollo stuttered, but we never really gave up human spaceflight and have had some significant accomplishments. The Russians kept with their strengths (station-building, for example), even through their financial and political meltdown.

    And there can still be benefits. Our space environment is now crucial to our surface world, from communication to earth-science monitoring to navigation. We shouldn't discount any step forward. There's never knowing where it might lead.

    I'm just hoping it's done with sufficient care that it doesn't become a step backwards.

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