X Prize could advance private efforts in space
Although it is a technique that is less used today, cash was often an incentive in the early days of motoring and flying to promote advances in the technology and increase public awareness.
Usually some wealthy individual or an interested group would offer a prize to achieve some goal like to be the first to fly across the country or to reach some destination in a certain amount of time. In fact, much of the early exploration of unknown realms was driven by cash prizes by the National Geographic Society or some other scientific group seeking to satisfy our desire to know what is "out there."
This came to mind as I read an article in USA Today this week headlined "U.S. on verge of private space travel." It was reported that two private U.S. teams are seeking licenses from the Federal Aviation Administration to launch spaceships into suborbital space.
While such flights are pretty routine today for NASA and have also been accomplished by other nations' government-sponsored programs, it would be a first for private enterprise.
The incentive for the private groups is coming from the X Prize Contest. A $10 million prize is being offered by the X Prize Foundation, a St. Louis group that wants to promote private space trips, primarily for tourists who would like to experience weightlessness and say they have been in space.
The craft, which will probably be more like a combination between an airplane and a spaceship, would have to be reusable so that it could make repeated trips.
It is no coincidence that one X Prize board member is Dennis Tito, the wealthy American entrepreneur who paid Russia $20 million for a chance to go into space.
Clearly, the cost of the brief flight into suborbit would have to be a lot less than $20 million in order to attract many tourists. But that is the point of having private companies develop the spacecraft - they can't just spend money and not expect a return on their investment, as is the case with a government agency.
The story in USA Today indicated there is quite a bit of interest in the project with more than 20 teams in the hunt for the prize money and the opportunity to make even more money in the future. The first attempts are expected sometime this year.
Because of the scope and expense of long-distance space travel - and the X Prize goal is a much less involved technological feat than that - it has tended to be a national or even multi-national government funded project. That will probably continue to be the case for some time when it comes large-scale efforts like interplanetary space travel.
But there are niche areas where private enterprise can do the job much better that government because there will be cost control and profit incentives. While this first effort is targeted at tourism, there would also be opportunities in the area of research and manufacturing.
The technique of using a prize to motivate the private efforts is a good idea. It worked in the past to advance new technologies and there is no reason it won't work on the "high frontier" of space. The money and the glory of winning are powerful motivators.
Perhaps this year we will see the first winner of a long line of space-related challenges for private groups and individuals with the spirit of entrepreneurship that so often fuels advancement.
Terry Ross is editor of The Sun.