Show me the money

From a very young age, I have been fascinated with space. I was born well after the Apollo landings were over, but I still found myself riveted by the film that those astronauts brought back with them from the moon. Even in black and white, and under the constraints of the difficult circumstances they faced in filming their time there, that footage has the power to captivate me, even now. I’ve been sad to see the excitement about space exploration that was such a huge part of the American experience in the 1950s and 60s slowly slip out of the collective consciousness in this country. I still find that sense of wonder I suspect I shared with all children looking at the night sky tugging at me.

The recent excitement surrounding the Ansari X-Prize, which awarded ten million dollars to the first company to build a privately-funded spacecraft to achieve low earth orbit twice in two weeks, made me feel like some of that sense of wonder about space was returning. I heard people who had never shown any particular interest in space exploration or even in science in general talking about it, and it never failed to make me smile.

Now, there is a new X-prize up for grabs. This time, the prize has been doubled to twenty million dollars, and will be awarded for the first private venture to soft-land a rover on the moon. The robot will have to complete certain tasks to win the prize, but the short version is that a private venture has to build a viable scientific rover and safely land it on the moon within the next five years. The race to innovate at the bleeding edge of aerospace technology is once again in the running.

Some people scoff at the idea of the X-Prize, dismissing it as a publicity stunt. Certainly, there is an element of that, but people who see these competitions as nothing more than scientifically-minded stunts are missing the point. The first Ansari X-Prize was the largest monetary prize ever awarded when it was handed out in 2005 to the builders of SpaceShipOne, which now hangs in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. In the process of striving for the ten million dollar prize, however, more than ten times that amount was spent by the competitors in pursuit of their goal.

The competition inspired some of the best innovations in the engineering of these types of systems to have come along in decades. I certainly hope that it does, but even if commercial spaceflight never becomes a reality, the work done by the teams trying to build cheap, safe, reusable rockets on a short timeline with minimal personnel and resources will continue to pay dividends in real-world, down-to-Earth applications for years to come, just as the work done by and for NASA in pursuit of putting a man on the moon continues to affect our everyday lives, more than forty years after those heady days.

This new X-Prize, sponsored this time around by search giant Google, will hopefully create even greater excitement for the type of research and development I find so fascinating. The challenges of safely landing a vehicle on the lunar surface are immense, particularly within the claustrophobic budget constraints the competitors are likely to face. Nevertheless, I have every confidence that the result will be not only a chance to nurture a growing sense of wonder about what lies beyond our tiny planet, but also fuel the sort of work that will be paying dividends in more Earth-bound applications for decades to come.

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3 Responses to Show me the money

  1. Mike says:

    Does the move from public to private exploration affect your fascination at all? Do you think it’s inevitable?

  2. Mike says:

    Yes, that should definitely be a question mark.

    [Editor’s note: Mike, I (ab)used my administrator’s privileges and fixed the punctuation in your previous comment. -Mark]

  3. Mark says:

    Mike,

    I’m not sure that the move to privatize space exploration actually makes much difference in my interest. I find the concept of doing it in the first place is what grabs me. I think that the government is in a unique position to fund the sorts of basic research that doesn’t have any immediate payout, but which will lay the groundwork for all kinds of business-based applications of the fundamental breakthroughs which could change the world.

    I do think, however, that some level of privatization is inevitable. Businesses will exist anywhere there is a reasonable chance of turning a profit, and I think that space holds the potential for a wide variety of commercial applications. What I’m not certain of is the extent to which the basic science that will drive those businesses has advanced. I’m not sure that we are yet to the point that the business models can actually be profitable. I’m certainly excited that they might be, though. I’ll never be an astronaut, but I can at least fantasize that I might one day be wealthy enough to afford a ride into space.

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