Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Tierney on Space

I love John Tierney's take on the space program.
His latest column in the NYT has some great ideas; he believes that funding for the space program should be structured more competitively, which is something I definitely agree with.

The new Virgin Galactic spaceship will be a larger eight-person version of the ship that last year won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for a reusable spacecraft. Its designer, Burt Rutan, backed by the billionaire Paul Allen, spent over $25 million to beat two dozen competitors.

That's the beauty of offering prizes: a little money buys a lot more R.&D. than you would ever get by giving the funds to NASA. Prizes spurred Charles Lindbergh and others to quickly turn aviation from a stunt into an industry. Competition inspires innovations that would never be approved by bureaucrats - like modeling a spaceship on a badminton shuttlecock.

And more...

Now that Rutan and Branson and other entrepreneurs are entering space, there's no need for NASA to poke around in Earth orbit with the space shuttle and the space station. Nor does it need to return to the Moon. Rutan figures that private spaceships will be going there before long, so he'd rather see NASA concentrate on ways to reach Mars.

So would I, but not all by itself. Instead of just financing NASA's plans for Mars, Congress and the White House should make it compete against engineers like Rutan. It could offer a prize, to be awarded by the National Academy of Engineering or the National Research Council, for the best plan on paper for a manned mission to Mars.

Branson told me he'd be willing to enter that competition for a prize of $10 million - a pittance next to NASA's $16 billion annual budget. Robert Zubrin, the president of the Mars Society, said he'd enter it, too.

An even better idea would be to offer prizes for making actual progress on a Mars mission, not just drawing up plans. Zubrin suggests that the federal government get entrepreneurs started by offering a $5 billion prize for the first flight of a vehicle that can lift 120 tons into orbit.

There could also be a grand $30 billion Mars Prize for getting a human to Mars and planting the American flag. That would be a bargain compared with the current plans of NASA, which wants to get to Mars by first spending $100 billion just to reach the Moon.
I think that's a great way of approaching this issue, and I think the same should be done for alternative energy research. Instead of offering ADM and others billions of dollars to subsidize ethanol production, why not offer a $10 billion prize to the first organization or group of researchers who can bring the cost of producing ethanol down to $20/barrel? Similarly, why not offer a $10 billion prize to whoever can demonstrate a way to store hydrogen on a car without a pressurized tank? (See post below on Hydrogen Tablets)

Either of those technologies would be a watershed discovery in terms of its implications for our national security. How nice it would be to see the funding for Pakistani madrassas and Iranian Islamist "foundations" dry up. People in this part of the world would actually have to develop a civil society, which is not possible as long as their bills are being paid by a resource, oil, which stifles individual initiative and a sense of individual and collective responsibility for the future.

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