The Ansari X-Prize for development of a vehicle that could carry three people about 62 miles above the earth, twice within two weeks demonstrated the power of competition to stimulate innovation. The prize was $10 million. But there was more than money driving the effort to succeed. It cost more than $20 million (funded by Paul Allen of Microsoft fame) to develop and build SpaceShip One- less than half the value of the prize. There’s something about beating the other teams, being the first to do something truly innovative that gets people going. It was also the first time that most people learned about commercial (i.e., non-government) space although it had existed for some time.
NASA now has a series of Centennial Challenges to encourage private citizens to develop apparatus to advance lunar exploration. This weekend, I had the opportunity to watch part of the Regolith Excavation Challenge being held at Ames Research Center, my neighborhood NASA center. Regolith is moon soil. Like the real stuff, the specially developed simulacrum is very dusty and hazardous to one’s health, requiring observers like me to stay behind the plastic curtains surrounding the test bed. The task of digging and moving the materials is harder than it sounds with last year’s challenge producing no winners.
This year, the devices had to be operated remotely, without direct visibility to the site. Each team had 30 minutes to move a minimum of 150 kg of regolith. There were over 20 teams from across the US and Canada. All 3 prizes (totalling $750,000) were awarded. First place prize of $500,000 went to Paul’s Robotics from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Two of the six team members were women. (Most teams were all male). Videos of the devices have been uploaded.
BTW- Paul Allen is not the only high tech exec involved in commercial space. Some others are Elon Musk (co-founder of PayPal and founder of Tesla Motors) who started SpaceX and Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon) who started Blue Origin. Space exploration is a subject that fascinates me and thanks to my husband, who’s part of the “The Space Portal”, NASA’s friendly front door to the private space community, (and who was one of the many judges involved in this weekend’s challenge), I’m fortunate to be able to see what’s happening. Be forewarned, I’m likely to mention this in the future.