Inside the Capitol

Monday, May 09, 2005

5-13 X Prize

FRI, 5-13-05

SANT FE � Sunday, May 15 was scheduled to be NASA�s next space shuttle launch. But it won�t be. �Further testing and analysis� will move that timetable to July 13 at the earliest. And if experience is any indication, it will be longer.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is inching its way back into space, correcting problems that caused the last shuttle disaster and identifying other possible defects along the way. Space Shuttle Discovery is being prepped for its 31st mission and NASA�s 114th mission.
That is a lot of space launches, but very likely nowhere near the number of launches private industry will have in the 40-plus years it has taken the government to get to this point, at many, many times the cost.
And so far, though still in its infancy, private industry has been able to stick to its schedule better than the government. At about this time last year, Gov. Bill Richardson called a press conference to announce that New Mexico had landed the X Price Cup competition. Present at that gathering was Dr. Peter Dimandis, the founder and president of the X Prize Foundation.
As part if his comments, Dr. Dimandis predicted that before the end of summer, the $10 million Ansari X Prize would be awarded to one of the 24 competitors vying to be the first to reach an altitude of 62 miles twice within a two-week period. I�m sure that many in that room felt the same as I that the good doctor was getting carried away with the excitement of the moment and being more than a little overly-optimistic.
But before the end of summer� You guessed it. SpaceShipOne built by Burt Rutan and financed by Santa Fe part timer Paul Allen, accomplished the feat in a manner that appeared somewhat effortless.
The only glitches were minor and none caused the delays to which we have become so accustomed with NASA. The project cost around $20 million, compared to the billions NASA spends.
Those competitions move to the Southwest Regional Spaceport, near Las Cruces, beginning in 2006. On October 4-9, of this year, some of the competitors will stage exhibitions at the Las Cruces airport.
None of the competitors, by the way, are the big aerospace firms that build NASA�s machines. Why spend millions of your own money when you can charge the government billions in taxpayer money?
And the private efforts seem to be working better. Back in the late �90s, NASA wanted to develop a new generation of reusable space shuttles to replace our current fleet that require booster rockets.
Several designs were submitted by the major aerospace firms. Some took off and landed vertically. Some used runways and some were hybrids such as our current shuttle. But none of them worked. In the summer of 2000, the project was cancelled.
Come join us in Las Cruces this October and see similar designs that really work. Yes, it�s rocket science, but it can be accomplished by backyard scientists. Robert Goddard, the father of rocket science, did his work on a ranch outside Roswell without the help of government money.
Goddard�s principal benefactor was the Guggenheim Foundation. Some of the current efforts are being financed by entrepreneurs who made their money in high-tech fields and now want to follow their dreams into space.
It appears to be working. With the incentives being offered by the X Prize Foundation, we are seeing an explosion of energy similar to what happened in the commercial air travel industry a century ago, when prizes attracted the Lindberghs of the era.
There is no telling how long passenger air travel would have taken if the government had been doing the development. SpaceShipOne has successfully carried a cargo equivalent to a pilot and two passengers to the edge of space three times.
It may not be long before the passenger ships of the movie 2001 become reality.



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