Sunday, June 29, 2008

New York Times on Innovation Prizes

Eureka! Where Do I Cash the Check? - The New York Times - Following John McCain's $300M electric car battery prize proposal, and Barack Obama's rejection of that method in favor of an Apollo-like energy effort, this article gives an overview of past and present prize efforts. The most relevant, in the context of Obama's citing the Apollo program approach, is probably the Ansari X PRIZE:

Considering the bureaucratic bog the space program has waded into — the exhilaration of Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind giving way to plumbing problems on the International Space Station — Mr. Obama might not have picked the best example. The latest pictures from Mars are stunning, but the most exciting thing to happen recently in manned space flight came in 2004 when Burt Rutan won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first privately backed suborbital excursion.

This point hits home even more if you only consider manned spaceflight, and thus discount the pictures from Mars as being a different discussion altogether. Alternately, if you include robotic spaceflight, it's important to note that the University of Arizona, which led the Phoenix Mars lander, is now part of the Astrobotic Google Lunar X PRIZE team.

Apollo did a lot of useful things, but one has to wonder whether or not its legacy would have been greater if private industry had developed affordable space transportation systems during that effort, through incentives like prizes. When considering big all-or-nothing government efforts, you can't ignore the fact that the Apollo rockets, capsules, and lunar landers were developed and briefly used at a huge cost, were later abandoned in favor of the Space Shuttle which was developed and operated at a huge cost, and now that the Shuttle is being abandoned Apollo-like systems are again being developed from the ground up at a huge cost. Space (and energy) prizes may be able to improve upon this kind of result, whether instead of or in parallel with Apollo-like efforts.

That's why it's disappointing that Obama considers the prize proposal to be a gimmick (even though his campaign documents include biofuel prizes). It would have been better if he'd picked apart any flaws in McCain's prize proposal, and suggested better ones, or if he'd suggested that McCain's type of prize proposal isn't enough and, because of the importance of energy efficiency and security, prizes need to be done as a complement to an Apollo-like effort.

I have one minor complaint about the article, which generally is quite good. It cites the Heinlein Prize as one of the X PRIZE Foundation efforts. Peter Diamandis of the X PRIZE Foundation won the first Heinlein Prize, but that prize is run by the Heinlein Trust. It might have been better, in the context of the discussion on energy prizes and electric cars, to have mentioned the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE run by the X PRIZE Foundation.