The next X-Prize

Remember the X-Prize, the $10 million (U.S.) reward offered to any team that could create a privately funded-and-built spacecraft capable of lifting three humans to a sub-orbital altitude of 100 kilometres on two consecutive flights within two weeks?

Of course you do. One of the 23 competing teams, the daVinci Project, was supposedly poised to turn Kindersley into a spaceport…but alas, SpaceShipOne, designed and built by legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, Inc., got there first, and took home the cash.

But the competition was so successful it sparked a whole new interest in prizes for various technological advancements…or, maybe, revived an old interest.

The X-Prize drew its inspiration from the hundreds of aviation prizes offered between 1905 and 1935, including the $25,000 Orteig Prize offered by hotel magnate Raymond Orteig to the first person to fly non-stop between New York and Paris—a prize won, of course, in 1927 by Charles Lindbergh.

The Orteig Prize stimulated nine different attempts to cross the Atlantic, which collectively pumped $400,000 into the fledgling aviation industry in their attempts to win $25,000. Lindbergh’s feat also broke a psychological barrier associated with trans-Atlantic flying. Others quickly replicated his achievement and launched the modern area of aviation.

A lot of companies are even now working on private space operations (witness my recent column on Bigelow Aerospace). Most are focused on the suborbital tourism market—including Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which will take paying passengers into space aboard a larger version of SpaceShip One called SpaceShip Two—but some are already looking ahead to orbital flights.

This success made the X-Prize organizers wonder what other industries could benefit from an X-Prize-like kick-start. They settled on the automotive industry.

The Automotive X-Prize is still in the planning stages, with final rules soon to be announced. The prize’s goals are “to stimulate automotive technology, manufacturing and marketing breakthroughs that radically reduce oil consumption and harmful emissions and result in a new generation of super-efficient and desirable mainstream vehicles that people want to buy.”

In other words, the winner of the Automotive X-Prize will be a vehicle more attractive to consumers and more fuel-efficient than anything on the market today—even your Prius or SmartCar.

The Automotive X-Prize website says automobiles are ripe for improvement because more than 40 percent of world oil output fuels the automotive industry, and today’s oil consumption is “unsustainable, endangering our health, our economy, and the political and social stability of the world,” plus contributing to climate change.

The organizers note that there are currently “no mainstream consumer choices for clean, super-efficient vehicles that meet market needs for price, size, capability, image, safety, and performance” and claim the industry has “painted itself into a corner,” with legislation, regulation, labor issues, manufacturing costs, obsolete technology, consumer attitudes and other factors combining to block breakthroughs. Improved energy efficiency, they say, has been used to make more powerful, faster-accelerating and heavier cars rather than more fuel-efficient cars.

All of which we’ve heard before. But an Automotive X-Prize just might be a way to get people to listen, because “American drivers will not be cajoled or lectured into buying more efficient vehicles—but they will drive a winner!”

Of course, a lot of extremely fuel-efficient concept cars have been produced with those kinds of goals in mind. The Automotive X-Prize, however, is intended to result in “real cars available for purchase, not concept cars.”

What’s in it for the teams, aside from the possibility of doing the planet some good? Well, the rules will also be designed to “make heroes out of the competitors and winner(s) through unprecedented exposure, media coverage and a significant cash award.”

In other words, the same thing Charles Lindbergh won: fame and fortune.

Will we see other prizes along these lines? We already are. NASA has offered prizes for the development of basic technologies that might lead to a space elevator, for instance, and is currently offering $2 million in prizes for the development of vehicles suitable for ferrying humans from the moon to low lunar orbit.

The X-Prize Foundation, meanwhile, is also looking at other prize-worthy goals in energy, education, and especially genomics: rules for the Genome X Prize, aimed at reducing the cost and time associated with decoding individual human genomes, will probably be announced later this year.

Humans like to compete, and they like to win. And if they can benefit all of us in the process…well, then they definitely deserve a prize.

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    • Saskboy on August 2, 2006 at 5:40 am
    • Reply

    Ignore previous and deleted comment, there was an error.

    You’re right, I forgot the name of their ship for the DaVinci Project. It is for people, and suborbital, but I was hoping there might be a way to convert it to also launch small rockets. From a higher position, it’s possible [but I’m not certain] that it could be used as a platform to launch and save considerably on rocket fuel – unless that fuel is used anyway by launching the rest of the craft.

    • Edward Willett on August 2, 2006 at 5:24 am
    • Reply

    I think you mean the daVinci Project. I don’t know. Their website is still there, but there’s nothing any newer than October on it.

    The daVinci spacecraft wouldn’t be able to launch satellites, I don’t think. Like SpaceShip One, it’s sub-orbital, not orbital. You’d need an additional booster to get a satellite into orbit and the daVinci ship wasn’t designed for that. Space tourism would be its only money-making possibility, I think.

    Some of the original X-Prize contenders are still active, or claim to be, but others have faded away now that the prize has been won. The daVinci Project may be one of those.

    Too bad, ’cause it would be cool to have a Saskatchewan spaceport in Kindersley!

    • Saskboy on August 2, 2006 at 5:16 am
    • Reply

    You reminded me what I was going to write about one day, but had forgotten while on the road. I wonder why SpaceShipOne still hasn’t launched. It was supposedly just weeks away from being complete. Surely there is money to be made in a reusable ship acting as a launching platform for satellites.

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