Apollo, Ansari and the Hobbling Effects of Giant Leaps

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The author films as WhiteKnight taxis with SpaceShipOne on June 21, 2004. (Credit: John Criswick)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

On Oct. 4, the world marked the anniversaries of two very different space milestones. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. And in 2004, SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by becoming the first privately-built vehicle to fly to space twice within two weeks.

While Sputnik quickly led to Sputnik 2 and 3, the Ansari X Prize has been followed by a decade of frustration. SpaceShipOne never flew again, nor has anyone replicated its accomplishments since. The dream of a vibrant new industry that would routinely fly thousands of tourists into space has remained just out of reach.

So, why did Sputnik quickly help spark a revolution that would transform life on Earth, while the Ansari X Prize led to 10 years of extravagant promises and desultory results? And what does this tell us about the role of prizes in moving technology forward?

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U.S. Government Embraces Prize Contests to Meet Challenges

Government contests offer different way to find solutions for problems
The Washington Post

The U.S. government is giving away prizes. In seeking solutions to problems, it has discovered the magic of contests, or challenges — also known as open grant-making or open innovation. Or crowd-sourcing.

Whatever you call this new way of doing business, it represents a dramatic departure from the norm for the bureaucratic, command-and-control federal government. To be sure, the agencies won’t abandon the traditional method of doling out grants to predictable bidders. But in the new era of innovation-by-contest, the government will sometimes identify a specific problem or goal, announce a competition, set some rules and let the game begin.

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Interview: Peter Diamandis Talks Prizes

Philanthropy News Digest has five questions for X PRIZE Foundation CEO Peter Diamandis. An excerpted answer follows:

One of the most critical things a prize can do is change the public perception of what is possible via a physical demonstration. The world is filled with great technology that has never been applied to a concrete goal. Prize philanthropy — and incentive prizes in particular — are a mechanism for driving breakthroughs both in technology and in public perception. What we’re doing at the X PRIZE Foundation is providing structure and a methodology that helps foundations and philanthropists to achieve their goals.

With respect to approach, there are three key attributes of a really effective incentive prize. First, the prize should be highly leveraged. If the prize is properly designed — and not all prizes are — you can drive ten to fifty times the amount of the prize purse to the achievement of your objective. Second, the prize should be efficient.

Read the full interview.

White House Looking for Prize Ideas

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Thomas Kalil, the deputy director for policy with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, has posted a blog entry (reproduced below) in which he asks for ideas on prizes that the government could sponsor.

In recent years, there has been a renaissance in “incentive prizes” – which reward contestants for achieving a specific future goal.

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Transition Update: New OMB Chief Likes Prizes

Peter Orszag and Technology Prizes
Associated Content

“President Elect Barack Obama has named Peter Oszag, current Director of the Congressional Budget Office, as his Director of the Office of Management and Budget. The selection will bring into the Obama White House an advocate of prizes to foster technological innovation. Recently, in his blog as Director of the Congressional Budget Office, Peter Orszag praised the idea of prizes as a means to encourage technological innovation.

“‘In many settings, prizes can be an efficient way of encouraging new breakthroughs…I was therefore particularly encouraged to see that the X-Prize Foundation and Wellpoint have created a competition with a prize of at least $10 million for innovative approaches to addressing health care problems and improving the sector’s efficiency — which is a key issue for our long-term fiscal and economic future'”

Diamandis Wows Crowd at WAI Conference; Announces Plans for New Zero-G Program

X-Prize creator Peter Diamandis recently spoke at the Women in Aviation International Conference. Aero-News.net’s correspondent Aleta Vinas has an account of the speech in which Diamandis recounted his efforts at fostering private space flight and his plans for the future.

During the talk, Diamandis announced plans to create a new program to inspire female students to pursue careers in aerospace. Five hundred of the top female high school or junior high school students would experience micro-gravity aboard the Zero-G aircraft. Diamandis co-founded the company.

Alan Boyle also has an interesting interview with Diamandis this week over at Cosmic Log. Diamandis talks about his plans for the Automotive X Prize and competitions in other areas. He also gives a heart-felt tribute to his friend and mentor, Arthur C. Clarke, who recently passed away.

Change in Leadership at NASA’s Centennial Challenges

The Space Elevator Blog has an interesting piece about a change at the top of NASA’s Centennial Challenges, a program that funds the Space Elevator Games and other entrepreneurial programs.

Ken Davidian is stepping and will replaced by Andy Petro, a former Johnson Space Flight Center engineer who came to NASA Headquarters in January. In an email, Petro discussed his new position:

“My title is Program Executive for the Innovation Incubator which, in addition to the Centennial Challenges, includes a program to increase the availability of space environment testing opportunities for emerging technologies (such as parabolic aircraft flights and eventually suborbital flights) and a program to bring fresh ideas into NASA by allowing some employees to work for a time in outside organizations.”

You can read the full story here.

X PRIZE Foundation Announces Appointment of Bard J. Geesaman as Executive Director, Life Sciences

X Prize Foundation Press Release

Entrepreneur, Venture Capitalist, and Clinician/Scientist to Grow Prizes in the Area of Life Sciences

SANTA MONICA, Calif., January 17, 2008 –The X PRIZE Foundation, an educational nonprofit prize institute created to foster radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity, today announced the appointment of Bard J. Geesaman, M.D. Ph.D. as Executive Director, Life Sciences. Beyond his academic and medical qualifications, he is the founder of two healthcare companies and worked as a venture capitalist. He has extensive experience in business, clinical medicine, basic research, and finance.

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