The Speculist: Can Push Prizes Take us Back to the Moon?


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Can Push Prizes Take us Back to the Moon?

Georgy Bailey: What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the Moon? Just say the word and I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That's a pretty good idea. I'll give you the Moon, Mary.

Mary: I'll take it. Then what?

Mary's last question has been NASA's problem for the last 39 years. What do they do now? A manned mission to the Moon was such a big endeavor that topping it has proven impossible for... well... my entire life. The next obvious goal - Mars - is a much bigger step. It seems obvious that going to Mars means going back to the Moon.

In his last post, "Not Everyone Keen on Return to Moon," Phil suggested that a push prize might be the best and most cost effective way of returning to the Moon.

I'm a big believer in push prizes. The Ansari X Prize was only $10,000,000, but it resulted in a man being put in space... twice. It also launched a private space tourism industry that looks almost ready to go. Who would have thought that any space program could be started for $10,000,000?

That said, I'm not sure that a push prize for putting a man on the Moon would work. My "Push Prize Rules for Success" are:

  1. Have a realistic goal that is within the grasp of foreseeable science,

  2. Offer a sum that's sufficient to inspire serious efforts to achieve that goal, AND

  3. Be someone (or a foundation or whatever) that potential competitors will trust to actually pay the prize when its won.

A push prize to the Moon wouldn't really break any of these rules. People have already been to the Moon, so it's obviously possible. NASA could, theoretically, offer a BIG prize. And the US Government is probably trustworthy to actually pay the prize.

But maybe I should add a fourth rule:

  1. The contemplated goal must be within the organizational capability of the pool of potential competitors.

Unfortunately, a manned Moon mission will be outside of the organizational capability of pretty much any corporation or academic institution. Maybe a big corporation like Boeing could do it, but its stockholders wouldn't allow it.

Push prizes could still be instrumental. NASA, for example, isn't offering a prize to create a space elevator, but they are holding annual contests for ever-better crawlers and tethers. Perhaps a similar incremental approach - or prizes for necessary subsystems - could allow competitors to contribute.

Incidentally, we may be seeing the limit of the big-bite-approach to push prizes with the Google Lunar X-Prize. Last year Google announced a $20,000,000 prize for sending a small rover to the Moon. Apparently they now have a single competitor signed up for this contest.

I guess I'll go out on a limb and be a naysayer. I doubt that anyone will win the Google Lunar X-Prize.


I'm rooting for Team Cringely


I'd love to be proved wrong about the Google Lunar X-Prize.

The prize could provide valuable science even if it goes unclaimed.

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