Wednesday, May 19, 2004

BBC NEWS | Amateur rocket fired into space::Talk of space is common in my office at the Robotics Institute, part of Carnegie Mellon. The environment is so hostile that “use robots” is our answer to almost any question.

My office mate and I agree step 1 (before Mars, before the Moon, before the Hubble) is more research on cheaper methods to get something into space.

The plausibility of any other mission is too much based on the whims of politics, as the cost is so high; there is little or no short-term bottom line benefit to anyone. It is PR.

This X-prize competition is amazing for this reason. Having a prize large enough to get many people working on the problem, but small enough to make sure aero-space giants don’t attempt it, is the key. Currently it costs around $50K/Kg. This is unacceptable.

After that, the next prize should be one of the following:
1) Bring back a rock of a sufficient mass from the asteroid field between Jupiter & Mars,
2) From space, laser X MWs from a solar cell array to earth.

Allowing for $100M each would easily spawn multi-billion dollar cumulative efforts, solve real world problems, and cost less than half of either Opportunity or Spirit. In addition, solving the world's energy problems and gaining immensely from mining in space, are both very good things.

While #2 assumes certain efficiency levels in solar cells, alternative methods exist such a fusion made possible by pristine manufacturing conditions in zero-G.

In general, prizes seem to do a much better job at accomplishing a number of tasks:
- The money is only spent if someone wins.
- Numerous agents spend resources to achieve the same prize, so it acts as a value multiplier.
- Coercion and bureaucratic waste usually associated with governmental action don’t really apply, unless the task to be accomplished is not important enough or would already be achieved in a given time span by private resources. Looking at the X-prize, the DARPA Grand Challenge, and others, this is probably the case.

In short, this is all exciting, and I look forward to more of it in the future.

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