Wednesday, October 06, 2004

America's Space Prize

I've got to hand it to writer Wil McCarthy. A few days back he made a cryptic reference to an orbital version of Ansari X-Prize, and son of a gun, if there isn't one stepping up to the plate:
America's Space Prize, a $50 million contest under development by Nevada millionaire Robert Bigelow, looks to push privately funded human spaceflight into orbit, and ultimately on missions to a planned space station.

But the competition poses significant challenges for any competitors that rise to the occasion, some of which include developing faster vehicles to escape Earth's gravity, hardier designs to withstand the reentry stresses and the tricky ability to dock with an orbiting facility.

"It's asking a lot," Bigelow told "We're talking about a spacecraft that has rendezvous and docking capabilities, and that is a safe and reliable structure."

Couple this with the newly-announced X Prize Cup for sub-orbital competition, and you've got the makings of a sustained private spaceflight industry. Of course, reaching orbit is a great deal more challenging than going sub-orbital. SpaceShipOne, for example, would need something on the order of 15 times more thrust to reach orbit--but then couldn't land again, since it doesn't have that kind of reentry capability. These competitors wouldn't be fettered by the conflicting goals of combining a LEO human-rated space craft with a bulky heavy-lift vehicle. They can keep their craft small and focused, making them more robust with better safety margins and weight savings all around.

The technical challenges are real, but not anywhere near as difficult doomsayers would have us believe. Remember, a lot of folks dismissed the X Prize as unattainable. Certainly, within 10 years the America's Space Prize will have been claimed, and it wouldn't surprise me in the least if it happens within five. If NASA doesn't get on the stick, private enterprise may just beat the shuttle back into obit, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Now Playing: The Kinks Face to Face

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