Gingrich still eyeing prizes

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has long had an interest in prizes for motivating advances in spaceflight, among other areas, and that interest is apparently still strong. In an interview with Human Events he had this to say about a Mars prize:

I had a very senior member of the Air Force say to me, if we had a $5 billion tax-free prize for the first team to get to Mars — think of it as the 21st Century America’s Cup, ’cause, you know, there are millionaires and billionaires out there who spend an amazing amount of money on yachts in order to compete for the America’s Cup.

If we had a 21st Century America’s Cup in space, this particular expert in the Air Force said to me, they thought we’d get there in about five years and save about $220 billion dollars in federal spending over the next generation. So, you look at that sort of thing, and I don’t want to try to fix NASA, I want to try to create a competitive, prize-based system.

Unfortunately, Gingrich doesn’t disclose who this “very senior member” of the Air Force is, and how this person made that rather optimistic determination.

Gingrich’s interview is timed with the publication of his new book, Real Change. One chapter of that book is titled, “NASA versus the Culture of Competitive Entrepreneurship”.

18 comments to Gingrich still eyeing prizes

  • MarkWhittington

    Much as I like Newt and prizes, I think a five billion dollar Mars prize is just unworkable. Prizes work when they are for somewhat more realistic goals for a private entity than sending people to Mars and back.

  • reader

    Gotta agree with Mark here. There are dozens and dozens of better way more realistic prize options, that could be achieved for a fraction of a billion, and still work miracles for catalysing space development.

  • Chance

    I’m not a Gringrich fan, but I agree that prizes are the way to go. Five Billion for a Mar Mission is obviously not going to work, but I like that line of thinking.

  • Earl Blake

    Prizes like a Mars race are fine if all you want from space are stunts.

  • Charles in Houston

    Fellow Mars Advocates –

    Earl Blake points out the biggest flaw for this flaw magnet – a one time prize produces a stunt. Much like Newt’s other “contribution” to his country – removing much of the confidence people had in the reliability of the government.

    What we need is a sustainable program – as cool as the Apollo program was – it was not sustainable. Once the public (and the politicians) saw that we “had some rocks” and that we “had beaten them Russkis” they were done. We have had a hard time explaining what we are doing in space since then.

    My years of experience in the Air Force lead me to think that the senior AF person must have been a pilot of cargo aircraft. They apparently feel that the purpose of the trip is to get somewhere, and have forgotten that there is something in the back of the plane. Unless Newt invented the story.


  • Al Fansome

    BLAKE: Prizes like a Mars race are fine if all you want from space are stunts.

    What is wrong with a stunt? Sometimes stunts can be hugely transforming.

    Lindberg crossing the Atlantic was a stunt.

    Lindberg landed in Paris on May 21, 1926. The number of commercial U.S. airline passengers went from 5,782 in 1926 to 173,405 in 1929. In 1927 the number of licensed pilots tripled and the number of licensed aircraft quadrupled. The number of airports in the United States doubled within 3 years of Lindbergh’s feat. It is estimated by some that 30% of the American public came out to see Lindberg during his tour of America after his successful stunt.

    Still want to criticize the Lindberg stunt?

    CHANCE: I’m not a Gringrich fan, but I agree that prizes are the way to go. Five Billion for a Mar Mission is obviously not going to work, but I like that line of thinking.

    I also support a much more aggressive prize approach, but I agree that $5 Billion for a humans on Mars prize is not anywhere near enough to be effective. Beyond the prize amount, there needs to be an incremental series of steps to be useful. The aeronautics prizes of the early 20th Century were effective because they were incremental prizes — and did not require some huge leap.

    Zubrin’s structure for a $20 Billion Mars prize, with a series of incremental steps made a lot of sense.

    The biggest strategic challenge with a Mars prize is that the entrenched interests in our country would strongly resist a Mars prize initiative, as it threatens their agenda. Why do you need the VSE if you have a Mars Prize. Any strategy that threatens the livelihood of NASA’s employees, and does not give NASA a new mission to focus its energies upon, is setting itself up to fail.

    (Recall, this is the same core strategic problem I pointed out with regards to the Obama space policy.)

    Personally, I wish Gingrich would focus his attention on promoting an incremental series of Cheap and Reliable Access to Space (CRATS) prizes. A series of CRATS prizes is much more politically achievable, as the you do not have the entire entrenched NASA bureaucracy, plus their contractors, fighting you every step of the way.

    – Al

  • Earl Blake

    I’m not sure there’s a correlation between the Lindberg flight and a Mars challenge. If the Lindberg flight made any impact at all it was to sway people to one mode of transportation, flying, over another, trains, boats etc.. . The Apollo is a much closer analogy to the Mars challenge. The emphasis was placed on getting there so once we did the general opinion was; “Been there, done that”. The emphasis should be on exploration and colonization, (admittedly a much harder sell), but one that will yield a much more sustained effort and longer lasting benefits that just a “one trick wonder”.

  • Al Fansome

    BLAKE: The emphasis should be on exploration and colonization, (admittedly a much harder sell), but one that will yield a much more sustained effort and longer lasting benefits that just a “one trick wonder”.

    I agree with this point, but this has nothing to do with the nature of prizes. It has to do with “how” you design a Mars program.

    A Mars agenda that will result in an Apollo redux (creating flags & footprints), but which is not designed from day one to result in the permanent human settlement of Mars, is a bad idea.

    Zubrin talks a good game about Mars, but one of this biggest blind spots is that he is willing to support ANY program that is Mars related, even if the end result would be flags & footprints on Mars.

    BLAKE: The emphasis should be on exploration and colonization

    This is not enough. We need to distinguish between “exploration” and “settlement”. (I prefer the word settlement). Apollo was exploration, and by making “exploration” the focus, we open the door to a repeat of Apollo.

    A Moon/Mars exploration program — that does not explicitly state that the primary objective is permanent human settlement, and then derive all requirements based on that primary objective — sets itself up to repeat Apollo. This is what is happening now at NASA.

    NASA has a long history of this.

    SHUTTLE: The Shuttle program failure to achieve the original objective ($10M marginal cost per flight) resulted from perverse systemic incentives give up on the cheap access objective in order to get something flying.

    STATION: If you talk to veteran NASA space station engineers, many will tell you how “operational costs” and “life cycle costs” were ignored at all decision levels by key station executives in order to get the station flying.

    The ISS is operational today, but it was not designed with low operational costs in mind. It is designed to minimize short non-recurring costs, AND to be abandoned in the 2016-2020 time frame.

    A space station that was designed for permanent presence in LEO, would have been designed much differently (like the ability to upgrade the ISS over time, which means the ability remove and replace key modules in orbit).

    ARES 1/ARES V: Griffin’s NASA chose this architecture, not for its ability to create cheap access, or its “affordability” and “sustainability” aspects, but for its ability to support a pure exploration agenda. These same systems make little sense for a permanent human settlement agenda, which require a laser focus on affordability and sustainability.

    LUNAR BASE (ABANDON IN PLACE): NASA’s plan is to build a short-term lunar base, which they will “abandon in place”. Since NASA plans to “abandon” the base, don’t you think this will affect their design and investment decisions?

    Imagine an investor (any investor) who puts money up for infrastructure — but who is only going to use that infrastructure for the short term. Do you think that investor will make decisions optimized for the short-term, or the long-term? Do you think they will care how economical, and sustainable, that infrastructure is after they are long gone?

    Is this a good way to design a lunar base?

    Abandon in place is a really bad idea.

    I believe that the “Vision for Space EXPLORATION” was a good step forward in space policy, however, the VSE’s biggest weakness (other than letting somebody like Griffin come in and mangle the whole objective with how he executes the VSE) is that it states that “exploration” is the objective, and does not even use the word “settlement” or “colonization”.

    We have not learned from history.

    QUESTION: Anonymous, care to share any thoughts on why the VSE focuses on “exploration” and does not even use the word “settlement”?

    – Al

  • reader

    There is a perfectly good lunar prize already. Fund that and follow-ons just a wee bit higher, and then fund logical follow-on prizes like ISRU demos of various sorts and finally a manned landing stunt as well.
    Way more effective than martian dreaming at current state of the game.

    Even CATS prize reinstantiated would be effective and give good boosts to increasing interest in space. Take any of the Centennial Challenges and double the funding, throw in some more cash for third COTS entry as well.
    Hell, even X-Prize rerun with maybe slightly bumped up requirements for repeatability, with second and third place prizes too would make loads of sense at this point.

    All this is way more efficient than trying to sponsor a pie in the sky multibillion mars prize that will likely attract more clowns and kooks than serious investment.

  • reader

    I need to repeat that IMO all sorts of teh funnay men entering these prizes do more harm than improve credibility of the whole idea of private spaceflight. RPK fiasco is a good ( well, bad ) example, as were a good third of the original X-Prize entrants.
    I forgot one in the previous post: Lunar Lander Challenge. Something needs to be done to improve the turnout from entrants to people actually getting to flying hardware, and again, there are some circus artists in the game.

    More prize money couldnt hurt either.

  • read the full text of the current space prize bill being proposed by the senator from Texas by following the link at http://www.actionforspace.com

    Then use the link at actionforspace.com to write a letter to your representative telling them that you support the bill (if you do, of course.)

  • MarkWhittington

    I’ve read Newt’s chapter of space in his Change book and it is a somewhat mixed bag. He begins with a critique of NASA that many will find familiar, though one that seems more relevant for 1998 than 2008. The space shuttle and space station are turkeys. The Mars Polar Lander (which Newt confuses with Mars Pathfinder) and Mars Climate Orbiter demonstrates dysfunction. The reason that the critique is ten years old is that the shuttle is going away and every American Mars probe since have been successful.

    Newt comes out for a twenty billion dollars Mars prize and a five billion dollar “Lunar Base Prize.” He refers to an “aerospace leader” who thinks these are great ideas (I’ll be you that the “aerospace leader is Zubrin.) NASA will be consigned to space science and “cutting edge research”—whatever that means.

    Newt does have some good ideas for some tax and regulatory incentives to help commercial space. He mentions the Centennial Challenges but seems not to have heard of COTS. He repeats the canard of the “four hundred fifty billion dollar” Mars mission without citing a source for the figure.

    In all, I think a subpar performance coming from one of politics’ better, more imaginative minds.

  • Vladislaw

    I thought the analogy he used was an “America’s Cup”. If the USA offered 5 billion it would not cost a DIME. Not until someone actually did it. If it was made as a prize to race AROUND mars and not do the boots on the ground mission type it would be cheaper but would it be worth it? We know how to do habitat ( the ISS ) but we are not versed in deep space propulsion for manned flight. 5 billion dollars would be cheap in my mind to get a reliable propulsion system. If we budgeted it EVERY year and made it the ANNUAL 5 billion dollar America’s MARS cup RACE it would still be CHEAP at 5 billion a year AND you would be more likely to develop competition because it is an annual RACE not a one time “winner take all” stunt.

  • Chance

    I agree incremental prizes are the way to go. Isn’t that kinda what NASA is already doing, or did that fall through?

    With private human space flight, I think it is important to realize that in the long term 99% of these business ideas will fail. 99% or more of all businesses fail eventually. From mom and pop operations to huge corporations, most fail in the first year, fewer last 10, even few last 25, and so on. What are there, maybe a hundred businesses over 200 years old? My point is that while disappointed when a company like RpK has problems, it doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm much because over the long term, that 1% is in there somewhere. Maybe it’s SpaceX, maybe it’s one whose founder hasn’t even been born yet (I hope not), but it’s out there.

  • Ferris Valyn

    Vladislaw – the problem with that line of thought I think is clearly shown by the reason cited for not giving more money to centennial challenges. I can’t remember it word for word, but it was something along the lines of “money has to be earmarked, that is sitting around, that could go to do something actually useful”.

    Or something close to that.

  • reader

    >>99% or more of all businesses fail eventually.

    Thats why its important to get at least 100 on the starting line. Too big leaps in capability, like a multibillion dollar mars prize, wont do that.

  • Chance

    You’re right on reader.

  • Mike

    I like it, but it isn’t a panacea, though it would be a major driver of advancement.

    NASA’s current prizes for 2008 are three-hundredths of 1 percent of their budget… $4 million.

    …the prize Newt suggests is $5 billion for a permanent lunar base, $20 billion to get to Mars and back.

    He also proposes:

    Twenty-year tax-free window for any profits from space tourism and manufacturing

    Create a 50 percent tax credit of up to $50 for space tourism raffle tickets

    Permit 100 percent expensing of all investments in private space developments so they can be written off in one year.

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