The X Prize Foundation has completed a study on how the Federal Government--NASA--can establish cash prizes to spur human-carrying orbital spacecraft.

A Human Orbital Vehicle (HOV) challenge would build upon NASA's Centennial Challenges program. Presently, however, that effort is limited in the size of prizes offered by the space agency, now no greater than $250,000.

NASA's Centennial Challenges are contests to stimulate innovation and competition in solar system exploration and ongoing NASA mission objectives.

Numbers of Centennial Challenges have already been put in place, from tether and beam power competitions to astronaut glove development and making oxygen out of the Moon's regolith.

Congressional action

The HOV Challenge, as identified in the X Prize Foundation study, would best be served if $100 million to $500 million could be offered by NASA.

Such a ramping up of NASA prize money might not be too far off the mark, according to an X Prize Foundation statement released today. It points out that the NASA Authorization Act of 2005--now making its way through Congress--will allow the civilian space agency to award much larger prizes.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill that is scheduled for conference in mid-December include provisions that would allow NASA to offer prizes worth millions of dollars or more.

Ideal deal

An "ideal" HOV Challenge, according to the X Prize Foundation study made available today, would offer some $200 million to $300 million in total prize purses--divided into two tiers.

Tier One would offer $75 million in prizes for a non-reusable, two-to-three seat orbital vehicle that flies to low Earth Orbit and is recovered safely. The first place winner would snag $50 million. A second place winner would garner $25 million.

A Tier Two effort would tender $225 million in prizes for reusable, two-to-three seat orbital vehicle that is a high capacity craft that flies twice within 60 days. First place winner would receive $150 million, while second place is pegged at $75 million.

Teams vying for these prizes would be able to compete for both tiers, or may elect to compete only for one tier. Ideally, prize purses are tax free, explains the X Prize Foundation study.

Stimulus to industry

In the assessment conducted by an X Prize Foundation study team, a $50 million prize is probably the minimum amount for any Human Orbital Vehicle Challenge. Deemed as an ideal purse is $250 million in prize money, flagged not only as best use of funds but also provides the "biggest stimulus" to industry.

Clearly, the more cash the better.

For example, $500 million might allow major breakthroughs. On the other hand, such a prize at that value introduces new problems, such as obtaining such a large slug of money in the first place.

Also underscored in the study is that each team may require many investors to raise sufficient capital to compete for the HOV Challenge.

Key considerations

Among key considerations identified by the X Prize Foundation study regarding the HOV Challenge:

  • Foreign participation should be allowed so long as winning spacecraft would be eligible for purchase/use under "Buy American" laws.
  • Primary customers for such vehicles are likely to be NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense.
  • Trust the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) process. That is, NASA shouldn't impose safety standards, launch site restrictions. NASA should, however, provide technical assistance to teams dealing with the FAA.
  • Allow companies to keep Intellectual Property, but require them to grant NASA "most favored nation" status.

The X Prize Foundation is an educational non-profit prize institute based in Santa Monica , California. It was the Foundation's $10 million Ansari X Prize that was claimed last year by back-to-back suborbital flights of SpaceShipOne from Mojave, California to the edge of space.

According to the Foundation, "prizes are the most cost effective way to advance and accelerate research and development in any particular field."

A summary presentation on the HOV idea issued by the X Prize Foundation is available at: www.xprizefoundation.com/news/HOVES-summary.pdf