Exclusive: Rules Set for $50 Million 'America's Space Prize'

Anyone who wants to follow in the shoes of Burt Rutan and win the next big space prize will have to build a spacecraft capable of taking a crew of no fewer than five people to an altitude of 400 kilometers and complete two orbits of the Earth at that altitude. Then they have to repeat that accomplishment within 60 days.

While the first flight must demonstrate only the ability to carry five crew members, the winner will have to take at least five people up on the second flight.

And one more thing. They have to do it by Jan. 10, 2010.

Those are just some of the rules that govern who wins the $50 million "America's Space Prize," an effort by Bigelow Aerospace, of North Las Vegas, Nevada, to spur the development of space tourism in low Earth orbit.

No more than 20 percent of the spacecraft's hardware can be expendable. It must also demonstrate the ability to dock with Bigelow Aerospace's inflatable space habitat and be able to stay docked in orbit for up to six months.

A key ambition of the Bigelow Aerospace cash reward is to break the monopoly on crew transport to space currently held by Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. "This is trying to be an alternative to the bad situation that our country is in with Soyuz," in terms of International Space Station operations, said Robert Bigelow, head of Bigelow Aerospace in an exclusive interview with SPACE.com and Space News.

NASA's No Win Situation

NASA is hostage to the Soyuz, Bigelow said.

"Two years ago I felt comfortable because of conversations that we had with the Russians that we could buy all the Soyuz [spacecraft] we want. In the last two years things have changed dramatically," Bigelow said. NASA's desperate need for the Soyuz following the Columbia accident, Bigelow said, has led to the United States government to pay what no private sector company can afford to pay.

NASA, he noted, has no choice "They've got to have the Soyuz and it's going to get worse once the space shuttle stops flying," Bigelow said. The last thing a private company can do, Bigelow said, is go compete head-to-head with NASA to buy Soyuz spacecraft. "We can't afford that so we have to find something indigenous. And of course the Chinese eventually will have their Shenzhou [piloted spacecraft] being offered to the private sector. But that??s not going to be for a while."

To spearhead a domestically-developed crew transportation vehicle, Bigelow Aerospace is offering the $50 million America's Space Prize. The award is backed solely by the firm, one of several businesses owned by the well-heeled Bigelow, whose other ventures include Budget Suites of America.

"We had hoped that NASA would be a part of this. But for various reasons they couldn't be. So instead of us just taking $25 million and them taking $25 million, Bigelow Aerospace is going to take 100 percent of the whole $50 million," he said.

While the company is willing to fund the full $50 million prize, it is also considering buying an insurance policy, if it can find one that is affordable.

Made in America

Another set of the rules for the prize require that any contestant reside and do business in the United States. Funding or ownership by any government would also disqualify an entrant. Use of government test facilities, however, is permitted.

Potential contestants who contact Bigelow Aerospace will receive a starter package that spells out all rules in more detail with an explanation of the reasons for each rule.

In addition, early small-scale modules are to be launched and tested in Earth orbit over the coming years, leading to flight of a full-scale model by late 2008 at the earliest, but more likely to occur some time the following year, Bigelow said.

In addition to the $50 million prize, Bigelow said his company also is prepared to offer $200 million in conditional purchase agreements for six flights of a selected vehicle. "It could be somebody who doesn't win, who comes in late, but we like their architecture better than the winner's architecture," Bigelow said.

In addition, $800 million in options contracts for 24 flights will be available over a period of about four to 4.5 years, Bigelow said.

"So we have a $1 billion dollar program between conditional contracts and the options," Bigelow said. There are only two conditions attached to the purchase agreement. One is if the U.S. government imposes legal restrictions that prevent launching privately financed orbital spacecraft.

The other condition covers the possibility that Bigelow Aerospace might not have its space structure in Earth orbit. "We're giving ourselves four-and-a-half years to make that happen," Bigelow said. In the event that a full-scale orbiting module is not yet in space, a terrestrial facility could be used to demonstrate a spacecraft's ability to dock to a Bigelow Aerospace orbiting structure, he said.

Ready, willing and able

As for the transportation system to gain orbital access to the company's commercial space facility, Bigelow noted: "We're a customer. We're buying. We're ready, willing and able to buy these transportation flights from the provider."

Bigelow Aerospace will be hiring astronauts, as well as conduct the training of "space novices" similar to the way they are trained at Russia's Star City for soyuz flights.

"We will find facilities, perhaps with some NASA help, that provide a good program equivalent to Star City's program, without having to send them clear over there," Bigelow said.

Private sector: turf of its own

Bigelow Aerospace opened its doors in April 1999 with the long-range vision of developing an aerospace business that would participate in commercial space flight.

A Vision Statement posted on the firm's web site explains that the company is focused on playing a major role "in drastically altering the current restricted environment surrounding private ownership and use of space stations by making habitable space stations affordable for corporate communities."

Bigelow said building an orbital spacecraft to satisfy America??s Space Prize competition rules will not be an easy task.

"There??s no argument about that. The next five years for everybody - for us, for the contestants - is going to be quite a challenge," Bigelow said.

Given the re-election of U.S. President George W. Bush, his space vision for exploration of the Moon, Mars and beyond, Bigelow said, means that NASA is abandoning low Earth orbit.

"That's important because the private sector has never had any turf of its own in space, except for satellites. What this does is open up the door for opportunities of all different kinds for the private sector."

The Rules:

  1. The spacecraft must reach a minimum altitude of 400 kilometers (approximately 250 miles);

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.