41 – The fallacy of using prizes to try to advance commercial passenger spaceflight

With a new proposal being developed to advance commercial passenger and payload orbital spaceflight using a prize, it’s worthwhile to explore whether this approach makes sense. I don’t believe that it does.

Do you remember the Ansari XPRIZE? The one Burt Rutan’s team won in 2004? Here is the description from Wikipedia:

“The first XPRIZE – the Ansari XPRIZE – was inspired by the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 prize offered in 1919 by French hotelier Raymond Orteig for the first nonstop flight between New York City and Paris. In 1927, underdog Charles Lindbergh won the prize in a modified single-engine Ryan aircraft called the Spirit of St. Louis. In total, nine teams spent $400,000 in pursuit of the Orteig Prize.

“In 1996, entrepreneur Peter Diamandis offered a $10-million prize to the first privately financed team that could build and fly a three-passenger vehicle 100 kilometers into space twice within two weeks. The contest, later titled the Ansari XPRIZE for Suborbital Spaceflight, motivated 26 teams from seven nations to invest more than $100 million in pursuit of the $10 million purse. On October 4, 2004, the Ansari XPRIZE was won by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, who successfully completed the contest in their spacecraft SpaceShipOne.”

The Ansari XPRIZE was established in 1996 with, per my understanding and recollection, the intention of motivating the formation of a new suborbital commercial passenger spaceflight industry. The prize was established nearly 20 years ago. Do we have a suborbital commercial human passenger spaceflight industry today? No. After two decades, the prize approach has not achieved its goal. The company that was leading the effort to develop this operational capability recently suffered a catastrophic in-flight accident, while testing its intended first operational system, demonstrating that technology advancement in the aerospace industry is neither simple nor inexpensive.

When the first suborbital spaceflight X-prize concept was introduced and promoted back in the late 1990s, it was said to be an extension of the use of prizes to advance aeronautical flight in the early twentieth century. Is this an appropriate comparison? I don’t believe that it is.

From Wikipedia: “The Orteig Prize was a $25,000 reward ($340,067 as of 2015) offered on May 19, 1919, by New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig to the first allied aviator(s) to fly non-stop from New York City to Paris or vice-versa.”

What aircraft was used to win the Orteig Prize? A modified Ryan M-2 mailplane called the Spirit of St. Louis.

Spirit of St. Louis (courtesy of Ad Meskens)
Spirit of St. Louis (courtesy of Ad Meskens)

What new technologies were used to win the prize? None. Yes, the aircraft configuration was modified to add additional fuel capacity and increase the wing area to compensate, but the design of the airframe was based on an existing Ryan aircraft design and the engine was a production Wright Whirlwind J-5C radial engine—a proven, highly reliable engine. The fact that they were using an existing aircraft design is what enabled the Spirit of St. Louis to be fabricated in two months.

Was Lindbergh the first to cross the Atlantic? No. Responding to a £10,000 prize put up by the London newspaper The Daily Mail, a British crew using an existing British military aircraft flew non-stop from Newfoundland to Galway, Ireland, in 1919, the same year the Orteig Prize was established. They flew a modified British military bomber, carrying extra fuel in place of munitions. Again, no new technology. Shortly after this accomplishment, a military rigid airship was flown both ways across the Atlantic. The goal was to demonstrate the practicality of commercial passenger airship transport. Less than one month before Lindbergh’s flight, a Portuguese aviator crossed the Atlantic at night from Portuguese Guinea, West Africa, to Brazil.

Lindbergh’s accomplishment was flying non-stop from New York City (American mainland) to Paris, France (European mainland) — connecting two centers of commercial activity. The fact that he did it using demonstrated aeronautical equipment did much to promote confidence in commercial aviation, particularly confidence in engine operability for over-water flight.

The Daily Mail’s prize was established in 1913. Twenty years later, commercial passenger aviation was becoming common and the federal approach to airworthiness was being established. In 1933, only six years after Lindbergh’s 1927 flight, Trans World Airlines (TWA) was starting to fly the DC-2, the predecessor to the famous DC-3 commercial airliner.

DC-2 commercial airliner
DC-2 commercial airliner

It’s been twenty years since the ANSARI XPRIZE was established. Has the commercial passenger suborbital spaceflight industry made comparable advances in a similar period of time? No. Are there the equivalent of airworthiness standards for commercial passenger spaceflight? No. Hence, why should we expect a similar approach, used to advance commercial passenger and payload orbital spaceflight, using fully-reusable space flight systems, to be successful approach for advancing this critical American aerospace industrial capability? Where do you think American will be in 20 years if this prize strategy is used to get us to commercial passenger orbital spaceflight using fully-reusable spaceflight systems?

I do not believe there is any cheap or easy path to commercial passenger orbital spaceflight using fully-reusable spaceflight systems. This is NOT to say that it cannot be done now. If fact, this has been achievable for a quarter century. Gimmicks just slow progress.

Note: A “passenger” is not the same as a “spaceflight participant” or NASA astronaut. Do not be confused by the inappropriate substitution of the term passenger for spaceflight participant or NASA astronaut. The term “passenger” has specific legal implications related to the transportation company’s legal obligation to protect the safety of the passenger. This is why the Federal Government established airworthiness standards for the design, construction, testing, and operation of airliners—so that the legal safety requirements were clear and documented and compliance could be verified prior to the start of commercial service. The NASA “human-rated” criteria is not the same and is substantially less than passenger-level safety. By NASA’s own analysis, the NASA Space Shuttle never got better than a one-in-ninety chance of catastrophic failure using these human-rated criteria. At the time of the Challenger loss in 1985, it was one-in-ten. Think about that. This is what some believe is adequate human spaceflight safety.

Today, as you read this, several thousand commercial airliners, carrying over a quarter million passengers, are flying above your head. This is what airworthiness brings and what we now need in order to establish airline-like commercial passenger spaceflight throughout the Earth-Moon system. Anything else is a foolish waste of precious time.