Competition for a Prize Launches the New Space Race

Since space travel began, many have accepted the dogma that the only way to properly achieve manned space flight is through government-funded and -managed programs. Yet today, the world will witness an event that could begin a new and exciting era in mankind’s expansion into the final frontier of outer space.

Smashing preconceived notions that only government can muster the smarts, the spirit, and the money for space travel, a private company will send an astronaut into outer space in its own spacecraft from an airport located in California’s Mojave Desert.

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This event comes at the instigation not of a government mandate but of a $10 million cash prize and the spirit of a free people. The St. Louis-based ANSARI X-Prize, so named for a multi-million donation by the Ansari family, was announced in 1996 to provide a financial incentive to the first person or company to design, build and successfully launch a commercially viable space vehicle.

Scaled Composites, a Mojave-based aeronautics company, plans to win the prize upon the completion of two successful launches within two weeks, its first test flight being held today, June 21. The firm is the top contender among 25 teams competing for the prize, including one from Michigan.

Today’s events suggest a solution to the current lack of private investment in space travel. Since the 1950s, entrepreneurs, science-fiction writers and other visionaries have predicted a great commercial expansion into space, from low-orbit Hiltons to lunar condominiums. One may ask why these visions are still only visions 50 years later, even after enormous worldwide investment in space programs.

Since the Soviet Union launched the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin in 1961, manned space programs in all nations have been plagued by exorbitant costs, bureaucracy and, sadly, death. Indeed, the United States currently relies on ailing 20-year-old shuttles to send its astronauts into orbit, a practice now halted due to the Columbia tragedy in February 2003.

The government monopoly on space travel hinders commercial space travel and may even make commercialization seem entirely unnecessary to bureaucrats. But the battle for the X-Prize illustrates what free markets have proven time and time again: The incentive to profit spurs innovation toward cost-effective and safe solutions for products and services that people demand.

The X-Prize will award $10 million in cash to the first team or individual that launches a piloted three-person spacecraft above an altitude of 100 kilometers (62.5 miles), lands safely, and repeats the trip using the same craft within two weeks. In order to ensure that the crafts are commercially viable, only 10 percent of the vehicle can be expended or replaced between launches.

No one doubts that the eventual X-Prize winner will achieve the feat for far less money than any imaginable government effort to accomplish the same task.

The principle behind the X-Prize is not a new one. Numerous financial prizes were awarded to private aviators and companies between 1905 and 1935, when innovation in flight arguably had its best and most prosperous years. Perhaps the most famous of those successes is Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic in 1927 spurred not by a government mandate but a $25,000 prize provided by New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig.

Since 1935, however, the United States government has become increasingly involved in regulating, subsidizing or monopolizing flight technology in both the atmosphere and space. Government dominance helps explain the current lack of space hotels and lunar vacations dreamt of only 50 years ago. Commercial innovation in space travel is discouraged because of competition from the government, which is funded not by private investors looking to provide space travel for the masses, but by taxpayers, most of whom have no hope of ever being a passenger on a government craft.

And even though government still dominates space, that won’t stop entrepreneurs from providing space-related services to average people as long as government does not take further action to stop them. It’s no surprise that the X-prize, and many of those vying for it, have arisen in America and not from totalitarian North Korea or Cuba.

Many hope that the X-Prize and the fervor now surrounding private space travel will usher in a new space race not between countries, but between companies competing for travelers wishing to experience the thrill of space flight or as-yet-undiscovered technological or economic benefits. Perhaps today is the day we can celebrate the opening to the masses of the newest and final frontier, finding their place among the stars and driving this new, private revolution for the betterment of mankind.

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Neil H. Block is a political science student at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and a summer research assistant at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit research and educational institute.