Monday, October 23, 2006

The X Prize

NASA didn't hand out any of the $2 million it was offering for winners in the Wirefly X Prize Cup over the weekend in New Mexico, but that didn't stop a lot of contestants and spectators from enjoying the games. The games are designed to motivate innovation in the private sector for space-related engineering, and are doing a bang-up job if the competition that just transpired is any indication. Yes, bang-up is a deliberate word choice. Some of the challengers soared, and some crashed and burned, but it's clear from what the teams accomplished that the prizes are meeting their aim of sparking advances in privately developed space-tech. No one managed to fully meet the engineering challenges, in any of the three categories, but according to Megan Miller, writing for, the games didn't lack promising moments. The Lunar Lander and Space Elevator competitions proved dramatic at times, and one elevator team came within two seconds of nabbing the $150,000 prize. Miller says that it's looking good for next year:

On the bright side, the weekend’s competitions proved that advances in aerospace engineering are bringing us closer and closer to the lunar-lander and space-elevator goals. A clear winner is expected to emerge in each category next year, and the prize money that went unclaimed this weekend will be added to the pot. That none of the teams came out victorious is a testament to how difficult to achieve these engineering feats really are. It is rocket science, after all.
It's pretty cool that this year's unclaimed prize money goes into next year's pot. That ought to add a little incentive for all the teams that didn't make the grade this year to keep trying. Not that they aren't already motivated, but sweetening the pot can't hurt.

Dr. Bradley Edwards, a space elevator expert, who I've linked to before (here's a must-read for elevator enthusiasts), says that things are coming along nicely, and the science and engineering are progressing apace, with the incentive NASA's prize offers to innovate spurring some of those advances. Edwards writes at that last weekend's event was evidence of that progress:
The challenges and events are doing what they were intended – pushing the engineering and available materials for the space elevator needs. The challenges have not achieved their goals yet, however, if this event is any indication during the next three to five years I have little doubt these events will produce a very high caliber climber and extreme strength materials.
Sounds to me like they're reaching new heights (sorry, I know that pun was too obvious), and this competition is one to watch in the future. I think it would have been a total kick to be there for the whole weekend, what with lunar landers flying overhead (yes, one of them did fly; it just crashed on the second attempt), robots climbing fifty meter ribbons, self-powered (solar, microwave, you name it), and the tether competition that you can read about in Dr. Edwards' post. Just the chance to talk to some of the engineers and ask them questions would have been a hoot, as Edwards says that crowds of children did throughout the games. I'm not a kid, but that doesn't mean I don't have questions. I have lots of questions. Most of them probably aren't up to the technical standards of the average ten-year-old, but why should I be penalized just because I was raised on Star Trek, and not the new Battlestar Galactica? Middle aged people need answers too!! Maybe it's worth a trip down to New Mexico next year to join in the fun.

Hat tip: Futurismic--for the link.