One of my favorite Sci-Fi authors is Jerry Pournelle.  I like the stuff he writes on his own but when he and Larry Niven collaborate, they create some of the best Sci-Fi ever written (IMHO, of course).  Chief examples are Footfall, Oath of Fealty, Inferno and, of course, The Mote in God’s Eye.

Dr. Pournelle also maintains his own website, Chaos Manor, and a few days ago, a writer wrote to him about using Prize Money to advance technology.  This is what the writer had to say, along with Dr. Pournelle’s response;

Competition and prizes win big,


I know you are a big fan of prizes to advance technologies. Dig this:

“For several decades, the U.S. Department of Defense has been trying to build a robotic vehicle. But in early 2004, the Department of Defense decided to try something different, and give enterprising civilian organizations a chance to show what they could do. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) held the DARPA Grand Challenge. Put simply, the first robotic vehicle (moving completely under software control, with no human intervention) that could complete a 240 kilometer course, would get a million dollars for its designers. No one even came close. But a second Challenge, held in late 2005, yielded several finishers, and the first one picked up the million dollar prize for navigating a 212 kilometers cross country course in just under seven hours. All vehicles operated under software control, as true robots. The third “Challenge” race was held in late 2007, and had a two million dollar prize for the first vehicle to complete a 60 kilometer course through an urban environment (an abandoned air force base) in under six hours.”

After several iterations of this competition:

“Earlier this month, two T2 vehicles equipped with sensors and control equipment, successfully passed realistic tests. One of the test subjects, controlled from a Stryker wheeled armored vehicle, successfully approached a village (equipped with mannequins set up as pedestrians along the streets), did a perimeter sweep at speeds of up to fifty kilometers an hour, then patrolled the streets, avoiding the pedestrians, and finally departed the area.”

“The DARPA Challenge races have been a bonanza in terms of advancing the state of the art for robotic vehicles. For less than $10 million in prize money and expenses, the Department of Defense has created new technology that would have otherwise cost more than $100 million, and taken a lot longer to perfect.”

It would never work in space, of course. We have to use the NASA monopoly. Of course..


(Dr. Pournelle’s response); I have never understood why prizes are not popular. They cost almost nothing — perhaps a million a year total to fund a commission that determines if a prize should be awarded — and you know the total to be paid. A ten billion prize for a Lunar Colony Prize (keep 31 Americans alive and well on the Moon for 3 years and one day) would either get us a Moon Base or it would cost nothing. A reusable space ship prize of 5 billion (send the same ship to orbit 13 times in one year) would again get us a space ship or would cost nothing. We spent more than half that on the X-33 fiasco.

I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment, although I think the writer is unfamiliar with the NASA-run Centennial Challenge program.  Look at what has been accomplished so far with the Centennial Challenges, specifically the Space Elevator Games.  From a standing start in 2005, we now have multiple systems capable of directing and tracking 8kw lasers so that they can beam power to a remote climber which will ascend/descend a kilometer long cable.  The representative from the Laser Clearing House who came to inspect and OK the competitor’s equipment commented that the teams had systems which were better than some she had seen in our own military.

So far, these competitions have cost NASA very little (just the costs of administering the competitions).  Even when NASA does have to pay its $2 million prize in the Climber / Power-Beaming competition, they’ll still have received a tremendous bargain.  If they want this technology, they can purchase it (they have 3 options), rather than have to develop it on its own…

(Thanks to the tip for this story from Space For Commerce)

4 thoughts on “Prizes

  1. Agalis

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