November 08, 2004
The Next Step

More details are emerging concerning Robert Bigelow's new space prize: 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.

More rules are listed in the article (see extended entry, below), but this is the one I find the most intriguing: that date is smack in the middle of the interval between the first "boilerplate" flight of CEV in 2008, and its first manned flights in 2011. It may or may not be Bigelow's intention to upstage/obviate Constellation, but if America's Space Prize is awarded that will be the likely eventual outcome. In this context, it is worth remembering that Constellation is not intended to be a reusable vehicle, while a prize winner will be -- one more factor favoring the prize contestants. On the other hand, Constellation is intended as a suite of vehicles for LEO, lunar, and Mars missions, so building a better LEO-capable vehicle may not kill off the NASA effort altogether or not immediately.

Constellation or no Constellation, Mr. Bigelow clearly believes LEO is finally ripe for the private-sector plucking:

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.

"Thatís 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."

Lest one object that $50M is a paltry return on what will likely be a much larger investment, Mr. Bigelow promises an even bigger follow-on "prize":

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 doesnít win, who comes in late, but we like their architecture better than the winnerís 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.

The Rules:
  1. The spacecraft must reach a minimum altitude of 400 kilometers (approximately 250 miles);
  2. The spacecraft must reach a minimum velocity sufficient to complete two (2) full orbits at altitude before returning to Earth;
A smart requirement, considering that ISS orbits at around 350km. A successful entrant could offer crew transfer services to NASA for ISS in addition to whatever business Bigelow cares to throw their way.
  • The spacecraft must carry no less than a crew of five (5) people;
  • Soyuz carries three, Shenzhou (based on Soyuz) will apparently carry three, CEV will carry four. With the retirement of Shuttle (typically carries seven), and the almost certain failure of Kliper to materialize, the winner will have the most crew transfer capability on offer...not to mention the greatest pressurized downmass capability, when fitted as a cargo vehicle.
  • The spacecraft must dock or demonstrate its ability to dock with a Bigelow Aerospace inflatable space habitat, and be capable of remaining on station at least six (6) months;
  • Docking capability, of course, dovetails with Mr. Bigelow's own business interests -- if it merely goes up and down, the winning vehicle is of little use to him. The ability to remain on station (by which I assume is meant remain docked in a passive mode rather than "stationkeep", i.e.: controlled free-flight) also suits his own interests, but like the altitude requirement gives the winning vehicle another potential market in the ISS crew transfer/lifeboat role currently held by Soyuz.
  • The spacecraft must perform two (2) consecutive, safe and successful orbital missions within a period of sixty (60) calendar days, subject to Government regulations;
  • No more than twenty percent (20 percent) of the spacecraft may be composed of expendable hardware;
  • Like the X-Prize's twice-in-two-weeks requirement and expendibility limit, these rules keep the effort from being a once-lucky stunt while simultaneously demonstrating at least rudimentary reusability.
  • The contestant must be domiciled in the United States of America.
  • The contestant must have its principal place of business in the United States of America.
  • Buy American! Of course, that's only part of it -- this is probably a means of avoiding legal entanglements involving ITAR. It also appears to offer a means of sidestepping confusion over the "international responsibilities" provisions of Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty, by making all entrants subject to the oversight of a single State Party.
  • The Competitor must not accept of [sic] utilize government development funding related to this contest of any kind, nor shall there be any government ownership of the competitor. Using government test facilities shall be permitted.
  • This rule bars NASA and other national/multinational civil and military space programs. It also effectively bars the Usual Suspects as well, given the difficulty that would be involved in separating their prize entries from their space-related government subsidies contracts...whatever technologies they might choose to employ would likely be "tainted" with government-furnished R&D funding at some point in their history.

    Then again, even de novo privately-funded startups could run into this same problem under a strict application of the rule, as the basic "public domain" technologies involved in spaceflight were by and large developed on government-funded programs. While the spirit of the rule is to prevent unfair competition from the Usual Suspects, the wording is a bit too vague for my taste and invites such hairsplitting.

  • The spacecraft must complete its two (2) missions safely and successfully, with all five (5) crew members aboard for the second qualifying flight, before the competitionís deadline of Jan. 10, 2010.
  • As noted above, this deadline is cleverly inserted between the demonstration and initial manned flights of the CEV.

    Posted by T.L. James on November 8, 2004 09:33 PM