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X Prize check award
The Ansari X Prize demonstrated that privately-funded prizes can be effective; is the same true for government-sponsored prizes? (credit: X Prize Foundation)

Will government-sponsored space prizes fly?

The major news services haven’t picked up the story yet, but Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) has already thrown down the gauntlet for the next great space contest: a $100-million government-sponsored space prize.

On October 8, Rohrabacher submitted the “Space and Aeronautics Prize Act” (HR 5336) to the U.S. House of Representatives. This legislation calls for the formation of a “Space and Aeronautics Prize” valued at up to $100 million. To claim the prize, a private group must fly a three-person spaceship of their own design to an altitude of 400 kilometers, complete three revolutions around Earth orbit, and return safely.

The success of the Paul Allen/Burt Rutan team in flying a privately-funded spaceship just beyond the atmosphere, thus clinching the $10 million Ansari X Prize, brought a surge of new respect for the concept of space exploration prizes. Soon after completion of the X Prize competition, a billionaire named Robert Bigelow announced a $50-million privately-funded “America’s Space Prize” for the first group to fly a private ship to Earth orbit twice within two months. Now, Rep. Rohrabacher is upping the ante with an even more ambitious government-funded competition.

The Space and Aeronautics Prize Act proposes much more than a $100 million contest, however. The Act mandates formation of a National Endowment for Space and Aeronautics, tasked with the following objectives:

  • Promoting the value of space development to the general public;
  • Awarding cash prizes for private space development, in conjunction with, or independent of, NASA;
  • Creating standards for “tasteful advertising of commercial products and services” in conjunction with private space efforts or NASA’s efforts; and
  • Encouraging private gifts of real and personal property to support the efforts of private space developers and/or NASA.

Congressman Rohrabacher seems confident this legislation is perfectly timed to give a significant boost to the fledgling private space industry. In his speech announcing the bill before the House of Representatives, Rohrabacher said, “I am convinced a new generation of space entrepreneurs is ready to make their mark in contributing to low Earth orbit development, as well as returning to the Moon.”

The bill has virtually no chance of passing in this Congress because the House and Senate will convene this week for only a brief “lame duck” session before final adjournment. However, does legislation like Space and Aeronautics Prize Act have a chance of surviving both houses of Congress and becoming law in the near future?

Efforts to pass government-sponsored monetary incentives for private space development have an abysmal track record in Congress.

Unlike the privately funded X Prize, the Space and Aeronautics Prize relies primarily on taxpayer dollars for funding. Even NASA’s Centennial Challenges prize program, while technically “government-sponsored,” derives its funding from the existing NASA budget. Some types of prizes, like the Space Settlement Initiative proposed by Alan Wasser, would cost the taxpayer nothing because incentives readily available in space (such as land claim recognition on the Moon) act as the financial lure for private space development efforts. Since a government-sponsored cash prize must tap the public coffer one way or another, though, monetary prizes are a much more difficult sell in Congress.

Efforts to pass government-sponsored monetary incentives for private space development have an abysmal track record in Congress. During the 1990’s, for example, a series of bills were introduced by Congressman Bob Walker (then chairman of the House Science Committee) designed to provide very substantial tax breaks for private sector “space corporations” as well as for investors who purchased stock in such companies.

The first, the “Space Transportation Services Purchase Act” of 1993 (also known as the Omnibus Space Commercialization Act), included a substantial section providing significant tax deductions for space businesses and investors. This bill died at the end of the 103rd Congress in December 1994 due to inaction by the House. The tax incentives section of that bill was reintroduced by Walker in June 1995 as the “Space Business Incentives Act”. This version of the legislation died in the House Ways and Means Committee at the end of the 104th Congress. Then, in 1996, a subsequent bill by Walker, the “Space Commercialization Promotion Act,” achieved approval by the House, but then died after being sent to the Senate for consideration.

Compared to the 1990’s, the financial picture today is much grimmer. Now the country is at war and we have a record budget deficit and mounting national debt. How will most Congressmen and Senators feel about setting aside $100 million for a space prize when there does not seem to be enough money to simply balance the budget?

How will most Congressmen and Senators feel about setting aside $100 million for a space prize when there does not seem to be enough money to simply balance the budget?

In Recommendation 5-2 of their June 2004 report, the Aldridge Commission implored Congress to authorize the funding of large cash prizes for private achievements in space: to establish “significant monetary prizes for the accomplishment of space missions and/or technology developments.” Whether such government-sponsored contests come to pass, however, is more a matter for you and I, as constituents, to decide. Without grassroots commitment to the concept of government-sponsored space prizes, the Space and Aeronautics Prize Act (and future proposals like it) will die in committee just like the tax incentive bills of the 1990’s.

Where to begin, then? First, everyone interested in seeing private space development happen should take the time to read and understand the Space and Aeronautics Prize Act. Then, of course, express your support of the legislation to your Congressman and Senators. This is surprisingly easy to do. The Space Settlement Institute’s website (www.space-settlement-institute.org) includes a Write to Congress link where anyone can locate the email address and mailing address of their representatives in Congress and quickly fire off an email or letter. The phone number for the U.S. Capitol switchboard is also provided on that page for those who want to call their representatives directly.

For the Space and Aeronautics Prize Act to stand a chance of becoming law, space advocates across the nation will need to stand up and loudly voice their support. Large numbers of citizens calling, writing, and emailing their Congressmen and Senators is the only way Congress will ever give this legislation serious consideration.


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