The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Heinlein Prize
The Heinlein Prize will award $500,000 to someone who has advanced space commercialization. Is this the best incentive? (credit: Heinlein Prize)

An alternative to the Heinlein Prize

Rather than reward past accomplishments, why not stimulate future ones?

One of the favorite science fiction authors of my youth was Robert A. Heinlein. Growing up I read a number of his novels and short story collections (although I had to abandon my first attempt at Stranger in a Strange Land when it started going over my grade-school head; that book had to wait until high school.) Certainly one of the attractions to his work was his vision of a future (which in some cases was in the past by the time I read his stories) where space travel, commercial space travel in particular, was relatively commonplace.

This was one of the reasons why last week’s announcement of the Heinlein Prize attracted my attention. Officially called The Robert A. and Virginia Heinlein Prize for Accomplishments in Commercial Space Activities, the award is designed to recognize individuals who have made “practical accomplishments” in commercial space endeavors. The other major aspect of the award that captured my attention was the value of the prize: a cool $500,000.

In some respects the award seems long overdue. Commercial space accomplishments, particularly those that are entrepreneurial in nature, are often overlooked by the larger business community and even the aerospace industry. By recognizing those accomplishments, the prize can create role models for future generations of space entrepreneurs. The publicity that comes with such an award—likely small at first, but growing over time assuming the award gains prestige—can also prove beneficial to both award winners and the industry in general.

The award trustees have something bigger in mind as well. “The purpose of the Heinlein Prize is to provide an incentive to spur the advancement of the commercial use of outer space,” said Art Dula, one of the prize’s three trustees, said in a press release issued by the prize on September 29. This makes it appear that the prize backers believe that the existence of the prize itself will encourage people to tackle new commercial space ventures or redouble their efforts with existing ones.

“The purpose of the Heinlein Prize is to provide an incentive to spur the advancement of the commercial use of outer space,” said prize trustee Dula.

That might work if the prize’s monetary value or overall prestige was so high as to attract people primarily or solely interested in winning it. Initially, the prestige of the Heinlein Prize will be relatively low, since the prize is new and its name-recognition factor is limited to the relatively small community of science fiction aficionados. By comparison, while many people in various fields eagerly compete for the Nobel Prizes, the vast majority enter their fields of endeavor for reasons other than to win a Nobel.

The relatively small size of the prize also seems unlikely to attract new individuals to commercial space ventures. An individual who does achieve “practical accomplishments” in commercial space should also profit from them. Accomplishments worthy of the Heinlein Prize would presumably be great enough that the individual should have made millions in the process. In such a case, it’s hard to see how winning an additional $500,000 would prove to be a great incentive for entrepreneurs.

The X Prize has been touted as a prime example of how a prize can motivate people to make new efforts to commercialize space: about two dozen teams are registered for the competition from around the world, and several of them have made serious progress towards winning the prize within the next year or so. However, the X Prize rewards achieving a specific technical accomplishment that can open new commercial suborbital markets, like space tourism; the Heinlein Prize, by comparison, rewards only past accomplishments. Moreover, the participants competing for the X Prize are well aware that the $10 million purse may cover only a fraction of their expenses (although it should help pay for a big victory party!) The prestige associated with winning the prize, both in the aerospace community and the general public, will generate media exposure that could far exceed the monetary value of the prize.

Supporting the future

From this analysis, it seems unlikely that the Heinlein Prize can truly meet its purpose to “spur the advancement of the commercial use of outer space.” Is there a different approach the prize could take to achieve this? One alternative is to look towards the future, instead of the past.

Anyone who has followed commercial space ventures for any period of time knows that there are a number of small startups out there that have interesting ideas but have stagnated because of a lack of funding. Companies are left trying to either squeeze money out of NASA or the Defense Department through Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, sometimes on projects only tangentially related to the company’s core business, or seeking a like-minded angel investor with pockets deep enough to fund the early stages of the company. Larger institutional investors, many of whom were burned in the commercial space bubble of the 1990s, are extremely unlikely to fund entrepreneurial space startups in the current economic climate.

What many of these companies need is a relatively modest infusion of funding to kickstart their efforts. This could range from supporting the acquisition of key hardware or software needed for product development to funding employees or consultants to further develop their business plans and technologies. This could help the companies determine if their projects truly are viable, and push them far enough along where they can then seek more traditional government grants or private investment.

Because these companies can make big initial strides with a small amount of funding, a little bit of money could go a long way. Instead of giving one person $500,000 for past accomplishments, the prize could award $100,000 each to five promising, but cash-strapped, commercial space startups. Different permutations could spread the money further, such as awarding four $100,000 and four $25,000 prizes. The prizes would ideally be in the form of grants with some modest reporting requirements, allowing the startups to conserve their equity for later investments.

Instead of giving one person $500,000 for past accomplishments, the prize could award $100,000 each to five promising, but cash-strapped, commercial space startups.

If this model sounds familiar, it’s because it has been tried before in space. The Foundation for the International Non-Governmental Development of Space (FINDS) awarded similar grants for several years to small companies and individual researchers. However, FINDS spread its money out fairly widely, funding projects like searches for near-Earth objects, SETI, and a number of conferences. Also, FINDS has not awarded any money since 2001, according to its web site; the amount it awarded in 2001 was just over one-third of its peak distribution in 1999, suggesting that it ran out of either money or worthy projects to fund.

I contacted Heinlein Prize trustee Art Dula to get his opinion about the idea. “The stipulation of the terms of the award of the Heinlein Prize was established by the terms of Mrs. Heinlein’s trust,” he replied in an email message. “It is the giver’s requirement.” However, Dula didn’t completely shut the door on some kind of alternative award. “The Trustees will consider lesser awards and grants that are within the means of the Trust and in its interest,” he said.

Even if the Heinlein Prize sticks to its original model, this alternative is one worth pursuing. There are a number of companies out there with interesting ideas that have yet to be implemented because of a lack of money. Giving small grants to these companies might be less prestigious than giving a large award to an already-successful entrepreneur (and riskier, too, since there’s no guarantee any of these startups will ever succeed), but it may be a necessary step to overcome the funding obstacles small companies face. For commercial space to grow and prosper, we need all the D.D. Harrimans we can find.