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Heinlein Prize
The Heinlein Prize is in the process of choosing its first winner. (credit: Heinlein Prize)

Choosing candidates for the Heinlein Prize

In late 2003 Virginia Heinlein passed away, leaving intact a considerable estate from her work and that of her late husband, the prolific author Robert Heinlein. One of the bequests from the estate was the creation of the Robert Heinlein Prize for commercial space. The purpose of the prize is to reward the person or persons who achieve practical accomplishments in the field of commercial space activities. It is my contention that several substantial events in the last 50 years have passed this test and that several highly deserving individuals from separate eras and events merit this award. It is the author’s hope that the readers of this article will feel inspired to contact the Heinlein Prize with their suggestions for prize recipients. This year’s award is $500,000 and deserves substantial public input.


The purpose of the prize is to reward the person or persons who achieve practical accomplishments in the field of commercial space activities.

Robert Heinlein was born in Missouri in 1907 and demonstrated an aptitude for science and astronomy. A successful graduate of the Naval Academy, his naval career was unfortunately cut short due to illness. Retiring to Los Angeles, he started a new career with his childhood avocation of science fiction. In this he excelled, becoming one of the most iconic authors of this genre. Throughout his prolific career Heinlein evoked the traditional political conservative disdain for government officials, save for the military, and a great admiration for successful entrepreneurs. His stories bear themes of those who are able to wrest survival and fortune from nature and despite the meddling of governmental busybodies.


The Heinlein Prize, as noted above, is “to reward the person or persons who achieve practical accomplishments in the field of commercial space activities.” Given Mr. Heinlein’s conservative bent, it behooves the author to look for the simplest reading of this definition and try and cull a few guiding principles in discussing proposed nominees:

Achieve: v. To accomplish something successfully; perform at a standard or above standard level. To attain with effort or despite difficulty.
Practical: adj. Capable of being used or put into effect; useful.
Accomplishment: n. Something completed successfully; an achievement.
Commercial: adj. Having profit as a chief aim.

So with these definitions in hand I propose a few guiding principles for the Heinlein Prize:

1) Almost all governmental space activities are excluded unless they are meant to enable a commercial activity.

Sorry, but this disqualifies NASA astronauts, NASA administrators, almost every other NASA official, and Air Force and Navy officers. There have been wonderful achievements by many of them, but not commercial in nature. Heinlein didn’t like government people, so that’s a big disqualifier.

2) It had to have been done.

Sorry, but this disqualifies the dreamers, the visionaries, the salespeople, and the failures. Authors, enthusiasts, people with big ideas, and those who built castles in the air found that their dreams lacked foundation. Pundits, policy wonks, and talkers are just not the right type to win.

3) It had to have been hard.

Effort, opposition, and pathfinding is far more core to the prize mission. Doing a communications satellite today is mostly a matter of locking up the funding and the frequency allocation. Doing a communications satellite in 1960 was really hard; today, it’s a known process.

4) It had to have been for money.

Mere stunts won’t count. Racing to the Arctic is great for pride, but it had to have an underlying business proposition. Ongoing business is far more valuable then a promotional stunt. Charting the Northwest Passage is practical; naming the Boothia Peninsula is more a stunt. Look for the Francis Bacon’s, not the Shackleford’s or the James Clark’s.

Major events of note

Since the opening of the Space Age there have been several events that would appear in this author’s opinion to meet the guidelines of the Heinlein Prize:

  1. The first commercial spaceship: The X Prize flights were wildly successful and were a successful inspiration to all who will follow. The later actions of Virgin Galactic and The SpaceShip Company lend credence that this is a commercial opportunity.
  2. The first space tourist: People have long dreamed of space tourism, but actually finding individuals with the willpower to spend the money and time was a success in its own right. The utter obstinacy of NASA only showed this was real work.
  3. The first commercial space launch: While it’s old hat now to procure a launcher and fly a payload into space, this was serious work in the ’70s and ’80s. There were failed attempts in the ’70s to overcome this bureaucratic thicket, and there were finally successful attempts in the late 1980s.
  4. The first commercial communications satellite: Once again old hat now, but AT&T went up against the government’s preferred solutions.
  5. The first cremation flight into space: Something that was also talked about for decades but difficult to do the first time.

Award candidates

Peter Diamandis, Greg Maryniak, and the Ansari X Prize Foundation: The Ansari X Prize has created a fantastic achievement for millions of people around the world. I, along with over 50,000 people watched SpaceShipOne fly into history.

Burt Rutan, Brian Binnie, Mike Melville, and the Scaled Composites team: The successful flights of SpaceShipOne demonstrated that a small team of people with moderate funding could make the dream a reality.

Paul Allen, Vulcan Ventures: His deep commitment of funding without wavering made the SpaceShipOne flight possible.

Richard Branson and the Virgin Galactic team: The creation of Virgin Galactic makes commercial suborbital space tourism into a commercial market event. The commitment to suborbital tourism is a major change in the field.

Dennis Tito: The first space tourist fought NASA to get to fly. He showed that by working hard, being smart, and paying money, anyone could fly in space.

Eric Anderson and Space Adventures: By pioneering commercial space with the Russians, Space Adventures has created a commercial channel for space tourism.

A $500,000 prize deserves the involvement and support of as many interested parties as possible.

Vladomir Syromiatnikov and RSC Energia: He and his colleagues at Energomash and the other Russian/Ukranian entities held together a system after the collapse of communism and began trading with the West to create both human spaceflight and low-cost robotic spaceflight. It was these people who enabled MirCorp, Space Adventures, and Dennis Tito to fly. Frankly, they are deserving of a reward, and this prize is substantial to a Russian.

Walt Anderson and MirCorp: Working with Jeff Manber and other visionaries, Walt Anderson founded MirCorp and created the first commercial space station. Despite its ultimate failure, it was a symbol of what could be done. MirCorp unsuccessfully fought NASA to create a private space business.

Walt Anderson and FINDS: The Foundation for the Independent Non-governmental Development of Space (FINDS) funded numerous small programs with the intention of making commercial spaceflight a reality.

Tom Rogers and the Sophron Foundation: A former government official, Dr. Rogers has been a tireless voice for commercial space efforts. He helped fight for industry when the dominant theme was that space belonged to the nation states. Dr. Rogers funded the Sophron Foundation, the first entity with a public charitable charter to enhance spaceflight.

Len Cormier, PanAero: A founding member of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), Len has devoted his life’s work towards low-cost reusable spaceflight. Len has stood tirelessly for this dream at tremendous personal and financial cost to himself. (Note: while Len Cormier served for four years as Chief Scientist of TGV Rockets, I have had no financial dealings with Len for two years. While Len hasn’t flown anything, his persistant humor and good nature makes this author offer him as an exception that proves the rules.)

Elizabeth Dole: When initial discussions of commercial spaceflight licensing were being proposed, Dole, Secretary of Transportation at the time, argued that this is transportation and should be part of DOT. Significantly, this kept NASA from controlling commercial spaceflight. (While Dole would seem to violate rule 1, her actions were in service of preventing greater harm were NASA to seize this arena.)

Cary Gravatt, Keith Calhoun Segnor, and the Office of Space Commerce: By keeping a promise of space as commerce, this office voiced the roles of industry in space.

Jim Davidson: As founder of Space Services, Jim at terrible personal cost advocated and invested to create the first space lottery. Jim paid a terrible personal price for his dream, and deserves recognition. (Jim fails rule 3, but he’s worth a mention. Anyone sent to jail for their dreams deserves a mention.)

Max Hunter, Pete Conrad, and the Universal Space Team: Pete Conrad and Max Hunter not only were key figures in the DC-X team, they also created Universal Space Networks, a successful space services company. USN took control of key space resources away from the nation-states and into the private sector.

Jack Biddle of Novak, Biddle: They financed the first commercial spacecraft launch in 1987. Their Delta vehicle was requisitioned for two years by the USAF when the Challenger was lost. This event showed the vital energy and robustness to national security space efforts having industry procuring and funding launchers.

Lutz Kaiser and the OTRAG team: The OTRAG team was the first substantial effort at a private spaceflight capability. (Some members of the OTRAG team were killed during the Katanganese rebellion. While they did not complete their effort, it’s worth mentioning.)

Charlie Chafer and Celestis: By creating a market for memorial spaceflight, Charlie proved that people were dying to go to space.

Suggested actions

This author hopes that this article will encourage the readers to contact the Heinlein Prize foundation with suggestions and nominations. The following information should be helpful:

The Heinlein Prize Trust
PO Box 7466
Houston, TX 77248-7466
phone: 713-861-3600
fax: 713-861-3620

A $500,000 prize deserves the involvement and support of as many interested parties as possible.