Issue 263: Privately Funded Engineering

The public vs. private funding debate endures in the United States and Europe. Everything from energy generation (e.g., oil) to social welfare programs are debated daily by government committees, discussed in corporate board rooms, and argued over at lunch tables from Los Angeles to Brussels and beyond.

One particularly interesting discussion pertains to the role of the public and private sectors in space flight and exploration, which comprises fields such as aerospace design, embedded electronics, and robotics. In Circuit Cellar June 2012, Steve Ciarcia weighs in on this debate and makes a thought-provoking argument for the benefits of privately funded engineering endeavors. In “Google LUNAR X Prize” he writes:

This is certainly an exciting time to be an engineer. We have seen the success NASA has had with robotic exploration, especially on nearby planets such as Mars. Contrary to everything coming from NASA in the future, however, thanks to the advances in robotics and launch vehicles, “space” will soon become the province of private enterprise and not just government. Very soon, commercial space flight will become a reality.

The Google Lunar X PRIZE provides a focal point for these efforts. Google is offering a $20 million prize to the first team to complete a robotic mission to the moon. The basic goal is to put a lander on the surface of the moon, have it travel at least 500 m once it’s there, and send back high-definition pictures and video of what it finds. There’s a $5 million second prize, and also $5 million in bonus prizes for completing additional tasks such as landing near the site of a previous NASA mission, discovering water ice, traveling more than 5,000 m while on the surface, or surviving the 328-hour lunar night.

When the Lunar X PRIZE registration closed in December 2010, a global assortment of 33 separate teams had registered to compete. Seven of those teams have subsequently dropped out, but there are still 26 active teams, including 11 from the U.S. The first launch is expected sometime in 2013, and there’s plenty of time before the competition ends December 31, 2015. Some teams are even planning multiple launches to improve their chances of winning.

It’s interesting to browse through the team information and see the vast diversity in the approaches they’re taking. This is the part that is most exciting from an engineering point of view. Some teams are building their own launch systems, while others are planning to contract with existing government or commercial services, such as SpaceX. There’s a huge amount of variety among the landers, too: some will roll, some will walk, and some will fly across the moon in order to cover the required distance. Each one takes a different approach to dealing with the difficult terrain on the moon, and issues such as the raw temperature extremes between blazing sunlight and black space.

This sort of diversity is a powerful driver for future development. Each approach will have its strengths and weaknesses, and there will certainly be some spectacular failures. Subsequent missions will draw on the successful parts of each prior one. Contrast this to the approach NASA has tended to take of putting all its effort into a single design that had to succeed.

It’s also interesting to consider the economics of this sort of competition. The prize doesn’t really approach the full investment required to succeed. Indeed, Google is quite up front about the fact that it probably only covers about 40%, based on other recent high-tech competitions such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s DARPA Grand Challenge and the Ansari X PRIZE. This means the teams need to raise most of their money in the private sector, which keeps them focused on technologies that are commercially viable.

I have long been a fan of “hard” science fiction, as typified by writers such as Larry Niven, Arthur C. Clarke, and Michael Crichton. To me, hard science fiction means you posit a minimal set of necessary technologies, such as faster than light (FTL) space travel or self-aware computers/robots, and then explore the implications of that universe without introducing new “magic” whenever your story gets stuck. In particular, Larry Niven’s “Known Space” universe—particularly in the near future—includes extensive exploration of the solar system by private entrepreneurs. With the type of competition fostered by the Google Lunar X PRIZE, I see those days as being just around the corner.

The competition among these teams, and the commercial companies that arise from them, will be good for society as a whole. For one thing, we’ll finally see the true cost of getting to space, as opposed to the massive amounts of money we’ve been pouring into NASA to achieve its goals. As a public agency, NASA has many operational constraints, and as a result, it tends to be ultra-conservative in terms of risk taking. Policies that dictate incorporating backups for the backups certainly makes a space mission more expensive than the alternative.

Despite these remarks, however, I don’t mean to sound overly negative about NASA at all. It has had many spectacular successes, starting with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo manned space programs, as well as robotic exploration of the solar system with the likes of Pioneer and Voyager, and more recently with the remarkable longevity of the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. There have been many beneficial spin-offs of the space program and we have all benefited in some way. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the U.S. space program. But the future is yet to be written. There are striking differences between a publicly run space program and the emerging free-market privately funded endeavors. We would do well to recognize the opportunities and the potential benefits.

Circuit Cellar 263 (June 2012) is now available on newsstands.

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