Wednesday, November 10, 2004

America's Space Prize - Rules Announced.

The long awaited rules for America's Space Prize have been announced.

The Rules (and some discussion of them):

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;

Given that Bigelow is looking to spur development of a space taxi, these are reasonable minimum specifications.

3. The spacecraft must carry no less than a crew of five (5)

The key question here is how many of the 'crew' will actually be passengers when the craft transitions to revenue service. Prudence would seem to dictate two 'crew', and thus three 'passengers'. This, to me, seems too high of a crew/passenger ratio. Something else as yet unadressed is logistics management and the expected lifetime of the orbital modules.

4. 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;

This rule implies to me that the station crew flies separately from the passengers, and remain on orbit between passenger visits. This rule can also be interpreted as meaning one or more vehicles will remain on orbit between visits to provide a rescue/escape capability. To my mind, these capabilities are better provided by proper station design and the ability to launch on short notice.

5. The spacecraft must perform two (2) consecutive, safe and
successful orbital missions within a period of sixty (60) calendar
days, subject to Government regulations;

Another reasonable specification. You want to fly the craft as often as possible in order to hold your total fleet size (and thus capital investment) down. (You also want a certain minimum fleet size in order to assure reliable and constant availability. See my article on standing armies for more musings on this topic.)

6. No more than twenty percent (20 percent) of the spacecraft may
be composed of expendable hardware;

A key question here is how the term 'spacecraft' is interpreted in the judging. This rule seems easy enough to meet if the term is considered to only encompass the orbital portion of the vehicle. If it is intended to encompass the launch vehicle as well, then the Prize will be much more difficult to win. In some places it has been suggested that this rule is intended to encourage SpaceX with the hoped for high and economical reuse of it's Falcon series. (The Falcon's have yet to fly however.)

7. The contestant must be domiciled in the United States of

8. The contestant must have its principal place of business in the
United States of America.

These two provisions have raised a great deal on angst in certain quarters. However, given the Bigelow is operating a US based company, and that the current (and for the forseeable future) legal environment frowns on the proliferation of ICBM technology, I cannot see any way he can reasonably avoid having these provisions, and meet his goal of purchasing services from the winner of the prize.

Make no mistake, vehicles of this nature are de facto ICBM's.

9. The Competitor must not accept of 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.

An interesting provision, one whose genesis and impact eludes me at the moment.

10. 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 competition's deadline of Jan. 10, 2010.

Many have commented that this seems too short given that it took eight years to claim the Ansari X-Prize. On the other hand, none of the serious contenders for that prize seem to have started significant work much more than two years ago, once the Prize was fully funded.
Frankly, I don't see any but dark horses in this race. Many organizations have been working on suborbital, but orbital flight (and reentry) is a very different kettle of fish. The key to reuseablity will be the TPS, and the 20% rule (rule 6) would seem to mitigate against a replaceable ablative shield. The otherwise low performance objectives mean that a fairly simple life support system will suffice, nor does guidance, control, or power seem to hold any hidden showstoppers. The availability of an inexpensive booster however could prove to be problem. (And again, how rule 6 is interpreted affects this greatly.)

In related news, XCOR is also shopping a prize around for operational hardware. (In this instance, a 'steam engine' to operate pumps in their engines.) Dan DeLong has some interesting comments on their Prize here.

[edit 11/11/2004 12:18 PST]
There is some interesting discussion of this issue here at Transterrestrial Musings.
[edit 11/11/2004 13:10 PST]
Correction: The Prize is in fact fully funded, link and quote in the comments section courtesy of a reader. Thanks Neil.