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.


At 10:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(The Bigelow Prize is not currently completely funded.)Actually, I think I read in one of the articles that Bigelow is funding it fully himself. He had previously wanted NASA to fund half of it, but they backed out for various reasons.

-- Neil Halelamien

At 12:21 PM, Blogger Derek said...

Neil; as near as I can determine, the proposed prize is still only partially funded. If anyone has a link to something different, I'd appreciate it.

At 12:41 PM, Blogger Jeff Findley said...

Rule number 4, the six months docked to the station requirement, bothers me. It's starting down the slippery slope of the US Space Shuttle, where it tried to be all things to all people.

In this case, the Bigelow vehicle is trying to be both a ferry vehicle *and* an emergency escape vehicle. Why not focus the prize on the ferry vehicle and ignore the emergency escape vehicle for now?

Note that if you've got a fleet that's big enough and can be launched on short notice, that you may not need an emergency escape vehicle. Emergencies could be dealt with by a combination of a "safe haven" at the station and a quick rescue by launching a ferry vehicle. Remote sites on the earth often use this model, where there may be a place to land a helicoptor or aircraft, but you don't necessarily have one stationed there 24/7.

Also, if you're launching at a rate that I think is reasonable, which is at least once a week, your vehicle would not need to stay docked for six months. For a station with two docking ports, the vehicle would stay in orbit a week. A week of docked time would be far easier to design for than six months.

At 12:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From here:

To spearhead a domestically-developed crew transportation vehicle, Bigelow Aerospace is offering the $50 million America’s Space Prize. The award is backed solely by the firm, one of several businesses owned by the well-heeled Bigelow, whose other ventures include Budget Suites of America.

"We had hoped that NASA would be a part of this. But for various reasons they couldn’t be. So instead of us just taking $25 million and them taking $25 million, Bigelow Aerospace is going to take 100 percent of the whole $50 million," he said.

While the company is willing to fund the full $50 million prize, it is also considering buying an insurance policy, if it can find one that is affordable.

-- Neil

At 1:11 PM, Blogger Derek said...

Thanks Neil; I stand corrected.

At 7:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill White (to lazy to register)

Scaled Composites was a lead contractor for X-38. Blend an X-38 derived shell with a SpaceShipTwo 5 person crew compartment and place on top of a Falcon V.

At 8:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(9) Will probably allow the use of gov't facilites such as tracking, engine test stands, and such. Possibly the use of Kennedy or Vandenberg as a launch/landing site.

With the new total cost NASA policies in place, for example, it wouldn't be free, but rather just another bought and paid for service. Some of the NASA center's are desperate for work right now.

Though god knows I wouldn't want to be the one trying to deal with the feds, if there was any other way.

At 6:10 PM, Blogger Tesla Falcon said...

Rule 3: 5 crew ...
Ruile 6: docked for 6 months

My thoughts on these requirements is that this first launch facility is intended NOT as a hotel, but as a contracted scientific research center ... a shakedown of issues in order to construct the actual hotel, a competitor to ISS. The 5 crew is exactly that: 5 crew members. They operate the craft, dock with the orbiter, perform their mission which could last for up to 6 months, and then come home.

Another reason for the "6 months" rule may be to include reliability, lack of maintenance, and suppliability. How BIG would the craft have to be to carry 5 people into space and STAY for 6 months? Food, water, trash, recycling, etc. all come into play at that length of time. Just a "routine" orbit, connect, and return would only need to last a week tops. No exceptional space needed ... just your ordinary car trunk, but 6 MONTHS!

Rule 9: No government funding
If we recall that this is a PRIVATELY funded "space hotel" and the numerous redtape that must be gone through to get government approval on anything, this requirement makes perfect sense to me. Test facilities under contract allow for speed and thoroughness of development but doesn't involve beaurocracy to approve. Government likes to get its fingers into everything. They had 50 years to put a permanent long-range man into space. Now it's our turn. In the end, we want to say, like we did last October, "We did it OUR way not NASA's."

While the deadline is set in the rules as Jan 10, 2010, I think this might be flexible. If Bigelow has to push back his timetable to get launched because of various issues (technical or beaurocratic), he may be willing to delay the deadline as well.


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