Alternate History Thought

guest blogger john hare

I have a seriously adverse reaction to der Griffenshaft and the money and opportunity costs it represents. This is a what if post concerning the results that the $8B to date could have achieved if handled in a totally different manner. Nobody should take this post too seriously as it would have been politically impossible.

When NASA was handed the job of going to the moon, mars and beyond a few years back, suppose the administrator had decided that he had enough on his plate already trying to rebuild the agency to be an effective organization. He offers the following and has or borrows the political clout to push it though.

Lets just extend that XPrize thing and let all those loud mouthed critics do our work for us. We can let them supply the circuses to keep everybody distracted from the real problems around here, and if they actually accomplish anything, we take credit for it. We’ve got to burn those Dirksens anyway, and this lets us do it without having to do any of the real work.

Starting twelve months from this date, there will be a monthly competition loosely based on the XPrize rules starting on the first day of each month and lasting for 7 (seven) calender days.

The space vehicle that provides the most persons above a certain altitude during that 7 day period wins a first prize of 4 million dollars. Second through tenth place receives half of the prize of the next higher winner. first place– 4 million, second place–2 million, third place– 1 million,——tenth–$8,062.

Minimum altitude for the first month contest will be 30 kilometers. Altitude above the minimum is calculated as max altitude for each flight in kilometers multiplied by the number of people aboard times minutes of microgravity above a certain standard. 61 kilometers by a one occupied seat vehicle gives 31 points in the scoring system times however many minutes of true microgravity resulted. 42 kilometers by three people is 36 points for that flight times some smaller multiple of micogravity minutes. Multiple flights by a single vehicle result in points added for each qualifying flight.

Minimum applicable altitude will be raised to the average of all completed flights on the first month that there are 10 teams with qualifying flights. The incremental increases will apply until the average reaches 100 kilometers. All prizes will be doubled on and after the first month that there are 10 qualifying teams. All prizes will be doubled again when the first team reaches above 100 kilometers. All prizes will be doubled again when 10 or more teams qualify above 100 kilometers on a single month.

If this were real, there would be almost $8M in prize money each month for suborbital vehicles, with just over half for the first place vehicle. With more altitude and more teams, this would double several times until it was $64M each month with $32M to the top vehicle. With the winning based on altitude, filled seats, number of flights, and time in microgravity, teams would be trying to maximize them all. They would also be trying to optimize for the most points results for any given level of effort. With the total prize money also increasing with the number of qualifying teams, there would be real incentive to help others along in pure unenlightened self interest.

Eventually, somebody would orbit for the microgee multiple on the points. If they do it several months in a row, give them the supply contracts.

There is enough continuous money there to attract investors and qualified people. Even on the first month a third place finish is a million, and probably could be done with a single flight to 31 km. A dominant competitor later on could be collecting over $300M a year. I think it would be safe to suggest that if there were 10 or more groups launching every month, RLV development would be accelerated.

Since the above could only burn half the amount spent on der Griffenshaftat the most, An improved LLC competition is held during the third calender week of each month. Eventually a 900 second SSTO equivalent will demonstrate orbital performance and mass ratios under controlled conditions.

I’m sure a couple more competitions could be thought of to fill the other weeks of the month. By scattering competition venues, many voter districts could be involved.

I would be curious how Armadillo and Scaled would have reacted if they could have gone back to the well every month for real cash. I wonder how many others could have made them work for it if there was a continuing revenue stream. I wonder how far this could have gone in  five years of eye gaugeing, groin kicking competition where results were the only thing that mattered.

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I do construction for a living and aerospace as an occasional hobby. I am an inventor and a bit of an entrepreneur. I've been self employed since the 1980s and working in concrete since the 1970s. When I grow up, I want to work with rockets and spacecraft. I did a stupid rocket trick a few decades back and decided not to try another hot fire without adult supervision. Haven't located much of that as we are all big kids when working with our passions.

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About johnhare

I do construction for a living and aerospace as an occasional hobby. I am an inventor and a bit of an entrepreneur. I've been self employed since the 1980s and working in concrete since the 1970s. When I grow up, I want to work with rockets and spacecraft. I did a stupid rocket trick a few decades back and decided not to try another hot fire without adult supervision. Haven't located much of that as we are all big kids when working with our passions.
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8 Responses to Alternate History Thought

  1. Bob Steinke says:

    This should have been done in 2003 instead of shuttle return to flight.

  2. Pete says:

    I agree but I worry that you are over complicating this – prizes should ideally pick a good metric and target it specifically. If it requires more than a few sentences to describe and requires active management, then maybe it is too complicated and not well targeted.

    For example, $150M, $100M and $50M respectively to the first three groups to do a hundred orbital flights at least 10% of which must be manned.

    Here the primary metric being targeted is flight number, with biases towards multiple winners (building industry), manned operation (safety), RLVs (high flight number), low cost operation (low prize value), incremental development (long term, high flight number), no stunts endurance race (long term, high flight number), building supplementary market (low prize value, long term, high flight number), etc.

  3. Eric Collins says:

    I worry that safety would be an issue in such a prize program. With such a large sum of money available so often, there is a strong chance that somebody will eventually push too far with insufficient safety margins. Such reckless risk taking will not serve the industry or the goal of cheap, safe, and reliable space access.

    There is also the issue that winning prize money does not really seem like a sound business strategy. The revenue stream is not reliable (sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you won’t), and it does not explicitly encourage the development of sustainable markets. You could also get teams optimizing their vehicle to game the rules of the competition rather than to satisfy the requirements for accomplishing more practical mission objectives.

    Granted these are worst case scenarios, but these issues or similar problems could potentially crop up.

  4. john hare says:

    Part of the requirements are to burn through the same several Billion dollars that der Griffenshaft has. From that perspective, your prizes are too small and too late. Another part of it is to get the revenue stream going early for results attainable by Scaled, Armadillo, and company. Requiring large numbers of orbital flights first doesn’t prime the pump for these relatively low dollar competators. They would need to know that losing this month only means waiting another month to go for it again. If anybody could accumulate the number of flights you suggest, they wouldn’t need some contest to pay them a fraction of the normal rates later.

    When Armadillo had problems with the early LLC flights, they could have fixed and flown a month later and repeated until getting a prize. Then go for it again next month. That level of funding stream for delivered results could have considerably ramped up their efforts.

    It seems likely that Scaled would not have built a vehicle that would be retired as soon as the minimum requirements were met. They would have been leaving scads of green on the table.

    Many of the other teams and interested parties would have been able to secure funding if there was another oportunity each month with second through tenth prizes still being substantial assistance to the financier. While many of the teams were fantasy based, the solid ones could have made a business case.

  5. john hare says:


    Safety would be a major concern that I skipped. I’m not sure what the proper response is to that.

    Winning prize money is not a sustainable strategy past the time the prize money stops. NASCAR is a group that has a very long history of operation with prize money being the visible goal. Sponsorship is the real goal there, and participants should be motivated to collect any cash lying around in this as well.

    The idea was to outgame the gamers. Set it up so that the inevitable gaming of the rules creates the result you had in mind at the start. It is hard to believe that some rediculous idea like this could deliver even less useful results than der Griffenshaft.

    IMO, at 5 years there would be several orbital vehicles with rapid turnaround that could be easily converted to useful capability.

  6. Pete says:

    Spending more money does not necessarily lead to lower cost launch services – launch vehicles will grow to the limits of available funding. Throwing more money at the problem also has a tendency to lead to an exclusive prize focus. I kind of like the idea of having to depend on some market revenue for the economic case to close. A help up not a hand out…

    If there is more money to spend, spend it on creating a market – prizes for propellant depots, etc. Then let the market create the RLV, not some artificial prize.

    It is also nice if one can pay for the ultimate result only, this greatly reduces gaming and generally has better accountability. But this does delay revenue – hopefully market revenue can help here, get competitors market and investor focused from the initial design stage. The prizes could then be a bonus for actually creating a good business, instead of just tech candy.


  7. Habitat Hermit says:

    Brilliant idea John Hare. Best way to spend eight billion I’ve ever heard of (tack on a handful of guaranteed purchases for every competitor that reaches stable orbit and you’ll easily spend 8 billion, or one could continue the approach all the way to the moon). Safety wouldn’t be much different than the requirements for the Ansari X-Prize contestants and other existing rules (FAA etc.).

    Market vs. availability, chicken vs. egg, either way can be a solution, I think this would work (and I also think you would relatively quickly have more than 10 different contestants involved).

  8. I know this thing is all in good fun, so I won’t pick at nits (much). The prize idea is great, but your scenario is too complex, in my opinion.

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