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Evolution in Action

Glenn Reynolds muses muses on the possibilities of the X-Prize and similarly-styled competitions bringing about a new era in space access.

He seems a bit pessimistic, however, in how he thinks the X-Prize will play out:

Unlike a government program, too, a prize-based program allows for a lot of failure. By definition, if 27 teams go for the prize, at least 26 will fail. And that’s okay. Government programs, on the other hand, are afraid of failure. The result is that they’re either too conservative, playing it safe so as to avoid being blamed for failure, or they’re stretched out so long that, by the time it’s clear they’re not going to do anything, everyone responsible has died or retired (it’s okay not to succeed, so long as you aren’ t seen to fail).

While it’s true that they may “fail” to win the X-Prize if someone else has already won it, there’s no reason to expect that all 26 also-rans will fail in the bigger sense. Having produced (or come close to producing) a flightworthy vehicle, how many of the more promising teams will simply scrap all their hard work and walk away because they missed the prize?

Each of the competitors is a potential “seed” for a new business, or even a new industry. Try saying that about NASA’s business-as-usual models — even if NASA were able to duplicate the technical results of the X-Prize competition for a measely $50 million (the figure Peter Diamandis gives in a quote in this article as the total spent on research, development, and testing), it’s doubtful that the business-nucleation results would be the same.

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