Feared Lost in Space: The focus of the Google Lunar X PRIZE

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In 1927, Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic to win a $25,000 prize put up by a wealthy hotel owner named Raymond Orteig. The contest was started in 1919 and was set to last for 5 years. When no one had won the prize by 1924, Orteig decided to extend the competition for another 5 years. You can read all about Charles Lindbergh's winning of this prize in approximately 21,801,652 different accounts and books. My favorite is Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg.

The short version of the story is that a no name airmail pilot was the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean, much to the budding airline industry's surprise. Many argue that this incentive prize by Orteig was part of a catalyst that helped the airline industry make obsolete most other non automobile transportation industries in the 25 years that followed, sometimes referred to as "The Lindbergh Boom".

Peter Diamandis used the story and success of the Orteig prize as the inspiration for his X PRIZE Foundation. X PRIZE is most famous for it's Ansari X PRIZE, where a small team sent a man to the edge of space twice in two weeks, thereby creating a truly reusable spacecraft for a small fraction of the cost it had historically taken to accomplish.

The idea of exploring beyond earth and creating a vibrant commercial space industry is very alluring. It has been the goal of many futurist writers since Galileo. And one of the first things we started doing when we launched Evadot was to interview, track, and score the teams on the current space based competition hosted by the X PRIZE foundation: The Google Lunar X PRIZE.

I was fortunate to attend the last GLXP Team Summit in October of 2010 in the beautiful Isle of Man. Most of what I was hearing up until then about the competition was positive, but it was in the hallways there when I first heard grumblings about the "Master Team Agreement". The sessions surrounding the discussions of the agreement were closed to everyone there except the teams, so I could only glean information from what I heard when participating in conversations that happened outside the sessions.

The competition, which "started" in 2007 didn't even have official rules until 2011. This is a tad bit odd, to say the least.

An ongoing competition operating for several years without an agreed upon set of rules is disconcerting, but as no one wanted to talk about it we concentrated on team progress and how to help the competition have a global appeal and impact.

At the end of 2010, the competition closed to new teams and the final roster of 29 teams was announced. A few weeks later, all of the teams signed the "final" Master Team Agreement. As soon as the Master Team Agreement (ie the detailed contest rules) were signed, we made repeated requests to the X PRIZE foundation for a copy of the MTA.  Our request was denied. Just last month I was told that the document which included the detailed rules for the prize were not going to ever be released.

I've got a hunch that they don't want these rules out in the open because most thinking people wouldn't like them very much. The things we have been hearing about this set of contest rules have not been good.

For example, the subject of media rights is a sore spot for many of the teams. It turns out that X PRIZE foundation retains the rights to any media associated with the competition.

Yeah, you read that right, you have to give up your media rights to enter. The X PRIZE Foundation does agree to pay 33% of the media revenue to the grand prize team, which is probably their way of trying to make this feel okay. They certainly aren't fooling anyone.

Now it seems that in Mid April the X PRIZE foundation sprung changes on the 29 teams in the form of a non negotiable amendment to the, mutually agreed upon, "final" MTA signed by all of the teams in February. Their message was "sign this or be disqualified from the competition". Needless to say, some of the teams are pretty pissed. This is not how mutually executed contracts are supposed to work, and taking the authoritarian stance is a terrible message to send.

According to my sources, they've since backed off on this ammendment and have decided to revisit it at a later date. Again, strange.

Since the X PRIZE foundation was born from the idea and success of the Orteig Prize in the 1920's (according to it's founder) I decided that some more research on that prize was in order.

Specifically, I wanted to see what the rules of the competition were.

Initially, these proved hard to track down. A friend saw a tweet I put out asking for help and discovered for us that a newly cataloged collection was available at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Archives.

Fortunately, I live near Washington DC, so I arranged an appointment with an archivist there, Patty Williams, to view this collection.

I met Patty at the security desk of the Air and Space Museum under the first aircraft to ever circumnatigate the globe without stopping, and just 500 feet from Charles Lindbergh's historic airplane: The Spirit of St Louis.

After getting a badge she took me to the third floor of the building where the non public items and archives are located. Because of the historical significance and relative delicacy of the paper documents and now almost 100 year old artifacts, this collection requires special access. The Ramsey room is a climate controlled special security area that you are not allowed to be in alone and where you must wear white gloves to touch just about anything.

As a fan of aerospace, a history nut, and just all around nerd, the experience was nothing short of incredible. About an hour into the adventure I turned to Patty and asked, "Does this ever get old? You know, being in here with all of this."

"Nope, I've been here 22 years and it still get's to me", she replied with a knowing smile.

Just as she answered, I turned a page in the binder I was looking through to a handwritten letter by Chales Lindbergh himself. He was writing the National Aeronautics Association (who were administering the prize) to clarify one of the contest rules. Much of the collection consisted of the same types of clarifications of the rules over about a 3 year period.

Three years of clarification on the contest rules.

Just how complicated were these rules, anyway? I found out within 3 minutes of starting my research because as soon as I opened the first binder I discovered them sitting on top.

The entire competition was outlined in detail on 3 pages of typed text. Actually that's a little bit of a stretch because the third page was just a list of judges and addresses of people to contact.

The competition credited with kicking off an entire industry was very simple and fit on two pages.

  • Pay the National Aeronautic Association a registration fee of $250 (about $3250 in 2010 dollars)*
  • Cross the Atlantic Ocean without stopping in an airplane
  • Win $25,000

Oh, and you didn't have to give the rights and revenue from any media events afterward to Mr Orteig. In fact, the rules specifically say:

No part of the Entrance Fees is to be received by Mr Raymond Orteig, the donor. All amounts received will be applied toward payment of the expenses of conducting the competition.

Contrast this to the 67 page agreement and hefty registration fee (some teams reportedly paid as much as $50,000 $100,000 (Corrected 19:31 5/16/2011) to register) that the Google Lunar X PRIZE Teams have to wade through just to get started. Not to mention insurance and government organizations breathing down their neck.

Then recently, as if 67 pages of legalese wasn't enough (which includes giving X PRIZE substantial rights to the media and copyrights, and thereby potentially a lot of money), we've learned that the X PRIZE foundation has sparked a bit of a controversy in amending the rules 2 months after the "final" MTA has been agreed upon.

I've been a very vocal supporter of the X PRIZE foundation (with one exception), but a part of me longs for a time when someone looked at a problem they wanted to solve, wrote a letter to that effect with a prize amount in mind, and then some sorta crazy people gave it a shot. The new world we live in sure does a good job of taking the romance out of things doesn't it?

The X PRIZE Foundation is focused on promoting itself, not on the problems it purportedly wants to solve.

As a capitalist I'm actually perfectly fine with making a profit. In fact, I'm brainstorming on how to make money on this new commercial space industry myself. I hope people all over the world are as well. The part that chaps me is that they are pretending to be a non profit with only the good of the world in mind while acting like a company looking to make a buck.

If Orteig spent a lot of time promoting himself, history didn't record it. He saw a goal he wanted to help with and he made it happen.

We could do well to learn from this example.

 

*  Which was refunded to several families whose loved ones attempted the competition and died in the process.