This week, the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster rocket, carrying a Dragon capsule, successfully took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It boldly shot off toward the final frontier… or at least into Low Earth Orbit.
If all goes well, SpaceX will be the first company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station. That’s first, as in “first place,” a position SpaceX and many other companies are shooting for in an all-new private-sector space race.
The race heated up after President Obama outlined his plan for the future of NASA at an April 2010 Kennedy Space Center speech. The President said that competition among private companies will more efficiently yield better spacecraft and space travel solutions. From a historical perspective, the President is right—competition among companies has time and again resulted in rapid development of the best ideas and breakthroughs. After all, who doesn’t like to win?
A group that has zeroed in on this fundamental belief is the X PRIZE Foundation.
Per the X PRIZE website, “The Foundation addresses the world’s Grand Challenges by creating and managing large-scale, high-profile, incentivized prize competitions that stimulate investment in research and development worth far more than the prize itself. It motivates and inspires brilliant innovators from all disciplines to leverage their intellectual and financial capital.”
The first challenge, initially named the "X PRIZE" and later renamed the Ansari , was issued in in 1996: $10 million to the first non-government organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. The prize was won in 2004 by the Tier One project designed by Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, using the experimental SpaceShipOne.
Since then, a number of challenges have been presented by the Foundation and sponsors such as Google Northrop Grumman. Most recently the Qualcomm Foundation has sponsored an challenge to develop a device akin to a Star Trek-style Tricorder: a portable, palm-sized wireless device that monitors and diagnoses your health conditions. (Are you seeing a space theme here?)
In the meantime, SpaceX – which was not part of an challenge but was founded around the same time as the Ansari X PRIZE – is going to have a busy couple of days. After the Dragon capsule completes a series of maneuvers while in orbit, NASA will give the space station crew the green light to grab the capsule with the station’s robotic arm so that food and supplies can be unloaded. (Bonus fun fact about SpaceX's cargo). If the stars are aligned, the capsule will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and splash down off the coast of California—effectively crossing the finish line and beginning a new era of space exploration.
(TRICORDER is a trademark of CBS Studios, Inc. Used under license.)