Aerospace Challenge Prizes Might Inspire Innovation

The strategy of cash prizes has a rich history

Standing on a dock close to where the Choptank River flows into the Chesapeake Bay, a friend regaled Tom with his knowledge of the British government’s creation of a £20,000 prize in 1714, for solving the problem of accurate determination of longitude, which at the time was the major challenge to maritime navigation. Nearly 60 years later, the prize was awarded to John Harrison, who was rewarded for a nearly lifelong effort to create a chronometer that was accurate at sea.

This exchange got us thinking about the list of innovators and pioneers in our industry. Names like Wilbur and Orville Wright, Glenn Curtiss, Glenn L. Martin, William Boeing, Igor Sikorsky, Robert Goddard, Amelia Earhart, Wernher von Braun, and, more recently, Abe Karem and Elon Musk came to mind. It also made us think about the role of a professional society, such as AIAA, in furthering the accomplishments of such pioneers and founders of what has become the U.S. aerospace industry. This is especially so for the team of people that they surround themselves with to perfect their inventions or create their companies.

One way for AIAA to contribute is to ensure that we stay attune to emerging trends and technologies that are changing the very nature of aerospace and, as a consequence, both the employment opportunities for aerospace professionals and the way in which we work. Several emerging technologies have been featured in previous “Corner Office” articles. One is small Unmanned Aerial Systems, with their myriad and seemingly limitless applications. Another is advanced manufacturing, through which the aerospace industry is realizing the benefits and advantages of being able to design and manufacture using strong, lightweight materials that our industry has long desired.

A key to either the development of the underlying technology or to the many brilliant aerospace applications is innovation. And while innovation defies any kind of individual or organizational construct or prescription to being so achieved, the establishment of aerospace prizes can be a catalyst that accelerates our imaginations, our drive to invent, the speed at which innovations occur, the willingness to invest in aerospace technologies, and ultimately, the impact that such innovation has on not only our profession and industry, but on society. And while the British Government may have incentivized the invention of a device that enabled mariners to accurately determine their location, it would ultimately take the work of many others, and nearly a century, to make chronometers practical and affordable.

Thankfully, the history of the impact of prizes in the aerospace industry has a shorter time frame. The Orteig Prize was established in 1919 and was claimed by Charles Lindburgh in 1927, when the famed aviator completed his nonstop flight from New York to Paris in his Ryan NYP “Spirit of St. Louis.” Key technology advances that contributed to Lindburgh’s success and to future aeronautics applications included advances in aerodynamics and aircraft design, reliable, high-power-to-weight piston engines, and the development of all-metal airplanes that could carry enough revenue-generating passengers to be profitable. The Kremer Prize for Human Powered Spaceflight was established in 1959 and claimed in 1977 by Dr. Paul MacCready when cyclist Bryan Allen successfully flew MacCready’s Gossamer Condor aircraft over a 1.6-mile “figure-8” course as designated by the Royal Aeronautical Society. This team would capture the second Kremer prize in 1979 when Allen successfully flew the Gossamer Albatross across the English Channel. Key enabling technologies that were successfully demonstrated include high strength-to-weight composite structures, low-Reynolds-number aerodynamics at low Mach number, and integrated system design of high-aspect-ratio winged vehicles. The Ansari X-Prize was established in 1996 and claimed in 2004 by the Scaled Composites’ Tier One project led by Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The Ansari X-Prize can be credited with jump-starting the commercial space industry that today is credited with approximately $60 billion in U.S. economic activity.

Might now be the time to establish and develop a set of aerospace-related grand challenge prizes, similar to the Google Lunar X-Prize, that could inspire innovation and entrepreneurship and grow existing, or even foster, new industries? Possible prizes could include an Asteroid X-Prize Challenge centered around either detection and early warning systems for near-Earth asteroids or the exploitation of the natural resources that could be mined from asteroids, a Hypersonic UAS X-Prize challenge that could accelerate rapid and safe access to space, and a personal air vehicle X-Prize that would demonstrate safe and reliable transportation that could operate in the existing airspace. In all of these examples, the potential for technology development and advancement would justify the pursuit of such challenges and prizes. As always, AIAA is the right organization and AIAA events are the right venues for discussing innovations and the merits of grand challenges and for developing and advocating for such ideas, if they prove worth pursuing. ★

Aerospace Challenge Prizes Might Inspire Innovation