Friday, June 27, 2008

Science Prizes

This letter over a Jerry Pournelle's site says quite well

Subject: Apollo and Prizes

Dear Doctor Pournelle,

The first thought I had when Barack Obama belittled John McCain's "Battery Prize" idea by referring to John F. Kennedy's not offering a prize to get us to the moon in the sixties was "Yeah, if he had, we wouldn't be talking about getting back to the moon for the first time since 1972 by MAYBE 2015. We'd have something like the "moonliner" of Sir Arthur's 2001 running regular flights for anyone with the bucks!

Seriously, if Kennedy had offered enough prize money to make it profitable to develop efficient technology for space travel, we might not have made it by 1970, but once we had made it, we would have been able to return, settle, develop and made it all back ten times over in new industries and technology (Solar power Satellites? Helium-3 fusion, anyone?).

Apollo was a Cold War based initiative. Getting to the moon was not something Kennedy was all that interested in as a goal in and of itself. Getting there BEFORE the Soviets, beating them on the world stage and avenging the humiliation of Sputnik and Gagarin, that was his real goal. As important a front as the "Space Race" was in the Cold War, that mind set of "we're in a race we have to win at any cost" led directly to the design of Apollo as an "Any way we can, as fast as we can" system that made lunar flight expensive, dangerous and a technological dead end.

Apollo was a tremendous effort, a great success, but ultimately led nowhere other than (as you have pointed out many times) todays standing army of shuttle "locusts" who daily consume the dream.

Then again, if Kennedy had suggested a prize, his Harvard Brain Trust would have laughed at him, and Robert Strange McNamara would likely have proven with charts that prizes were "a non-optimal cost ineffective measure inexorably leading to a system failure of the first-magnitude."

What do you want to bet that if Obama wins, the first lab for researching battery tech will be located in a suburb of Chicago?

Ya think!?




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