The New Space Race: Designing Incentives to Move Us Forward

Launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, Feb. 6, 2018 (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

Space exploration plays a special role in our hearts and minds. Humanity is set upon a great timeline of exploration, and space primordially calls to us next. Our first steps on the moon, for example, symbolize the cumulative technological achievement of humanity. Ever since then, children dream of jettisoning into outer space to explore the unknown.

Our presence in space doesn’t just provide inspiration for dreams, though. Space exploration provides tangible benefits. Satellites track the weather, storms, and wildfires. They also help us plan agricultural and urban land use from a bird’s eye view. Photographs taken from space shuttles teach us about the planets in our solar system, and one day we may be able to travel extraordinary distances in record time.

Space innovation needs to be better, faster and cheaper still. We believe the missing link is building the incentive systems that motivate innovation in space exploration.

The space industry has a unique economic structure. Since designing, building, and launching satellites and rockets requires cutting-edge science and engineering, the industry requires a highly specialized workforce. The time horizon is long, as capital investments made in initial periods can be recouped only years in the future. Governments tend to be heavily involved in this industry as parts of it pertain to national defense and pride. Private companies, however, have entered the industry as U.S. government involvement recedes.

The private space industry received an important boost in 2004 following the Ansari X Prize competition, which awarded $10 million to the first non-government organization that successfully launched a reusable, manned spacecraft. Many take the competition’s success to demonstrate that private enterprises can indeed meaningfully contribute to space exploration technology. The current market structure, however, stunts innovation because it incentivizes private companies to keep their intellectual property secret in order to protect their competitive advantage. These intellectual silos are unhelpful. The trouble lies in finding a way to quickly identify and motivate people who have the right skills and knowledge to collaborate on projects that can advance space technology.

With private companies pursuing space exploration this could be you someday

To address this problem, we need to tap into the power of some currently under-appreciated incentives. DIYROCKETS crowdsources the development of space technology by sponsoring contests that focus on a particular technological need (like building a 3D-printed rocket engine) and awarding cash prizes for successful prototypes. Their first contest, for example, attracted the attention of 80 teams of engineers. Ten of these teams submitted engine prototypes and a business plan that accounts for cost and overall feasibility. Renowned professionals from the space and tech industries judged the submissions. The winning team had members hired by Boeing and RocketLab, and the runner-up spun out into a new space startup.

This method of catalyzing space innovation is revolutionary for several reasons:

(1) Fosters intellectual collaboration that is sorely lacking in the space sector; people who have the right skills and knowledge unite to accomplish a specific technological need.

(2) Leads to prototypes that are far less expensive than what the current market could provide; the cash prizes in the contest summed to a few thousand dollars, whereas private companies like Boeing charge several millions of dollars to design a rocket engine.

(3) It changes the incentives of players in the space industry in profound ways.

Public contests are exciting for scientists and engineers to take part in because they marry two dimensions that kindle the human spirit: (1) the challenge of working on cutting-edge technology and (2) the publicity that comes with successful designs. These powerful social incentives lead to high levels of motivation.

Public contests allow scientists and engineers to work for the common good and most people are very motivated to achieve something meaningful that can help others. Public contests tap into the desire to do something meaningful and good in the world, which is a profound source of motivation in human beings.

Space exploration is a public good, because the discoveries realized in space benefit many of us on Earth.

Public contests allow scientists and engineers to connect with like-minded peers and work together on meaningful endeavors, which is another basic human drive. These contests could form the basis for to create decentralized space markets that enable scientists and engineers to innovate incredibly efficiently. What’s more, they create ad hoc networks that exist to solve specific technological problems. Due to their goal driven nature, there will be no unnecessary bureaucracy or “legacy” business units that tend to create barriers rather than incentives for collaboration.

We believe that these contests can become even more effective by using the nCent protocol, which allows for an accurate tracking, attribution and auditing of the contribution of each party?—?and to permit multiparty coordination without requiring anyone to trust each other. Different teams that contribute sub-components of winning prototypes can be compensated based on their relative contribution to the technology. This would allow scientists to create multi-layered networks that can solve sub-components of technological problems and provide for more accurate allocation of rewards. There may be many more applications of blockchain technology in the exploration of space, too.

The barrier to making space travel and exploration a reality is not an intellectual one. There are more than enough capable scientists and engineers who can help the space industry take the leap forward. Instead, the barrier is one of finding the right incentive system to get all of these hearts and minds to collaborate on the right goals at the right time.

This article was researched and written in collaboration with Darlene Damm, Vice Chair & Principal Faculty of Global Grand Challenges at Singularity University and founder of DIYROCKETS. We’d like to thank Darlene for sharing her vision?—?and check out her latest contests!

As always, you can mail me at…To the moon!

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