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What NASA Can Learn from X Prize (And Vise Versa)

A human story worth $10 million, or why imagination will always remain the next frontier of technology.

NASA, a longtime flag-bearer for America, is in trouble. A struggle that began with the tragic 2003 Columbia disaster now extends to an expensive and disappointing space shuttle program (due to retire in 2010) and the likely postponement of a scheduled 2020 moon landing due to problems with the Ares 1 rocket. Meanwhile, it suffers the absence of a new permanent chief and a shrinking budget yet to be addressed by President Obama.

NASA needs superior technical vision, which is where the Ansari X Prize has triumphed. By enlisting private sector competition in the service of technical expertise, the Ansari X Prize inspired the world’s best thinkers and doers to successfully launch the first-ever commercial spacecraft. Twenty-six teams from seven nations competed for the $10 million jackpot, and like the Orteig Prize before it that ignited to $300 billion commercial aviation industry, the competition went on to generate more than $1.5 billion dollars — solid funding for the private spacecraft industry, spearheaded by Virgin Galactic.

Still, NASA has something that X Prize is yet to master: The ability to capture the world’s imagination.

Its amazing astronauts inspired generations, filled a nation with pride, and had entire countries holding their breath. X Prize, by contrast, is little-known or misunderstood as elitist. While a $10-million jackpot is certainly stride-stopping, what truly captures the imagination is the flight of the human spirit. It was the cultural and emotional journey of Charles Lindbergh, Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 13 that people followed, even as they vanished across the Atlantic or behind the moon.

The stories of the unique men and women participating in today’s X Prize are yet to be told. These competitors possess the same willingness to put their hearts, minds and bodies into a seemingly impossible idea. The X-factor they have in common is not the pursuit of a technological breakthrough — it’s the very character trait of those willing to try.

As both NASA and X Prize move forward, their future and success depend on the ability to rally the world around the stories of these men and women, around the technological feat wrapped in the relatable, riveting human element.

Simon Mainwaring is a former Nike creative, worldwide creative director for Ogilvy, author, speaker and general idea junkie. For more of and about him, check out his blog and follow him on Twitter.

Published May 12, 2009




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