Prize Competitions Launch Innovation


SpaceShipOne was winner of the $10 million Ansari XPRIZE for suborbital spaceflight.         Credit:  Scaled Composites

For the first time, Huntsville is hosting the NASA Space Apps Challenge, “a global prize competition that will bring together aerospace, creative and software communities to design, code, manufacture and assemble innovative space solutions in a 32-hour competition.” This event, organized by New Leaf Digital and AIAA, is taking place this weekend at Huntsville Steamworks. I’m excited to support it and can’t wait to see what innovative ideas and solutions are launched at this competition.

Prizes spur innovation and stimulate creative solutions from a wide cross section of individuals across the planet, and Huntsville has its share of smart, creative individuals and teams. Kudos to New Leaf Digital and AIAA for putting this event together to enable local creative minds to showcase their disruptive innovations!

Innovation is changing the world more rapidly than we can keep up with. We are seeing science fiction turn into reality overnight. Innovation-based competitions are a great catalyst for making things happen quickly because they have hard deadlines and often offer amazing rewards.

Prize competitions aren’t new for me, so I’ve seen the benefits of them firsthand! I participated in some amateur challenges when “amateur” meant “doing something for the love of it,” and I’ve been a part of competitions that offered high-dollar prizes.

My first experience in prize competitions was with HARC, a company I co-founded in the 1990s. We had an entry in the CATS (Cheap Access to Space) prize. My goal has always been to help facilitate/enable affordable access to Space, so this was a fun project.

This competition offered a $250,000 prize for the first private team to launch a two kilogram payload into space, 200 km or higher, by November 8, 2000, using a privately developed launcher as specified within the rules. (The competition was announced in 1997.) The Space Frontier Foundation and the Foundation for the International Non-governmental Development of Space (FINDS) organized this competition to show that space is not purely a government domain. This prize excited us, our community and even a local angel investor who financed us.

We designed, built and launched a hybrid rocket from a balloon from 27 kilometers. Laughing gas was our only propellant. Our attempt to attain an altitude of 200 kilometers fell short at an altitude of 15 miles when the launch vehicle failed upon engine ignition. We did fly the tank’s payload a few more hundred feet high. No competitor was able to achieve the objective within the allotted time. In fact, our team was the only one to have an “Official Launch Attempt.” But the competition helped advance private space enterprise.

This was a great learning experience for me, as I spent numerous evenings in my home garage with a great team of innovators, some who would later work with me and for me in my aerospace endeavors.

Before the CATS Prize, I, along with some of these same rocket enthusiasts, participated in breaking a world record as the first amateur team to build and fly the world’s highest rocket to space in an informal Space Shot Challenge. HAL5, the local chapter of the National Space Society, worked after hours to make this project happen. We worked at my home “man cave” two nights a week. I was honored to be the team lead on this historic low-budget rocket project. I signed up in 1994, and we poured concrete soon after at my dad’s farm. We tested all our motors there. It was so exciting and loud fun. We tested hybrid propulsion systems from 5-lb thrust to 1,200-lb thrust. Our first attempt to launch was in 1996. In 1997, our rocket reached 36 miles, breaking previous altitude records.

This feat was recorded in the 2000 Guinness Book of World Records. Although this prize was not monetary, it came with bragging rights to be able to say, “We were the first amateurs to get close to space (technically 50 miles, by the U.S. definition)!”

I supported this effort from 1994 to 2000, when my contributions to aerospace led me to Mojave, Calif., for another prize, the Ansari XPRIZE. I served as lead propulsion engineer for SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million prize as the world’s first non-government Space program.

That experience was a precursor to the founding of my first company, Orion Propulsion, which grew to a $6.4 million company in five years before I sold it to Huntsville-based Dynetics.

I had the opportunity to be team leader for the Rocket City Space Pioneers, a formidable team formed by Dynetics in the Google Lunar XPRIZE Competition. To win this prize, a privately funded team must be the first to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon’s surface, travel 500 meters and transmit high-definition video and images back to Earth. (By the way, raising money is more difficult than Rocket Science!)

The Rocket City Space Pioneers ultimately merged with Moon Express, and I worked with that company as chief propulsion engineer before operations were moved to Florida. Moon Express today is one of the top teams in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition, and one of only two to have a launch contract. We hope to see the “Spirit of Alabama” land by 2018.

Recently, I founded Pickens Innovations, Inc., to deliver responsive, value-added aerospace and other technical solutions to commercial and government customers. These competitions provided hands-on opportunities and forged relationships that became the foundation for my latest business to provide affordable and innovative solutions.

I expect to see great things from some of the participants in this weekend’s competition. Best of luck to all!

1 thought on “Prize Competitions Launch Innovation

  1. Good things are happening in the commercial space industry, and I believe it’s because of trailblazers like you who’ve refused to sit and listen to “It’ll never work!”.
    Keep dreaming & doing, for that’s what has made America great over the last 100 years.

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