A New Space Prize Sign of the Times?

The Heinlein Prize Trust is offering a new $25,000 prize for scientists to design microgravity experiments to fly into space in the next 2 years. SpaceX, an innovative commercial space company in Hawthorne, California, last week also announced it will donate experimental payload space on its Dragon spacecraft (below) on an upcoming flight.

The U.S. space agency has pioneered the use of prizes to boost research before—in competitions on designing lunar landers and a so-called space elevator, for example.

The Obama Administration may well expand the use of prizes even further. During the presidential campaign, scientists allied with the Obama camp criticized a proposal by Senator John McCain for a $300 million government-sponsored prize for the successful builder of an ultraefficient car battery.  

But a key member of Obama's fledgling White House science staff, Tom Kalil, has endorsed use of government research prizes, and the new head of the budget office, Peter Orzag, backed their use, where appropriate, in a 2006 paper he co-wrote on inspiring innovation.