Headlines > News > N-Prize Founder, Dr. Paul Dear Talks to the Space Fellowship about Starting up a Space Prize (with a Bottle of Pinot Grigio)

N-Prize Founder, Dr. Paul Dear Talks to the Space Fellowship about Starting up a Space Prize (with a Bottle of Pinot Grigio)

Published by Rob on Mon Jun 16, 2008 3:27 pm
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I recently got talking to Blair Gordon of Generation Space, he had begun telling me how they had entered into a new space prize called the “N-Prize”. Naturally I was interested to hear about a new space prize and with a stroke of luck I found out that N-Prize founder Dr. Paul Dear was going to appear on The Space Show with David Livingston, that night (find at http://www.thespaceshow.com/detail.asp?q=956). After hearing Paul talk about the prize I decided to get in contact with the man behind the prize. Paul and I exchanged a few E-mails about the N-prize concept and so I decided to get together with a few of the Space Fellowship members to send some questions over.

Despite having to jet to France, Paul got back to us within days, his answers were as amusing and laid back as I had now come to expect from him. Something you soon pick up when speaking to Paul is that he really wants to put the fun back into space travel, get away from all the red tape and just enjoy the prize for what it is. Paul is probably the furthest person away from NASA, not just because he lives on the “other side of the pond” but because he comes out with quotes such as “Nobody in their right mind is going to enter for the prize money – and people who aren’t in their right mind are my kind of people!

For those of you who haven yet heard of the N-Prize, the N-Prize is a £9,999.99 (sterling) cash prize which can be claimed by any individual, or group, who are able to prove that they have put into orbit a small satellite. The satellite must weigh between 9.99 and 19.99 grams, and must orbit the Earth at least 9 times. This project must be done within a budget of £999.99 (sterling). For more details about the ‘N-Prize’ you can visit the website at: www.n-prize.com

Please see the questions and responses below:

What was your inspiration for starting the N-Prize?
Well, a cold bottle of Pinot Grigio had a lot to do with it. I was on the Halfbakery – a web forum where people bounce crazy ideas around. Someone had posted a tongue-in-cheek idea on “lunar homesteading”, which made me wonder how cheaply you could send something to the Moon if you put your mind to it. This then led to my wondering how cheaply you could get something into orbit, which became the N-Prize. Initially, it was just a hypothetical idea; but then some friends of mine at pictureandword.com volunteered to do the website and, before the wine had worn off, I found there was no turning back!

Why a Space Prize?
It brings together a lot of things that had been simmering in the back of my mind for long time. First, I’m a space enthusiast (which is very, very different from being an expert!). I have this half-memory of sitting in front of a big old black-and-white TV watching the moon landings, and it’s stuck with me since then. I think space exploration is just something we need to do because of the type of species we are – it’s as natural as wanting to see what’s over the next hill or across the ocean. Second, I get frustrated by how long everything takes, by how conservative we’ve become, by how risk-averse we are, and by how we always have to justify every pound or cent spent. We’ve regressed since the 60’s and 70’s, if not in our abilities then in the boldness of our ambitions. The N-Prize is a way to say “Stop taking space so seriously – it’s not rocket science!”, and to get people playing again. People become very creative when they play, and the N-Prize is an invitation to play.

Was the prize created to spur private space development or was it a personal challenge to see if you could make it happen?
It was created mainly to let people stretch their imaginations and have fun. I hope it will lead to more direct individual involvement in space, but that’s a long-term hope and not an immediate goal. I can’t deny that there’s a personal aspect to it as well – I get a huge kick out of causing trouble in fields I don’t belong in!

What do you want the N-Prize to achieve?
If everybody who enters, or who follows the Prize, has fun – that’ll be enough and I’ll be happy. However, I think we’ll see some real innovation as a result of bringing new brains to the problem, and because of the very tight constraints. I think some of this innovation will spill over into other areas of spaceflight. More broadly, I hope this will help to change the philosophy of spaceflight, and to make people realize that it’s not the sole preserve of vast government-funded organisations or multi-billion-dollar companies.

I’d also be very happy if the N-Prize persuades the regulatory bodies to lighten up a little. I don’t know the ins and outs of the laws in every country, but I get the impression that innovation and human spirit is being buried alive under paper and red tape. If we can get just one official, behind one desk, in one office in one country to say “Awww, what the hell – just go ahead.”, that’ll be a job well done.

How did you start advertising the N-Prize and getting the idea publicly accepted?
Well, it kinda leaked. We had the site up and running, and were holding off on the press release for a while until some other things were ready. But then the N-Prize started popping up in blogs, including one in New Scientist. The first potential entrant who I met said “You do know everyone’s talking about this, don’t you?”, and I was stunned! Shortly after that, pictureandword.com organised some press releases, but the first advertising was by word of mouth, or at least word of blog.

Did you raise the prize money before the Prize started or do you plan to raise it as the prize becomes more popular?
The prize money is coming out of my pocket – I’ve got a wad of bills stashed away for it. I figured I ought to put my money where my mouth is, so I wouldn’t have started it unless I had the cash to back it up. It was either that or two thousand more bottles of Pinot Grigio. Just don’t tell my wife I’m putting up the money – she’ll kill me.

Have you considered increasing the prize money, for example through sponsorship?
No. It’s true that the prize money is ridiculously small for a space competition. Nobody in their right mind is going to enter for the prize money – and people who aren’t in their right mind are my kind of people! If the prize becomes bigger, then we’ll start to see entrants who treat this as a business proposition, and who are willing to invest huge resources to win the prize. I’d rather keep it small, so that we attract enthusiastic nuts who are doing it for the challenge.

Of course, if anyone is in it for the money, they should aim to recover their satellite and claim the N-PLUS Prize!

Do you see yourself getting involved in other space related activities?
Maybe. My real life is biology (which I love even more than spaceflight), so I’m not going to become a space entrepreneur. But I’d love to have some involvement as a sort of eccentric outsider. If anyone needs a xenomolecular biologist, that would sort of kill two birds with one stone.

How are you handling the day to day running of the prize?
Chaotically! I’m handling the day-to-day running night-to-night.

Are you doing it alone right now or looking to grow as an organisation?
I couldn’t have launched the website without pictureandword but, apart from that, it’s just me. I’d like to keep it that way as long as possible, until it gets too much for one person to keep track of.

I’d like the N-Prize to grow, but more like bindweed than like an oak tree. I want to keep the small, garden-shed feel to it. If it triggers other things, then that’s great. But, if it grows big and organized, it’ll all get too serious and we’ll scare off the kind of people I want to take part in it.

How fast did teams start signing up to the competition?
Pretty quick. The first team – Nebula – said they wanted to sign up a couple of weeks after the website went live, and just a few days after the New Scientist blog. We’ve got one team who are waiting until six others have entered – they’re holding out for registration number 007!

What was your reaction when the first team rang you up and said they wanted to enter?
Relief and terror. Relief because I had this fear that the whole thing was going to fall flat on its face, nobody would sign up, and a bunch of real rocket guys were going to tell me exactly why it was a dumb idea. Terror, because I realized that there really was no turning back – real people (well, Peter Jones of Team Nebula, who is pretty real) were putting time and effort into this.

As there is no sign up fee, do you expect there to be an influx of teams competing for publicity rather than being genuine contenders?
I didn’t think anyone would enter for the publicity value – I had no idea the N-Prize would become so well known. However, I did expect lots of cranks. I figured 50% of my emails would be from people who planned to launch a satellite by yogic flying or the power of crystal healing or whatever. In the end, though, that’s not the way it worked out. Maybe the yogic fliers have been trying to reach me by telepathy, but they haven’t sent any emails yet.

What are your thoughts on the teams that have signed up so far?
I’m deeply, deeply impressed by their expertise, imagination, commitment and enthusiasm. Some teams are further ahead than others, or have presented more of their initial work on their websites, but all of them are serious contenders who know what they’re doing. I’m actually quite humbled by the level of effort and thought being brought to bear on this hare-brained idea.

It makes you wonder, if a tiny competition like this can bring so many smart people out of the woodwork, there must be a huge pool of ability out there just waiting to be tapped.

How do you foresee the winning of the prize, Will it be made into an event similar to the X-Prize being won?
I have no idea, but it’ll be fun. I’m hoping the budget for the party will be bigger than the Prize!

With the satellites being so different how will teams prove to you that they have indeed won the prize and fulfilled the requirements?
I think optical and radio tracking are both equally likely to work, but all entrants have to let me know their tracking strategy before they launch, so that we can agree on the criteria for validating the orbits. I hope to be present while the tracking is happening, but of course there’s always the option to recruit independent observers if there’s any doubt. My guess is that, by the time the first successful N-Prize launch happens, dozens of professional or amateur astronomers will be following the satellite, and validation won’t be a problem.

Will you travel to the potential winning launch?
If humanly possible, yes. I’m trying to encourage launches in warm places with good beer.

Have you thought about the safety factors and other potentially dangerous hazards involved in flying a rocket to space?
Don’t get me started on the whole safety business! In 2006-7, eight hundred and seventy-three people died while sitting on the toilet. Compared to that, the hazards of rocketry are pretty tame, and the result of a successful mission is more worthwhile.

We’ve become safety-obsessed! Worse yet, it’s not even we who’ve become safety-obsessed – it’s people legislating for our own good. I figure that if a grown man wants to risk his eyebrows – or even his life – for something he considers worthwhile, that’s his business. Just don’t drop burning things on other people. And, kids: don’t try this at home.

Do you think there is a genuine market for nano-satellites or is this more of a “stunt” to get attention towards private spaceflight?
Yes and no, on both counts. I suspect there is a use for nano-satellites. If someone today can put something in orbit which takes a single fuzzy picture of the earth, then tomorrow someone will launch a nanosatellite that sends back live video in visible and infra-red. Before you know it, tiny satellites will be doing all kinds of neat stuff, either in isolation or as part of a swarm. However, I don’t really see the main goal of the N-Prize as developing a marketable launch technology per se; the main goal is to change our attitudes to spaceflight, to stimulate innovation, and to let people have fun. I’m not looking to establish a multi-billion-dollar industry.

If the prize isn’t claimed, will you keep the money raised from the prize or will be used elsewhere?
Well, the prize money is coming out of my drinking budget, so it won’t go to waste if there’s no winner. We also have the option to either extend the closing date, or to award a prize for the nearest miss or the most spectacular failure. However, I’m pretty sure that the prize will be claimed.

What are your thoughts on what the X-Prize achieved and did it meet any expectations you may have had?
I think the X-Prize was a very significant period in the history of space exploration. It really made people realize that space was open not just to governments and international collaborations, but to private enterprize – which is a huge difference in both practical and psychological terms. I’m hoping that the N-Prize can take that process further, by opening spaceflight to the guy next door or to the local school.

Do you see a future beyond the N-Prize where you may venture into other prizes and competitions?
Well, I do have a couple of ideas up my sleeve. But, I think that’s where I’ll keep them for now, at least until the N-Prize is won. Watch this space!

Related Links:

HalfBakery – http://www.halfbakery.com/
N-Prize Discussion Group – http://groups.google.com/group/n-prize
N-Prize Home – http://www.n-prize.com/
Pictureandword.com – http://pictureandword.com/
Contact – info@n-prize.com

The Space Fellowship would like to thank Dr. Paul Dear for his contribution to this article.

I will endeavour to forward any member’s forum comments and questions through to Paul.

Copyright 2008 The International Space Fellowship. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.

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