From the Archives: Take That Murphy!

Back before the Launch Pad existed, I blogged over on the main X PRIZE Foundation website. I was definitely a beginning blogger (not that I'm an expert now), and between not knowing what exactly to do, not having too much time to write, and not having any co-authors, the content on that blog wasn't enough to generate the kind of traffic we see here on the Launch Pad.

That said, there are a few posts there that I still like. I've picked out a few favorites, and I'm going to reproduce them here (not all at once, don't worry). So, fans of the old "Pomerantz Report" (I was never sure where that name came from... why not "Pomer-rants" or something?) can probably just skip these posts. But if you are relatively new here--well, forget what I just said! This is fresh material!

This one kind of burns. It had classic foot-in-mouth potential--and delivered on that potential, as my optimistic post came only a day or two before team Armadillo fell just shy (again) of claiming prize money as part of the 2007 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. Still, the article was more about success on longer time scales, and I still stand by it. For your reading pleasure:

There's an expression in the English language--or at least in American English--that's proved true so often that we've given it a name: Murphy's Law. Murphy's Law is quite simple to state:

Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.

It short, it's pithy... and it's true all too often.

It occurred to me this morning as I was riding the train to work that the way that X PRIZEs work is by offering up a sort of counter law to Murphy's cynical (if well-tested) law. I'm not talking about any of Peter's Laws here, as much as I like those. I'll put it forth here in my clumsy terms--maybe someone else can make it a bit more poetic. But here's my attempt at codifying this 'X's Law':

Whatever can be done (better) will be done (better).

It's not the direct contrary to Murphy's Law, clearly. But, with its simple, optimistic, humanistic philosophy, it stands in stark contrast to the bleak cynicism of Murphy.

My theory is that what happens when we announce a new X PRIZE, at least if we've done our jobs right, is that we plant this innocuous little thought into the brains of enough of the right people to make its eventual fulfillment nearly inevitable.

Take the original Ansari X PRIZE. When that prize, then called just the X PRIZE, was first announced, the technology to put humans into space had existed for thirty-five years. But that technology had changed surprisingly little in those 35 years. Human spaceflight hadn't so much gotten better as it had just gotten a bit different. If you pick a good metric for quantifying how good human spaceflight technology is at any given point in time--say cost per kilogram, or percentage of the Gross Lift-Off Weight that is functional payload, or survival rates--you'll find that, after a very short time period where the US and Soviet space programs worked some of the kinks out of the system, the graphs are essentially flat for the next forty some-odd years.

In 1996, people knew that spaceflight was expensive, and that human spaceflight especially could only be undertaken by massive efforts by the world's leading superpowers. In fact, it was beyond obvious--it was tautological, universally acknowledged. But when the X PRIZE was announced in 1996, this small idea worked its way into some people's heads: Whatever can be done (better) will be done (better). It surely didn't get into everyone's mind, but it hooked enough people. You can tell this from watching video of Burt Rutan in the earliest days of the prize, saying "I have never been, myself, so creative as I have eyeballin' this goddamn prize. ... I'm not gonna tell you what I've come up with, 'cause I wanna win this thing!" You can tell it got to the leaders and members of the other 25 Ansari X PRIZE teams. You can tell it got to Anousheh and Amir Ansari, and to Paul Allen, and to the people around the world who followed the contest passionately. Each of them absorbed this idea and decided that they could play a role in making the law's prediction prove true.

The next eight years were, in essence, a battle between these creative minds, fueled by this simple law, and tireless Murphy. And obviously, in many cases, Murphy emerged from the battlefield victorious. Even when Murphy eventually lost, he certainly put up a good fight--think of, for example, about 30 unscheduled rolls of SpaceShipOne.

Murphy's Law has been on the lips of a number of our teams in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. After putting in lots of hard work [Editor's Note: I should reprise the story at that link...] and making lots of progress, teams are starting to have to drop out for what must be very frustrating reasons. For example, Unreasonable Rocket, our Father-Son team, won't be able to win any money this year because their vehicle was damaged in transit on a U-Haul trailer. Another team, Masten Space Systems, won't be ready because a part manufacture delivered a some critical components very late and well below specification. Other teams in this and other competitions have had similar stories--the most heart-wrenching I know of happened to a friend of mine who was part of Team Recens, a European team competing in the Elevator Games. They came all the way from Spain last year to compete in the Tether Challenge--only their entry got lost in the mail [Editors note: it eventually showed up... at the wrong office ... in the wrong state ... about 6 months later]. Recens had come a long way and done a lot of work knowing that, as a "Limited Entry" team, they couldn't win any prize money. But then Murphy struck.

That probably is, and always will be, the story of every X PRIZE. Murphy will win some battles, probably more than his fair share. Some of these will be temporary disappointments (think of Armadillo's problems with their landing gear at the 2006 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge), and others will knock teams out of the running entirely (think of Admiral Byrd's crashed attempt to win the Orteig Prize). But, when all is said and done, some team will catch enough good luck and avoid enough bad luck that their dedication and creativity will help verify that predication that whatever can be done (better) will be done (better).

Now, I'm a baseball fan. I'm in the middle of watching my favorite team experience some offensive slumps at the worst possible time [Editors note: That story had a pretty happy ending...]. So, I know all about the dangers of extrapolating from small sample sizes. And the history of prizes is still a relatively small sample size. But with each successive victory--Longitude Prize, Soda Alkali Prize, Orteig Prize, Kremer Prize, Ansari X PRIZE, DARPA Grand Challenges, Astronaut Glove Challenge, et cetera--we start not only to see some more evidence for the X PRIZE's Law, but we start reinforcing its inevitability.

blog comments powered by Disqus