November 26, 2003

Space Race: X-Prize National Culture Roundup

For those who aren't aware, the X-Prize is a $10M contest with a neat trophy to launch a privately developed and built (no government funds) vehicle that can achieve suborbital flight to a height of 62 miles (100km), land, prep, and do it again inside of 14 days.

The X-Prize current team list consists of a surprising mix of nations as well as some interesting absences. There are 24 teams participating currently. 15 are from the US, 1 from Romania, 3 from the UK, 2 from Canada, 1 from Argentina, 1 from Israel, and 1 from Russia. It makes sense for the US to have a great number of teams as it has a great deal of money sloshing around in its society, is a traditional space power, and has a tradition of exploration and entrepreneurial adventure. The UK, Canada, and Russia entries make sense. These are rich countries or traditional space powers though Russia's entry depends on a partner that seems to be a state aircraft manufacturer branching out into space designs.

Israel, Argentina, and Romania are clearly playing the role of the little engine that could. Israel's space program only got into the launch business in 1988. Argentina has even less of a space history. Romania has more of a space program but the lowest per capita GDP numbers of all the entries. Clearly, these three are punching above their weights, Romania most of all.

But look who is missing. Where is France? They have plenty of money and an established concentration of space engineers to staff such a project. Where is Japan, with its own rich economy, and fairly well established, though embattled, space program. the PRC has Romania level GDP per capita numbers but is 50 times larger and enough wealthy people to fund such a project if they were interested and their government permitted it (I wonder whether it is a failure of popular imagination or stifling government that is the dominant problem). Their space program just had their first manned launch but the Middle Kingdom seems uninterested in creating a competitive atmosphere. And how about Germany? The nation that jump started both Soviet and US space programs does have its own space program but no apparent interest in working outside the public sector with a private X-Prize team.

All in all, the nations of the entering (and the major space nations not entering) teams say something good (or not so good) about their respective national culture, or in the case of the US sub-national culture. Five of the US' fifteen entries are from California, three are from Texas with the rest of the entries scattered across the country.

Posted by TMLutas at November 26, 2003 02:38 PM