The case for Newt Gingrich and America’s new lunar legacy

Correction: A previous version of this column did not disclose that Naveen Jain is a Singularity University trustee where Vivek Wadhwa is the vice president of academics and innovation. This version has been revised.

Vivek Wadhwa
Contributor, Innovations January 31, 2012

“By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American,” proclaimed Newt Gingrich during a Jan. 25 speech in the city of Cocoa, Florida, which rests on the nation’s Space Coast. He said he would make this happen through public-private partnerships and incentive prizes to drive innovation. The chattering classes and the Beltway politicos immediately mocked Gingrich’s plan. Fellow candidate Mitt Romney suggested that voters should dispatch Gingrich and “Send him to the Moon!”

I don’t endorse Gingrich’s often-extreme views. But on this issue, I believe he is right. Gingrich is doing something rare in politics: He’s thinking outside of the box, and this type of thinking is what is needed to get the U.S. back on track.

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke, and distinguished fellow at Singularity University. His past appointments include Harvard Law School, University of California Berkeley, and Emory University. View Archive

First, let’s clarify what Gingrich was talking about. Gingrich wasn’t proposing another massive government-funded boondoggle. Rather, he said that such a colony could be achieved. In fact, some of this is already happening. The Google Lunar X-Prize is a competition already underway that offers a $30 million reward to the first team able to send a robot to the moon. Twenty-six teams from around the world are competing. Since none of these teams are lushly funded (and the award wouldn’t even come close to covering a single conventional space launch by the traditional private satellite launch providers), the Lunar X-Prize competition is causing entrepreneurs to develop creative new ways to attain spaceflight at a fraction of the normal cost.

One of the leading teams is a company called Moon Express. Founded in 2010 by International Space University founder Robert Richards, philanthropist, entrepreneur and Singularity University trustee (where I also serve as vice president of academics and innovation) Naveen Jain, and NASA scientist Barney Pell, Moon Express has already demonstrated a lunar lander system that will cost a fraction of past systems (think millions of dollars instead of hundreds of millions). This technology has already passed the required NASA milestones and is viewed as a viable contender for future moon missions. Moon Express hopes to tap into common platforms being developed by NASA for space payloads. But they plan to do so in a way that slices costs and doesn’t require massive subsidies. And the end goal of Moon Express is similar to what Gingrich expressed: It’s economic. They plan to mine the moon for rare Earth minerals or other valuable materials. So rather than earning a leg up over the Soviets, Moon Express is aiming to earn a big return for investors.

The idea of innovation prizes is hardly new. In fact, a number of celebrated historical feats were made possible, in part, by the desire to win these prizes. When Charles Lindbergh flew non-stop from New York to Paris in May 1927, he collected the $25,000 Orteig Prize, a long-standing award aimed at spurring innovation in aviation. Lindbergh didn’t fly just to win the prize, but the prize certainly created a world stage that encouraged innovative behavior and thinking. What’s more, research in the area of innovation prizes suggests that these contests actually stimulate research in excess of what would otherwise have occurred.

A December 2011 Harvard Business School study called, “Inducement Prizes and Innovation” by researchers Liam Brunt, Josh Lerner and Tom Nicholas of Harvard Business School found that innovation competitions, such as those offered by the X-Prize Foundation, fuel research and development that typically exceeds the value of the prize itself. “For example,” the study reads, “26 teams competed for the X-Prize for suborbital spaceflight and collectively spent in excess of $100 million for a $10 million prize.”

Inducement prizes have been proven to spur innovation.

The X-Prize movement goes beyond spaceflight. Prizes offered cover genetic sequencing, educational technology, environmental cleanup equipment, and medicine. A company, InnoCentive, has built an online platform that allows companies to create micro-innovation competitions to crowd source scientific expertise for solving industrial or technical problems. Then there’s the Wolfson Economics Prize, a €286,000 prize to be awarded to “the person who is able to articulate how best to manage the orderly exit of one of more member states from the European Monetary Union.”

And let’s not forget the Heritage Health Prize Competition, a $3 million award funded by Physician and Heritage Provider Network founder and CEO, Dr. Richard Merkin, for the team that delivers a breakthrough algorithm that can examine a patient’s data and best predict how many days they will spend in the hospital in the next year. The goal of this prize is to help doctors best understand who the most at risk patients are and construct pre-emptive care plans to avoid unnecessary hospitalizations which cost an estimated $32 billion annually.

The point of all this being, it may be fun and expedient to mock Gingrich, but his suggestion for a lunar colony funded through innovation prizes is actually a very solid idea. In fact, I’d advocate that not only NASA earmark 10 percent of its budget for innovation prizes to spur breakthroughs, but also other branches of government. Keep in mind that past innovations in space technology have often filtered down to Earth in all manner of new technologies (like velcro, for example). What’s more, this type of thinking satisfies both the political left’s dreams of expansion and government funded innovation, as well as right’s desire for limited government and free markets.

So, Speaker Gingrich, about that colony. Please book me a hotel room when it opens. I’d love to come and stay for a while.

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