What’s Another $20 Million?

Question: Is the X Prize a useful tool to get people to innovate?

Burt Rutan: I certainly want to like the X PRIZE because my customer Paul Allen got 40 percent of his money back on one flight or actually two flights. I’ve always been a proponent of prizes, but if you back off and look at say the NASA prize.  They’ve got these little prizes to promote breakthroughs of commercial folks.  I think from an overall standpoint if you’re a research agency that you ought to structure you’re overall annual budget somewhere between 15 and 25 percent of that budget ought to be for prizes, in other words, a substantial amount of money, big money.  If you did that you would have a lot of investment goes into solutions commercially because they’d have a return of investment.  Gee, you’d find folk going out and spending 100, 200 million dollars to win a prize because the prize is one and a half billion dollars.  That would really get the big advantage of what you can do with prizes.  In general the prizes that have been out there have been, at least the government prizes, I included also there the DARPA prize, the first one that they put out.  It was a million dollars and DARPA itself spent 6 million dollars overseeing the prize.  What? What?  But anyway, you know I’m a big fan of putting out a goal that you think is impossible and it should be because a prize ought to be for research, not for development.  You shouldn’t give somebody a prize for doing something that everybody believes can be done.  You need to put a prize out for things that at least half the people think can’t do that

Question: What are some of the challenges to crowd sourcing a groundbreaking idea?

Burt Rutan:  Only a very small percentage of people are really innovative.  In other words, they really come up with new ideas and a smaller number are people that come up with new breakthrough ideas and have some capability to go out in the shop and build it and fly it, so that’s why there is not a lot of Rutan like companies.  We don’t have much competition in the work that we do.  Our main competition is the aerospace primes themselves and we always beat them because they have enormous overhead and they have a risk adverse thinking so that it takes them. They won’t do some of the things that we will try and it takes them a lot more time and money to get up the courage and actually go out and build something that may not work and in general they tend to not go out and build something that may not work. I believe there is real breakthroughs out there for orbital access, but if you come up with an idea and there is a lot of ideas floating around, if there is a feeling by half or more of the people that hey, that won’t work you’re almost guaranteed to not be able to attract investment and get it paid for and go out and try it.

What’s interesting is I think the people who are aggressive to fund breakthroughs and the innovative breakthrough people themselves I have a theory that they were inspired when they were kids. An age group might be 4 to 14. “Aviation Week” asked me to name the real breakthroughs in the first hundred years of aerospace and this on the hundred year anniversary of the Wright brothers, so they’re saying hey, 1903 to 2003, who were the big movers and shakers and I started you know Von Braun of course and Kelly Johnson and Howard Hughes. I named all these folk that I thought were the ones who were really the movers and shakers in breakthrough and I found out that all of them were kids during this wonderful time period of just a few years between 1908 and World War I and that was just you know a short period of time when this enormous amount of improvement was done.  1908 there were only 12 people that had flown an airplane and only 3 of them could make a turn in early 1908 and by 1912 there were hundreds of new types of airplanes being built in 139 countries.  There were factories in Europe building 500 airplanes a year in a 4 year time period, from nothing.  So I think kids then were inspired by enormous accomplishment that they saw happen around them and they happened to be the ones that innovated. 

Now go look at who is funding commercial space.  I’m not talking about government funding, the taxpayer.  Richard Branson, Paul Allen, Elon Musk, Bezos, Amazon.com guy, the Bigelow and you know Carmack, these guys they were all kids during Apollo and as a kid they saw this wonderful amount of accomplishment and they remember that and it gave them the courage as adults that when they got money that says hey, I’ll go out and spend money for that.  And you know it didn’t cost Paul Allen much to do this.  I mean when you’re worth that much money, what is 20 million dollars?  So the thing is it was done because he thought it would be fun and he wanted to be part of something if it did work and he had had essentially no downsides except some you know people criticizing him for wasting money and essentially no downsides if it didn’t work.

Recorded on January 25, 2010

We would have made progress on space travel if the NASA budget had allotted 20 percent for prizes that at least half the people thought couldn’t be done.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.