In This Issue
Summer Bridge Issue on Aeronautics
June 26, 2020 Volume 50 Issue 2
The articles in this issue present the scope of progress and possibility in modern aviation. Challenges are being addressed through innovative developments that will support and enhance air travel in the decades to come.

Aerospace Prizes Inspire the Five I's of Success: Imagination, Invention, Innovation, Investment, and Impact

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Author: Darryll J. Pines

The United States’ economic growth and competitiveness depend on the capacity to innovate. Innovation and entrepreneurship in aerospace have historically kept the United States at the forefront of technology advances and spurred economic growth, creating new industries such as commercial transportation of cargo and humans, uninhabited aerial systems for civilian and military missions, and more recently private commercial space travel and exploration.

A key catalyst for aerospace innovation and entrepreneurship has been aerospace prizes and competitions that inspire the five I’s: imagination, invention, innovation, investment, and impact. The articulation of what might be considered unreachable goals and objectives inspires creativity, tolerance for risk, and the spirit of competition.


In the United States, since the Wright brothers’ first controlled, powered flight in 1903 aerospace prizes have played a pivotal role to accelerate the growth and development of the aerospace industry. They have challenged the state of the art, attracted new talent to the field, and inspired technologists, aviators, and entrepreneurs to make revolutionary advances in aero­dynamics, lightweight high-strength and reliable structures, high thrust-to-weight propulsion, and robust electronics for navigation and control of vehicles that fly in the air or in space.

Properly defined prizes/challenges (e.g., with clear metrics) can have the following positive effects:

  • disruptive advances in the state of art of a particular technology or in fundamental understanding of physical phenomena;
  • new inventions and breakthrough solutions to existing goals;
  • interaction and collaboration among diverse groups to solve a complex problem;
  • simultaneous advancement in multiple technologies (e.g., propulsion, structural design, and ­aerodynamics);
  • innovation and entrepreneurship leading to new processes and companies, and in some cases a new industry; and
  • change in culture as a creative mindset becomes a foundational part of an institution.
  • Three Influential Aerospace Prizes

Over 50 major prizes were offered in aeronautics before 1929, including for speed, distance, and transcontinental and transoceanic flight. To illustrate the effect of such challenges, three prizes that have inspired innovation and entrepreneurship and advanced aerospace technology and commercialization are reviewed here:

  • The Orteig Prize for the first transatlantic flight from New York to Paris
  • The Kremer Prizes for human-powered flight
  • The Ansari XPRIZE for the first private firm to carry a human into space.

The Orteig Prize for Transatlantic Flight

Established: 1919, claimed: 1927; award: $25,000 ($1M in current dollars)

In 1919 Raymond Orteig, a New York City hotel owner, offered a prize of $25,000 for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris. Unfortunately, the first aviators to go for the prize paid with their lives. By the mid-1920s aviation had sufficiently advanced to make such a flight possible, and on May 21, 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh completed the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight, flying his Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis 5,810 kilometers (3,610 miles) from New York to Paris in 33½ hours. When he landed at le Bourget Field, he won the $25,000 prize and became a world hero whose historic flight inspired generations.

Some of the enabling technologies that contributed to Lindbergh’s success were

  • advances in subsonic aerodynamics and aircraft design;
  • the introduction of reliable, high power-to-weight piston engines; and 
  • the development of all-metal airliners (a portion of Lindbergh’s aircraft was metal), which could carry enough revenue passengers to be profitable.

Additional factors that contributed to aviation success during this time were

  • an influx of capital from a booming stock market—over 16 times the prize amount was invested in efforts to win the Orteig Prize;
  • the start of air mail routes in the United States, which subsidized new airline service;
  • the first lighted airway;
  • airplane service and cargo flights to the Caribbean; and
  • movie reels and newspaper-funded publicity.

The Dow Jones average jumped following Lindbergh’s historic transatlantic flight in 1927, and the field of ­aviation saw significant growth throughout the 1930s as the country found new uses for aircraft and rotorcraft.

The Kremer Prize for Human-Powered Flight

Established: 1959, claimed: 1977; award: £50,000

Aviation enthusiasts long sought to realize the human-powered flight dreams of Leonardo da Vinci (Barks 2009). Were the artist’s 15th century designs achievable—was it possible for a human to power an aircraft over a long distance? Early attempts demonstrated that a human could indeed achieve liftoff, albeit for a very short period of time.

To accelerate advances in human-powered flight (Reay 1977), British industrialist Henry Kremer announced in 1959 the establishment of the Kremer Prize of £5,000 (increased to £50,000 in 1973) with the following aircraft requirements:

  • The machine must be heavier than air.
  • The use of lighter-than-air gases was prohibited.
  • The machine must be powered and controlled by the crew over the entire flight.
  • No device for storing energy either for takeoff or for use in flight was permitted.
  • No part of the machine should be jettisoned during any part of flight including takeoff.

The competition was initially open only to citizens of the British Commonwealth, later to people everywhere.

Paul MacCready (NAE) of the United States and his group of engineers and colleagues took the first Kremer prize in 1977, for a figure eight flight with the Gossamer Condor, a double-skinned airfoil with a large wing and a pilot nacelle. It was flown by cyclist and hang-glider Bryan Allen who, on August 23, 1977, completed the 1.6-mile course designated by the Royal Aeronautical Society, at Minter Field in Shafter, California.

MacCready and his team then set their sights on ­Kremer’s second prize, which called for flying a human-powered aircraft across the English Channel. On June 12, 1979, the 70 lb Gossamer Albatross became the first fully human-powered aircraft to do so (figure 1), completing the 26-mile flight in 2:49 hours.

Figure 1 

Following the inspiring work of MacCready, ­another group emerged to extend human-powered flight to even greater distances and longer duration. The group of MIT faculty, students, and a few alumni met in 1984 to discuss their next challenge after successful flights of their ­Monarch human-powered aircraft. They decided to develop a vehicle that could complete the mythical flight of Daedalus between the Greek islands of Crete and Santorini. The team, led by John Langford (NAE) with support from MIT aerodynamics professor Mark Drela (NAE), involved 40-plus MIT students, engineers, and alumni.[1] The team’s collective dreams were achieved April 23, 1988, by a vehicle called Daedalus piloted by Greek cycling champion Kanellos Kanellopoulos, who flew 71.5 mi (115.11 km) in 3:54 hours from Iraklion on Crete to Santorini. The flight still holds official world records in distance and duration for human-powered aircraft.

Enabling technology and process innovations from the development of successful human-powered aircraft include

  • high strength-to-weight composite structures and design,
  • low Reynolds number aerodynamics at low Mach number,
  • integrated system design of high-aspect-ratio winged vehicles, and
  • advances in human performance and training to yield high power-to-weight ratios and low overall weight.

These successful flights of human-powered fixed-wing aircraft inspired an entire generation of aerospace engineers and scientists, even hobbyists, all seeking to advance the field of human-powered flight. Advances led to the emergence of high-altitude long-endurance uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) with power provided by piston engines, batteries, or energy harvested from the sun—and the establishment of two new UAV firms, founded by Kremer Prize winners MacCready and ­Langford (table 1). Today these two aerospace firms develop innovative UAV designs for a variety of customers and together employ over 1,000 people.

Table 1 

The Ansari XPRIZE for Commercial Space Flight

Established: 1996, claimed: 2004; award: $10 million

The XPRIZE was proposed in 1995 by Peter ­Diamandis (Diamandis and Kotler 2012) and established in May 1996 with funding from individuals, foundations, and companies. It was renamed in May 2004 after a multimillion-dollar donation from entrepreneurs Anousheh Ansari and Amir Ansari.

The prize “was designed to lower the risk and cost of going to space by incentivizing the creation of a reliable, reusable, privately financed, manned spaceship that finally made private space travel commercially viable.”[2]

From the 26 teams that officially entered the competition, the prize was won October 4, 2004—the 47th anniversary of the Sputnik 1 launch—by the Tier One project designed by aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan (NAE; ­founder of Scaled Composites) and financed by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen (NAE), using the experimental SpaceShipOne (figure 2). It is esti­mated that more than $100 million was invested in technologies in ­pursuit of the prize.

Figure 2 

The high visibility and success of the Ansari XPRIZE, and the creation of new prizes with the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle and the agency’s shift to using the commercial sector for space transportation, led to the emergence of a number of space companies—­Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace, Blue Origin, and Rocket Lab, among others. They support commercial demand for launch services, satellite development, space science and education, space marketing, and interest in space tourism.

The prize and its timing generated innovation and entrepreneurship among aerospace pioneers such as SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk. SpaceX, founded in 2002, is a successful launch services provider that has proven it is possible to launch reusable rockets that can deliver payloads to low and medium Earth orbits and at an affordable price.

SpaceX’s firsts include (i) the first privately funded, liquid-propellant rocket (Falcon 1) to reach orbit, in 2008; (ii) the first privately funded company to successfully launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft (Dragon), in 2010; and (iii) the first private company to send a spacecraft (Dragon) to the International Space Station, in 2012. In addition, in December 2015 SpaceX successfully returned a first stage to the launch site and accomplished an autonomously controlled vertical landing, the first by a rocket on an orbital trajectory.

Aerospace Prizes Yet to Be Claimed

While the field of aerospace has seen significant advances as a result of the establishment of prizes and competitions with clear metrics that don’t violate the laws of physics, there are a number of aerospace prizes that have yet to be claimed (table 2).

Table 2 

New Aerospace Prizes?

The aerospace engineering and business community should consider developing a few revolutionary prizes to inspire American innovation and entrepreneurship and possibly new industries. Some possibilities for new aerospace challenge competitions are briefly described below.

Asteroid Prize

There are two motivations for this prize, which might be offered in either or both of the following categories.

  1. There is a need to inspire astronomers and enthu­siasts to develop early warning methods and techniques to track and catalogue asteroids and meteorites that might collide with Earth. One option is to award a prize to an individual or team for detecting the smallest celestial body that will come within 12,500 km of hitting planet Earth within the next 50 years. This distance was chosen because many spacecraft assets (including GPS constellation) are in orbits of less than 12,500 km.
  2. Asteroids and meteorites may be a rich source of new minerals and metals with special properties that are simply not seen in materials found on earth. A prize would be awarded to the first team to land a rover and spacecraft on a near-Earth asteroid and return scientific data about samples for evaluation. This prize could inspire future mining operations of ­asteroids for rare metals that may lead to enhanced uses of such materials on Earth.

All-Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing Urban Air Mobility Prize

Urban air mobility (UAM) refers to urban transportation systems that move people by air; to accommodate urban space constraints, such systems rely on vertical takeoff and landing. UAM systems are being developed to ease urban traffic congestion.

A UAM prize, similar to the DARPA Urban Challenge, would recognize the first team to develop an autonomous UAM vehicle that successfully navigates an urban environment to transport occupants 5 to 10 miles safely and reliably to a designated transportation hub.

Transport Aircraft Planform Prize

This prize would reward the subscale demonstration of a commercially viable new transport aircraft planform enabling a 10–20 percent increase in fuel efficiency. The aircraft might use, for example, blended wing-body, hybrid wing-body, or double-bubble concepts.

Space Power Prize

This prize would reward the demonstration of new space power concepts (e.g., nuclear) to revolutionize space power, propulsion, industry, and human habitation on the Moon or other planets.


Three historical aerospace prizes—Orteig, Kremer, and Ansari XPRIZE—contributed importantly to economic development, innovation, entrepreneurship, and the growth of the aerospace industry. The establishment of such prizes and their pursuit are part of aerospace culture, bringing out risk takers, ­explorers, innovators, and entrepreneurs and celebrating the quest of the human spirit to be free and untethered by Earth’s gravity.

They demonstrate that properly defined aerospace competitions and prizes can have one or more of the following positive effects:

  • inspire imagination, invention, innovation, investment, and impact;
  • leverage external financial investment that is typically 5–10 times the actual prize value;
  • accelerate advances in key enabling technology;
  • bring together people of diverse disciplines and backgrounds to collaborate on solving a problem;
  • lead to new industries that generate job creation and economic development;
  • and finally, engage and galvanize the next generation of students who aspire to be aerospace pioneers and contribute to the field.

Prizes inspire and honor those who are successful at staring down the impossible and making it possible. As Robert F. Kennedy said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”


Bark J. 2009. Journal of Inventions: Leonardo da Vinci. San Diego: Silver Dolphin Books.

Belfiore M. 2007. Rocketeers: How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots Is Boldly Privatizing Space. New York: Smithsonian Books.

Diamandis PH, Kotler S. 2012. Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. New York: Free Press.

Reay DA. 1977. The History of Man-Powered Flight. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Darryll Pines (NAE) is the Glenn L. Martin Professor of Aerospace Engineering, A. James Clark School of Engineering, and incoming president, University of Maryland, College Park.


[1]  During this time I was a graduate student at MIT and my office mate, Siegfried Zerweckh, was a structural engineer on the ­Daedalus project.


About the Author:Darryll Pines (NAE) is the Glenn L. Martin Professor of Aerospace Engineering, A. James Clark School of Engineering, and incoming president, University of Maryland, College Park.