We have just completed the main technology prize competition season for 2007. The DARPA robotic driving competition had winners for the second year in a row.
The winning Carnegie Mellon robot car, Boss
The lunar lander challenge was close to a winner again, but again it was only one serious competitor Armidillo Aerospace.
Lunar lander competition
For the space elevator, there was almost a winner for the second year in a row for the climber competition. Again it was the same team, the University of Saskatechwan's Space Design team came closest to winning. No one was close to winning the tether competition and weather was a huge factor.
University of Saskatechwan's Space Design team's climber
The lessons that I think should be taken from this are:
1. Robotic technology advances are currently the most consistent and seem to be the most reliable.
2. Materials are improving but the best tether materials (like Superthread) are not going to the competitions, which are mostly small companies and university teams.
3. An actual functioning future Space Elevator will have a massive challenge for climbers to make it through the jet stream winds at higher altitudes.
4. The prizes are successful in motivating progress towards carefully crafted targeted goals.
5. They prizes do stimulate media attention and are good value in terms of many dollars and efforts spent relative to the cost of to the prize organizer.
The reliable progress in robotics should earn it a more central part of more plans for future technology and space projects.
I had described such a robotic centric plan for my proposal for winning the google lunar prize.
My plan has a few central philosophies, which also apply to all space development plans.
1. Do not use overnight International Fedex shipment if you can get away with sending by container boat.
This was my usage of slower low energy orbital transfer to make a five month trip to the moon which used a lot less fuel and did not required a new multi-billion Orion rocket vehicle. (As is NASA's plan).
2. If everything does not need to be sent at the same time, it can be cheaper and work out better to send them separately.
Split up what is more precious and requires faster delivery (like the astronauts) from the cargo and robots. Also, if robots are sent first then they can build things and get the place ready for astronauts who follow later. This is part of the Zubrin Mars Direct plan.
3. If achieving your goals does not involve building the Taj Mahal then it is cheaper to not include that construction as part of the plan.
This goes to whether it is really necessary to spend many billions on the new Orion rocket or whether the 100 billion on the International Space station was needed. Could similar goals have been achieved with robotic Skylab style systems. Could a steady stream of existing rockets be used and combined creatively with low energy orbital transfer to deliver more functional cargo sooner to the moon or other space targets.