However, this contest seems designed by a marketing person to generate news articles, a grad student version of a soapbox derby, not to advance human understanding in any of the challenges in building a space elevator. For example, the current standard to beat in the tether contest is Spectra Fiber which is a polyethelene plastic; nanotechnology is nowhere to be found.
The Space Elevator guys hope for favorable comparisons to the X-Prize, though in fact the contests are very different. The X-Prize contest had winnings which were 100x greater, was a true contest with no timeline (this contest was announced in March) and completing the contest required man-years of work instead of just a few months by small teams. In short: if grad students in Canada can do well, then the problem is not hard enough. 🙂
In both cases, however, it isn’t clear that humanity has learned anything from the contests. Boeing isn’t going to have its top engineers rip SpaceShipOne apart like they would with a flying saucer or some other invention which was a true breakthrough; in fact SpaceShipOne is on its way to the National Air and Space Museum–to excite future generations if not be useful to this one. Perhaps the biggest thing learned from the X-Prize is that you only need an R&D budget of $26 million, not billions of dollars, to build a spaceship, but that is a testament to the sophistication of modern manufacturing techniques, not to the SpaceShipOne itself.
However, even if the X-Prize is mostly an engineering task, it was a significant one. The Space Elevator contest involves tackling only 2 small challenges and by having teams all working on the exact same small problem makes it the equivalent of research pork.
How about instead a contest where teams can attack any problem in building a space elevator and money would go to that which advanced our knowledge most? Different teams would focus on different problems: how lightning affects the tether, research into epoxies, the affects of radiation and high-speed objects, geographic research into the best places to anchor elevators, any aspect of space hotels or space tourism, work on adaptive optics, MPDs, robotics and software, etc., etc. The Space Elevator book is currently the best compedium of solutions to many of the challenges in building a space elevator, but the book exudes future challenges!
The current Space Elevator contest is a 20th-century contest for a 21st-century problem. It becomes harder to judge such a contest, but then lets just get smarter judges! More importantly, it becomes much more likely that people will solve real problems that mankind hasn’t solved before and therefore be worthy of the news it will generate. Unleash our ingenuity!