Sometimes, inspiring excellence and innovation means setting an audacious goal and backing it up with a pile of cash. The Longitude Act of 1714, which offered 20,000 pounds (roughly $19 million in 2012 dollars) for an accurate means of finding longitude, revolutionized travel by sea; the Orteig Prize spurred Charles Lindbergh's record-setting nonstop flight from New York to Paris in 1927.
It was in this spirit that the nonprofit X Prize Foundation established the Ansari X Prize for affordable spaceflight, which parlayed an award of $10 million into more than $100 million in commercial space development [source: X Prize Foundation].
Aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and his financial backer, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, won the prize in 2004 for being the first private team to "build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the Earth's surface, twice within two weeks" [source: X Prize Foundation]. Rutan, who earlier in his career designed the first plane to fly around the world without stopping or refueling, has subsequently helped Virgin Galactic develop its passenger space plane system.
Examples of other awards helping to drive the space industry include NASA's Centennial Challenges program, which provides $200,000-$2 million for innovations in areas of agency interest (such as wireless power transmission, nanosatellites and cables with mind-blowing strength-to-weight ratios) and the Heinlein Prize, honoring the eponymous science fiction author, which rewards progress in commercial space activities.
These prizes, small compared to the potential impact they can generate, could provide the grains of sand that agitate these oysters into growing pearls.
Now let's look at a private space company with an inflated sense of self.