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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

THE MOHOLE SCANDAL - WHY X-PRIZES WORK & AREN'T TRIED


The Mohole was an early 1960s government project to, purely for scientific purposes, drill to the Moho layer deep under the Earth where crust turns to magma. A mention of it & the scandal attached on WattsUpWithThat caused me to check it out & find this article. It shows both genuine scientific enthusiasm being overwhelmed by political cronyism:

"In the fall of 1958, which was already a year of scientific wonders, plans were announced in the technical and popular press for what promised to be an amazing undertaking. A group of American geophysicists were going to drill a hole several miles beneath the sea floor all the way to the remote interior of the planet—the vast nucleus of dense, compacted rock known as the mantle...

an article in Life by John Steinbeck, who had been an amateur oceanographer as well as a prominent novelist. His perfervid accounts of the first exploratory drillings did much to increase public support for the scheme, which reached its peak in 1962, when Congress voted to back it with an appropriation of more than $40 million. And then, abruptly, there was silence...

History is full of examples of technological accomplishments that looked impossible when they were started. The 1940s and 1950s abounded with such triumphs, and by 1958 it was reasonable to think that no problem existed that couldn’t be solved if enough smart people put their minds to it. However, most of the great advances of that era were made possible by inventions that had not been around a decade or two before: radar, controlled atomic fission, jet engines, lasers, computers. Mohole, by contrast, would have to make do with incremental improvements in existing technology...

The basic equipment devised for the experiment surpassed all expectations, and the expedition returned in triumph to be feted by scientific organizations all over the globe...

Preliminary grants and corporate donations had paid for CUSS I, but a ship capable of actually drilling the Mohole would require an entirely different level of funding. Estimates of the cost kept going up, but even in the earliest stages it was clear that it would be at least $15 million. By 1962 the price tag had passed $40 million, and when the project was finally abandoned, in 1966, it was more than $110 million. Government financing would obviously be needed.

Many Mohole advocates, mindful of the importance of public support, wanted to go right ahead and drill to the mantle, with no more exploratory missions to eat up funds. Others, including Bascom, privately wondered if the available technology was equal to the task. Bascom suggested that the project proceed in stages, like the lunarlanding program.

The ostensible reason was to let participants get used to the novel equipment and perhaps improve it, but in fact Bascom doubted that the Mohole would ever be completed and may have wanted to do as much geological research as possible before the money ran out. In a recent interview Bascom said that the entire Mohole venture was misguided and technically unfeasible and that a better goal would have been to drill many shallow holes in the ocean floor and examine the sediment they yielded—which was in fact done several years later...

Whatever Bascom’s motives at the time, his plea for a phased approach failed, and his own bid for a government contract was rejected (and in characteristically reckless Bascomian fashion, he had mortgaged his home to set up a deep-sea drilling company). Instead, in March of 1962 the NSF signed a preliminary contract with Brown & Root, a giant Texas construction firm. From that point on, none of AMSOC’s original Mohole committee —Ewing, Hess, Munk, and Bascom—played any significant role in the project except to complain about how everybody else was screwing it up.

Brown & Root had very little experience in the construction of oil platforms and none whatever in the field of floating derricks, but it did meet one very important qualification for government funding: It had bankrolled Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson throughout his political career...

By 1964 the project had become so bogged down in internecine disputes that it dropped from public attention. Early in 1965 the NSF announced plans to revive Mohole at a new site off the Hawaiian Islands, but as costs kept rising with nothing to show, the public grew weary of tossing money into the ocean. In January 1966 a House subcommittee recommended cutting off funds for Mohole. That spring LBJ, now President and ever loyal to his friends, urged Congress to restore the money. But then it came out that the family of one of Brown & Root’s principals had just given $25,000 to Johnson’s campaign fund
. The ensuing row damaged the President’s credibility, and in August Congress voted against any further appropriation. Mohole was dead...

In contemplating the high hopes and failed aspirations of the Moholers, one is tempted to ask, What if? What if the $60 million swallowed up by Brown & Root had gone into basic research on deep drilling? Could the Moho have been reached?



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And that shows both what is wrong with direct government funding of "preferred bidders" compared to putting up general prizes & why it is done. It is incredibly wasteful & often does not achieve to official purpose but, on the other hand, it does increase the power & money available to the politically powerful.

The purpose of government spending to to pay government employees & their friends. The nominal purpose comes, at best, second.

It is quite likely that the Mohole Project was, at the time, technically impossible. However had an X-Prize of $40 million been put up one of 2 things would have happened. Either somebody would have achieved it, at the $40 million cost or they wouldn't. If the latter either the amount would have been revised in line with inflation & growth) (nearly $1 bn now) & it would have been achieved or if niot updated it probably now wouldn't have been achieved. Alternately prizes might have been dolled out for the incremental achievements Bascom suggested & something would have been achieved at a far lower cost.

But LBJ (& other politicians of that ilk wouldn't have got their cash.

I think that fully explains why X-Prizes aren't pushed despite, or rather because of, the fact they either work or cost nothing.

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