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Eyes on the X Prize

$10 million prize spurs the race to get you into space

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


The early days of the space race nearly half-a-century ago evoked images of a high-tech, off-world future that, we were assured, was just around the corner. Putting men in orbit and sending astronauts to the moon was just the beginning. By the 90s, we were going to have colonies on the moon. By the end of the century, men would be on Mars. Traveling by rocket was going to be as common as traveling by bus, or at least airplane.

Well, here we are. Despite a Mars rover or two, the only multi-million dollar space project that evokes much popular excitement these days is by George Lucas.

Check out this fun video of an X-Prize rocket crashing.

That’s all about to change, according to a burgeoning industry staffed by aeronautic engineers, scientist, and designers (and not to mention a few money-men), who grew up dreaming of space travel and driven by the belief that NASA has made space, the final frontier, boring. Many of them have done time in NASA or another governmental space agency, or had top positions with firms like Boeing or Lockheed Martin. All of them are convinced that the time for commercial space travel is here, that there’s no reason space should be the domain of governments and science.

The carrot at the end of the stick for these companies is the X Prize, the first cash prize offered for commercial space flight. 27 teams from seven different countries have registered to compete for the X Prize since it was announced in 1996. Now, the focus is on two teams, Scaled Composites from the US and Canada’s Da Vinci Project; both recently announced launch dates for their ships.

Peter Diamandis, the Chairman and Founder of the X Prize Foundation, says he thought that a prize like this could jump start the commercial space race. “I was reading The Spirit of St Louis by Charles Lindberg,” he says (the X Prize Foundation is located in St Louis). “It talked about all the early aviation prizes and how they spurred a new reign of aviation, and I thought ‘That’s what we need.’”

The X Prize is a $10 million prize to the first team that launches a piloted, privately-funded spaceship, able to carry three people, to 100 kilometers (62.5 miles), and returns safely to Earth. The ship then has to repeat that launch within two weeks. “I wanted a turn-around time that would limit the number of people involved,” says Diamandis. “One of the reasons the space shuttle is so expensive is they have a standing army of 20,000 people that they pay for whether there’s one launch or 50 launches. That’s why it costs nearly a billion dollars a launch for the shuttle.”

The second flight must also demonstrate what’s called “economical vehicle reusability.” This means that no more than 10% of the flight vehicle's first-flight non-propellant mass can be replaced between the two flights. Diamandis explains: “Say you wanted to drive your car from New York to LA, and I asked you how much it would cost. You’d probably add up the miles per gallon and say it costs this much. If every ten miles you had to replace a fender or a door, you’d end up adding all the parts required. All of a sudden, it’s not just the fuel, it’s the cost of the components. What we’re trying to do is make sure the cost per flight is something reasonable, so the cost between the first and second flights is the fuel, the touch labor, and the 10% they had to replace. The reason airlines are so cheap is that it’s ‘fuel-and-go.’ The reason the space shuttle is so expensive is that you’ve got to replace the shuttle tank, the tiles and the solid rocket boosters.”

The X Prize Foundation evaluates whether or not any team applying is serious. “ They basically have to prove to us they have serious effort either by virtue of the people involved, their experience, the companies they have involved, or their capitalization,” says Diamandis. “Some guy writing us a letter saying ‘I have a UFO in my garage’ is going to be told to go away.” However, the X Prize Foundation is looking for innovation, and Diamandis says that the committee has to be careful that they aren’t turning away the space age equivalent of those bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio a century ago. The $1000 registration fee is enough to keep people from just sending in registration letters.

Scaled Composites grabbed headlines earlier this summer when their rocket plane SpaceShipOne became the first privately built piloted craft to cross the 100 kilometer boundary of space. SpaceShipOne will make its first proper grab for the X Prize in late September, when it goes head-to-head with another X Prize competitor, the Da Vinci Project from Canada, and their rocket Wild Fire.

To hear Da Vinci Project leader Brian Fenney describe it, there seems to be a “sporting” competition between the two teams. “I’ve been out at Burt’s (Rutan, team leader of Scaled Composites) place at Scaled Composites,” Feeney says. “We’ve talked about technical details. We had dinner together one night with other X Prize people. We bantered about Space 101. Both of us gave 12 different answers to the obvious questions of when we’re going to do something and how we intend to do it, but the rest of it was quite civil.”

When talking about the upcoming launch dates, Fenney sounds like a 19th century politician squaring up for a debate. “We’ve always been competitive. Burt threw down the gauntlet, and we effectively did the same thing,” he says. “The other teams succumbed to the powerful juggernaut of Paul Allen (Scaled Composites’ financier) and the Scaled Composites team. Burt Rutan’s reputation is more than deserved. He’s an extremely worthy competitor and one of the most innovative aerospace engineers of this and the last century. But we didn’t fold.”

The Da Vinci Project’s Wild Fire rocket will launch from a reusable helium balloon 80,000 feet up. Among the many “firsts” in this endeavor, the Da Vinci Project is staffed by volunteers, the largest volunteer force to work on any technology-based project. Fenney thinks this small army may have put in 150,000 man hours, and probably saved the Da Vinci project in the neighborhood of $15 million.

These are obviously pretty qualified volunteers. Fenney says a journalist asked him if space flight wasn’t best left up to the pros. But the volunteers on the Da Vinci Project, like all the X Prize teams, are the pros, with experience in firms like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Bombardier, or in NASA or their country’s own aeronautics program. As Fenney says, the governments are writing the checks, and the people on the X Prize teams are the people the governments used to write the checks to. It’s just that for many of these people, the time had come to take the space race to the next level.

And what does NASA think of this? According to Diamandis, they’re all for it. When the X Prize was announced in 1996, the NASA administrator and a number of astronauts said that private industry entering space was critical. “NASA’s role is research and development on one end of the spectrum, and exploring other planets on the other,” Diamandis says. “Getting the general public into space is the role of industry, not NASA. I walk into offices at NASA headquarters and field offices, and they’ve got X Prize posters on the wall.”

The reason why, Diamandis explains, is very selfish: they want to go. “That’s why they got involved in NASA. Because it’s their passion. They know that there’s only 100 people in the astronaut office, and half of them haven’t flown yet, and they know the chances of them flying on the space shuttle are really small, so they’re hoping this industry materializes.”

Many teams competing for the X Prize say something similar; going to space has been a dream since childhood. Brian Fenney followed the heady build-up of the space race as a kid in the 60s.

He believes that the X Prize will usher in a new space race, as heady as the first one, but this time it’ll be a lot more “fun.” As if to underline this, one of the Da Vinci Project’s sponsors is goldenpalace.com, an online gambling casino. Fenney says they plan to take a laptop onboard Wild Fire and place a bet from space. They’re also taking the famous “Beckham Ball” with them, the soccer ball David Beckham used in a shootout against Portugal last July during the European Championship (Beckham missed the shot and got England kicked out of the tournament). “This is all about taking humans up, not about taking hardware,” says Fenney. “Obviously, hardware will be a part of it, but first and foremost this is a human experience, and we’re going to have fun with it.”

You’ll hear something similar from all the teams competing for the X Prize. They talk about the “fun” of opening up space, about the excitement of ushering in a new era of space travel, about the thrill of discovery and innovation. What they don’t seem to mention is the $10 million dollars. That’s because $10 million dollars, while it’s nice, isn’t all that much when you’re talking about building a rocket. “When we started off, we threw out $10 million as the number,” Diamandis says. “We wanted something significant enough to capture people’s attention, but not so large that it would gain the attention of the Boeings and the Lockheeds. We don’t want the establishment competing for this. We really want innovators, do-ers, small teams, willing to take risks and make breakthroughs that the larger industry will not.” The $10 million is off the table on January 1, 2005; the X Prize continues until someone wins it. “I honestly think we’ll have a winner for the X Prize this fall,” says Diamandis. “And I think once that happens we’ll start to see the first commercial flights where people will buy a ticket.”

And that’s where the real prize comes in. About a year ago, NASA released a recording of the “sound” of space, a sort of low, moaning noise like a pod of whales on Nyquil. But to the companies involved in the X Prize, the sound of space might be the big “KA-CHING” of a cash register. Some experts in the field see space tourism as the next adventure travel industry, that the same kind of people who pay good money to climb Everest will pay for a buzz around the planet. But adventure travel barely taps into the possibilities of commercial space flight. There’s gold in them there stars, and it comes in the form of asteroid mining, satellite repair, low-gravity sporting events (no, really) and a whole list of other billion-dollar industries just waiting to be discovered.

To the X Prize teams, this isn’t speculation, it’s just a matter of time. Maybe we won’t see asteroid mining in our lifetime, but Diamandis sees space tourism starting in about two years. It might be more accurate to say that in two years your average multimillionaire will be able to afford a ticket. But after that… “I think that we will then have a development process whereby more and more vehicles start offering service,” says Diamandis. “The price goes down, the reliability goes up, and I think that we will see in the next five to seven years this grow into a business where there are thousands of flights per year. I think it’s near term. Within the next decade.”

Brian Fenney agrees, saying that he’s interested in the kind of collaboration that he sees happening after the X Prize. “I’m looking forward to the commercial side of things,” he says, talking about one of his meetings with Scaled Composites’ Burt Rutlan, “(Burt) even said ‘Listen, we’ve got to build you an airplane, to move away from the balloon as a launch platform.’”

In the meantime, Fenney is preparing for the first launch of the Wild Fire in early October, within weeks of SpaceShipOne. If there seems to be an element of theater in all this, well, why not? It’s an exciting prospect, and Fenney is well aware of the big changes and new industries he and the other X Prize teams might be paving the way for. “The X Prize got together for dinner about two months ago, 12 of the most competitive teams, and every team at that table had serious hardware. Every team had engines firing or in some test phase. I looked around and I thought, ‘well, here is the beginning of the next great phase of the expansion of human kind into space.’ And that’s quite a number, 12 teams so advanced, and most seriously underfunded, yet achieving so much.”

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