Founder of the X Prize

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Others

It was an exciting moment on October 4, 2004 when SpaceShipOne completed its mission by flying seventy miles into space to win the X Prize.

The media contained pictures of Burt Rutan, the designer of the craft, the pilots Michael Melvill and Brian Binnie who flew the two flights, and Paul Allen who provided most of the funds. You had to look hard to find the short, smiling man who was responsible for the prize.

His name is Peter H. Diamandis, and he is an interesting story in itself. Diamandis became obsessed with space as a boy when he watched the Apollo moon landing. He too wanted to go there.

He decided to become an Aerospace engineer and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he was active as a student in pursuing his interest in space travel.

His father was a medical doctor and his parents were not so sure he was pursuing the right career. His mother wanted him to be a doctor and follow in the footsteps of his father. To please her, after graduation from MIT he attended Harvard Medical School and earned his medical degree.

He now had two degrees but his passion was still space travel. In 1986, after the Challenger disaster, he concluded that the best and quickest way to open the space frontier was through the private sector.

From that time on he has dedicated himself to find a way to achieve the advancement of human spaceflight by making space travel accessible to everyone.

He had a vision, but how does one make it happen. He had supporters as well as many doubters. The break came when Greg Marynjak, a college friend and now the X Prize Foundation Director, gave Diamandis a copy of Charles Lindbergh’s autobiography “The Spirit of St. Louis.”

The aviation legend, Lindbergh, was motivated by the $25,000 prize that Raymond Orteig established for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris. Lindbergh’s triumphal flight on May 21, 1927 opened the way for rapid commercialization of flight.

Diamandis wasn’t so much interested in Lindbergh after reading the book as he was in the idea of a prize to motivate innovation. He reasoned, why not create a space prize and get some St. Louis businessmen to back it just as Lindbergh had done. He decided to call it the X Prize worth $10 million.

In March of 1996, he followed Lindbergh’s script and invited a group of St. Louis businessmen for drinks at the historic Racquet Club, using the same table used by Lindbergh a generation before.

Diamandis told them that St. Louis could be a “gateway to the stars” while showing them old clips of James Stewart playing Lindbergh in the movie, “Spirit of St. Louis.”

It must have been quite a show. He picked up $25,000 from the seven businessmen in attendance. It was a great start.

On May 18th under the Arch in St. Louis, he announced the formation of the X Prize Foundation. The first privately financed team to fly a reusable spacecraft would win the $10 million dollar X Prize. Charles Lindbergh’s grandson, Eric Lindbergh, was there as a vice president and trustee of the X Prize Foundation.

Eric two years ago celebrated the 75th Anniversary of his grandfather’s famous flight across the Atlantic by duplicating the flight by himself.

Also in attendance in St. Louis was Burt Rutan, the ultimate winner of the first X Prize with his SpaceShipOne. He was also the first to register for the prize. Later he admitted that he didn’t think about designing a spacecraft until 1999. He begin a full development program two years later after Paul Allen agreed to provide most of the financing for the effort.

After the initial burst of enthusiasm, Diamandis found it hard to raise the prize money. The big corporations shied away because they were afraid that the mission would fail and they didn’t want their corporate name attached to a failed spacecraft.

Despite round the clock fund raising efforts by Diamandis, the X Prize Foundation was potentially looking at bankruptcy as 2001 began. Then by chance, Diamandis read a Fortune magazine article about a couple of Texan telecommunication entrepreneurs who were interested in space travel.

He rushed to Dallas and met Anousheh Ansari and her brother-in-law, Amir. Bingo! He received a commitment of more than $1 million. The X Prize race was still on, but now under the banner of the renamed Ansari X Prize and Anousheh Ansari became a board member of the X Prize Foundation.

In another interesting strategy by Diamandis, who is always thinking out-of-the-box, an insurance company will be the entity that actually pays the prize money. The X Prize foundation (Ansari) paid an insurance company, Bermuda-based XL Capital, for a special “hole-in-one” insurance policy in which the insurance company essentially bets against success. The insurance company lost and must pay the prize money.

The X Prize Foundation will award the X Prize at a ceremony in St. Louis on November 6th.

The X Prize, said Diamandis, is the beginning, it is not the end of space competitions. Twenty-six teams had registered for the X Prize and many plan to continue their effort to fly a spacecraft.

The one closet to launch is the da Vinci project. The team leader, Brian Feeney, hopes to try a launch by November 1.

Also, the X Prize Foundation has announced an annual X Prize Cup to be held in Las Cruces, New Mexico that will serve as an air show for spacecraft. Prizes will be awarded in categories such as: fastest turnaround time, maximum number of passengers per flight, maximum altitude, fastest flight time, and coolest ship. The event hopes to launch some fifty space flights over a 10-day period beginning in December 2006

SpaceShipOne was a suborbital achievement. The ultimate goal is for orbital flight. Robert Bigelow, who heads an aerospace company in Nevada, has announced a “Bigelow Prize” worth $50 million.

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