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Image: SpaceShipOne in space
Discovery / Vulcan Productions
An onboard camera captures the glint of the sun and the curvature of the earth during SpaceShipOne's flight to the edge of outer space on June 21.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 9/28/2004 12:47:47 AM ET 2004-09-28T04:47:47

After eight years, the finish line in the rocket-powered race for the Ansari X Prize is finally in sight. Someone could win $10 million. Someone could get killed. Or the whole competition could just fizzle out. In any case, this particular finish line is less an end then a beginning of a marathon aimed at making space travel affordable for ordinary people.

Over the next week, handicappers will be focusing on Mojave, where aircraft designer Burt Rutan and his Scaled Composites team are hoping to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize by sending their SpaceShipOne rocket plane to the edge of outer space and back, then making a quick turnaround and doing it again. The first attempt is scheduled to begin at 6:30 a.m. PT (9:30 a.m. ET) Wednesday, with the second tentatively set for Oct. 4.

The launches will be witnessed in person by thousands of spectators, including about 1,000 invited VIPs, said Peter Diamandis, the X Prize Foundation's chairman and co-founder. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe is scheduled to attend the first launch, and Marion Blakey, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administrator, plans to be in Mojave for the second attempt, Diamandis said.

Launch-day coverage also can be seen via the X Prize's official Webcast as well as via MSNBC.com and other media outlets.

Diamandis is looking forward to the climax of the race he started back in 1996. But he's also looking beyond the finish line.

"We're at the birth of a personal spaceflight revolution, like the personal computer revolution," Diamandis said in an interview with MSNBC.com. "Our greatest goal goes beyond just a flight. It's really, 'Can we change the mind-set of the world about space travel?' We will be successful when people around the world believe that spaceflight is an option for them personally."

Incentive for space passenger service
The St. Louis-based X Prize Foundation is offering the $10 million purse as an incentive for private-sector space efforts — just as the $25,000 Orteig Prize, won by Charles Lindbergh and his "Spirit of St. Louis" airplane in 1927, was an incentive for never-before-accomplished feats of aviation.

Unlike Lindbergh's solo trans-Atlantic flight, the X Prize spaceflights aren't exactly unprecedented. Some might even see them as a case of "been there, done that." The altitude requirement is 100 kilometers or 62.5 miles, a height that X-15 jet pilots and astronauts attained in the early 1960s. Even SpaceShipOne made it to that altitude on June 21, during a test flight that marked the first time a privately developed craft reached the internationally recognized boundary of outer space.

This time around, $10 million is on the line, but even that huge payoff pales in comparison with the $20 million-plus that software billionaire Paul Allen has put into the SpaceShipOne project over the past three years.

So is the X Prize really worth it? The key may well lie in Diamandis' reference to the rise of personal computers: More than 40 years after Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, only one person — SpaceShipOne test pilot Mike Melvill — has reached the final frontier without the help of a government.

The X Prize requirements are designed to change all that by fostering frequent, affordable passenger service to space. If the X Prize vision is fully realized, thousands will be able to feast their eyes on the curving earth and the black sky above, feel the heart-pounding acceleration of a rocket-powered ascent and float in a weightless free-fall.

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One such effort was announced Monday: British airline mogul Richard Branson unveiled plans to launch a commercial space service, Virgin Galactic, in cooperation with Rutan and Allen. Over 15 years, the agreement to license SpaceShipOne-style technology could be worth up to $21.5 million — a price tag that comes close to the amount Allen has invested in the X Prize project.

Heavier requirements
With future passengers in mind, the X Prize rules will require SpaceShipOne to do things it didn't have to do in June. The craft must carry almost 400 pounds (180 kilograms) of extra weight — equivalent to the poundage of two passengers — and conduct two spaceflights in two weeks or less.

The SpaceShipOne team says it has beefed up the craft's rocket engine to handle the extra weight and can get the reusable craft ready for another flight in just five days' time. But some of Rutan's competitors are still doubtful.

"It's a challenge for him, and obviously it's a challenge for us as well," said da Vinci Project team leader Brian Feeney, who had to delay his own X Prize bid due to technical snags.

If SpaceShipOne falters, the Canadian-based da Vinci Project hopes to take the $10 million prize with a pair of launches sometime in October. At least two other teams from the field of more than 20 — the Canadian Arrow group and Space Transport Corp. — say they could go for the prize in the months ahead.

Under the terms of the X Prize Foundation's "hole-in-one" insurance policy, the $10 million purse would disappear at the end of the year, and the insurer would get to keep the premiums that have been paid in large part by Iranian-American entrepreneurs Anousheh and Amir Ansari.

During his interview with MSNBC.com, Diamandis declined to identify the insurer but said a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch naming the company as XL Capital was partly right.

Diamandis said the insurer has a representative on the X Prize judging committee, which is headed by former astronaut Rick Searfoss, and indicated that the specifications for the multimillion-dollar flights have been fully worked out — right down to the advance weigh-in for SpaceShipOne's contents. Redundant systems have been set up to verify whether or not SpaceShip reaches the required 100-kilometer altitude, Diamandis said.

If the prize is won, the $10 million and the X Prize trophy would be presented during a ceremony at the St. Louis Science Center, said Gretchen Jaspering, the center's vice president of marketing.

Looking back, looking ahead
Diamandis said he's learned a lot from the X Prize experience — about the power of prizes for stimulating technological innovations, as well as the power of having the public share in those innovations.

Image: Peter Diamandis
X Prize Foundation
Peter Diamandis is founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation.
"The technology is critical, but making sure that the world sees it in a coordinated fashion and that the message gets out as far and wide as possible is paramount," he said. "Otherwise it happens in a vacuum. A perfect example is the Wright brothers' flight in 1903. It happened in a vacuum, and the Wright brothers spent the better part of a decade trying to convince people of the value of their achievement."

Diamandis has said he started up the X Prize program because he saw it as the best way to further his own dream of getting into outer space someday, but even he acknowledges that a couple of prize-winning launches won't be enough to turn that dream into reality. So he's already been working on the next steps — including a surprise or two that may be announced in the days ahead:

  • The X Prize Cup: Diamandis and his colleagues at the foundation already have announced plans for an annual X Prize Cup competition at a yet-to-be-built New Mexico spaceport, beginning in 2006. The event, patterned after Formula 1 and NASCAR auto races as well as the Reno Air Races, would pit suborbital space vehicles against each other in a variety of contests. "I hope that the X Prize Cup will pave the way for commercial flights," he said.
  • Orbital challenge: Aviation Week & Space Technology reports this week that millionaire Robert Bigelow is planning to announce a $50 million prize aimed at promoting the development of private-sector orbital space vehicles — with the suborbital X Prize serving as a model. "It would be a shame not to have an orbital program," Diamandis said.
  • Still more prizes: Diamandis noted that he and his colleagues have been working with NASA on the space agency's Centennial Challenge prize program, and he said he was involved in yet another prize program that was due for unveiling in early October. He declined to discuss the details in advance, however.

Diamandis said he would judge the X Prize to be a success if it resulted in increased investment for private space ventures, particularly in the suborbital realm — and if it gave ordinary people more of a sense that they, too, could have a chance to fly in outer space someday.

"When I ask schoolkids, 'Do you want to travel to space,' everyone raises their hand. Then I ask the next question: 'Do you think you're going to actually have a chance to go?' Very few raise their hands," he said. "I want to go to schools and have kids raise their hands, and say, 'Yeah, I'm going to have a chance to go' — which is how I felt when I went to elementary school, during the period of the Apollo program."

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