There was a time, not too long ago, when people spoke of NASA in the same reverential tones now reserved for black-hole theorists, molecular geneticists and Radiohead. But over the past 30 years, in a small but growing subset of the aerospace community, NASAs intellectual hegemony first began to ebb and then seriously erode. Sure, we got to the moon, but that program dwindled faster than it rose. And then came the broken promises: Kennedys manned mission to Mars; Nixons reusable rocket ferrying astronauts to the moon with such alacrity that PAN AM sold 900,000 tickets. Of course, theres the space shuttle, but it turns out thats pretty good at killing people, and not much else. These days, there are any number of bright lights who think of NASA not as the best and the brightest, but as the bloated and the blunderbuss. Something had to be done and these guys were just the folks to do it.
Ten years ago, one of these guys, Dr. Peter Diamandis, created the Ansari X Prize to take up some of the slack. The prize was a $10 million purse for the first group to launch a privately funded craft to the edge of space, an altitude of just over 62 miles. Just to make sure that the ship was reusable, the trip had to happen twice. In a certain community this is the Geek Olympics. As you probably know by now, Burt Rutan, an engineering wunderkind whose other aircrafts hold plenty of world records, won it by putting an astronaut into suborbital space, not once in a blue moon, but twice in two weeks, at a cost equivalent to what NASA spends on coffee. A historic victory, but Diamandis created the X Prize to jump-start a new space race, and one man does not a revolution make. So the question remains: Whats next?
Next, at least according to just about every expert you can find on the subject, including quite a few who work for NASA, is a radical shift in perception. The X Prize is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, aerospace style. Its success altered the perceptions of what a small group of developers can do, says X Prize judge Dezso Molnar. Twenty years ago, I worked with a team, trying to build a small, reusable spaceship. Everyone laughed at us. They said if NASA couldnt do it, then it couldnt be done. Well, now its done, and NASA didnt do it.
And those altered perceptions immediately manifested in something that has been sorely lacking: investment capital. Nearly everyone involved, all those backyard mechanics and wistful whiz kids, have long known that space is a money game, and right now their road to the moon travels through the corporate boardroom. So next in the great tradition of American capitalism belongs, at least for the moment, to 7-Up.
A few hours after the X Prize was won and looking to promote their new tag line (because Up is the only way to go) the soft-drink company announced arguably the best potluck giveaway in the history of potluck giveaways: a chance to win the first free ticket into outer space. Inside a smaller core group theres hope that this cash influx spreads farther than the Isle of Burt Rutan. Thats because 25 other teams, from seven other nations, and often at enormous personal expense, were entered into the X Prize. Out of those, figures X Prize team coordinator David Knight, somewhere around 14 have the technical know-how to pull off a launch, if they could only find the funds. Argentinean Pablo de León conceded victory long ago. When you have competitors like Rutan, he says, with all that experience and all that access to money, winning was never really a possibility. But whats winning when youre talking about the evolution of mankind? What Rutans victory did was alert the rest of the world that tomorrow begins today.
To many involved, the most important part of tomorrow beginning today is about making space accessible to everyone, but for others its about establishing market dominance in a soon-to-arrive burgeoning off-world economy. This is going to come down to fisticuffs for ticket prices into space, says Geoff Sheerin, founder of the Canadian Arrow team. Sheerins still planning on launching his ship, an updated version of Churchills old nemesis, the V-2 rocket, sometime next year.
And just to make sure these remaining Prize competitors stay in the hunt, Diamandis recently announced his next foray, the X Prize Cup, a new competition destined to send Robot Wars and Pimp My Ride to the dustbin of nerd TV. Cup contestants, flying their garage-built spaceships, compete in five categories: fastest turnaround time between launches; maximum altitude; fastest flight time; maximum number of passengers per launch; total number of passengers per competition. And barring the kind of prime-time maiming that could come from flying large numbers of human passengers in experimental spaceship contests, Diamandis plan seems certain to keep the momentum going.