Photo by AP/WideWorld
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, NASA’s 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: Kennedy’s manned mission to Mars; Nixon’s reusable rocket ferrying astronauts to the moon with such alacrity that PAN AM sold 900,000 tickets. Of course, there’s the space shuttle, but it turns out that’s 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: What’s 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 couldn’t do it, then it couldn’t be done. Well, now it’s done, and NASA didn’t 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 there’s hope that this cash influx spreads farther than the Isle of Burt Rutan. That’s 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 what’s winning when you’re talking about the evolution of mankind? What Rutan’s 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 it’s 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. Sheerin’s still planning on launching his ship, an updated version of Churchill’s 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.
Much of that momentum has been going in the direction of Virgin Airlines owner Sir Richard Branson. He’s just commissioned five versions of Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, tricked out with luxury seats, and announced his next product: Virgin Galactic. Anyone who buys a ticket requires a week’s worth of training for a suborbital three-hour cruise, at a cost of $217,000 (but you probably at least get peanuts on that flight). Branson’s announcement stole so much X Prize thunder that you’d suspect he’d pioneered the idea of space tourism. Putting aside PAN AM’s hubristic foray, that honor also belongs to another Diamandis company: Space Adventures. Originally founded to broker Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth’s $20 million trips to the International Space Station, Space Adventures soon started selling galactic joy rides of their own. Their trips cost $98,000 and they already have more than a hundred deposits.
“This is just the beginning,” says Diamandis. “In three to five years the price of a suborbital flight will drop below $30,000. In five to eight years, that’ll be the price of an orbital flight. I think we’ll be sending visitors to the moon by 2020.”
In fact, Canadian Arrow’s Geoff Sheerin is counting on the same kind of rapid off-world exodus Diamandis is forecasting. “We’re building the world’s first civilian astronaut training program,” says Sheerin. “We have the right stuff for sale.” Up in London, Ontario, where the program is located, he’s designed a training program complete with centrifuges so you can get the hang of skin-peeling-off-your-face G-force; trainers so you can learn how to straighten out of a three-axis spin without puking all over his spaceship; and a dunker tank because his V-2 design requires a splash landing in the Great Lakes. Doors open for business sometime next year.
You may be wondering where all these space cowboys are going to sleep. Not a problem. Bob Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, has built an inflatable space hotel. The idea originally came from NASA, which quickly abandoned it, deciding instead to spend taxpayer money on the ill-conceived sardine can known as the International Space Station — a decision many feel was designed to spread the wealth throughout the entire defense community. Bigelow simply picked up where NASA left off, and his finished product came off the line at a cost of about $200 million — not bad when you consider that by 2010 NASA estimates the cost of the space station at $50 billion.
Bigelow’s got two different inflatable habitats, small and large, and a deal in place with the Russians to use converted Soviet missiles, minus the nuclear warheads, to launch his mini-hotel in November 2005 and his maxi-hotel in April 2006. And just to make sure he’s got plenty of guests, Bigelow’s also announced a prize of his own: a $50 million reward for the first team to put a spaceship into orbit twice in two weeks.
If this mentality sounds familiar, it’s because prizes have a long history in aerospace. Diamandis’ original X Prize idea was modeled on the 1919 Orteig Prize, a $25,000 paycheck for the first person to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. Raymond Orteig was a hotel tycoon, hoping the contest might boost international travel. It was won by Charles Lindbergh and today is often credited with jump-starting the entire multibillion-dollar aerospace industry.
And space tourism is not the only possibility to be birthed by Rutan’s X Prize victory. Point-to-point travel, utilizing suborbital flights, puts travel time from New York to Tokyo at somewhere around an hour. If nothing else, this will radically alter the package-delivery business. Scientific research is another pursuit to soon benefit from cheap space flight. In the not-distant future, researchers won’t have to compete for extremely limited-availability $470,000 seats on the space shuttle to do experiments requiring zero gravity.
And these are just the direct results of Rutan’s victory. There are dozens of other spinoffs, including Dezso Molnar’s flying car, another project NASA said couldn’t be done. “NASA didn’t actually say it couldn’t be done,” says Molnar, “they said it couldn’t be done for at least 25 years.” His current design violates no existing FAA regulations, goes 200 mph on the ground, and 100-plus mph at 5,000 feet, and he’s pretty sure he can have it on the market in five years, which is considerably sooner than NASA.
But the real future lies a bit farther out. “Once we’re into orbit,” says Peter Diamandis, “the road to space will lead to a multitrillion-dollar industry. Everything we hold of value here on Earth — minerals, real estate, energy — the things we fight wars over, are in near infinite quantities in space.” And just in case you think this sounds far-fetched, there are already groups lobbying hard for a one-way trip to Mars for colonization purposes.