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“Making Space Happen”: The Ansari X PRIZE

Making Space Happen Cover

“Making Space Happen”: The Ansari X PRIZE

This is the second part of an ongoing series reviewing the book “Making Space Happen: Private Space Ventures and the Visionaries Behind Them” (2002), and looking at the achievements in the private space sector that have happened in the subsequent 11 years. I cover the following:

“The quickest way to become a millionaire in space is to start as a billionaire.”

Dr. Peter Diamandis adapted this aviation joke to explain a core problem the private space sector faces: It’s incredibly difficulty to raise money.

Why?

Space exploration has traditionally been very expensive because it is technically complex, the risks of launch failures and tragic disasters is high, there have been few customers of space services (mostly governments), there is a lack of international regulations and insurance coverage, a lack of reusable components and market incentive to drive down costs, and there are no real destinations or markets to go to anyway.

It’s tremendously difficult to raise money for space projects, but Diamandis doesn’t think we should let a little thing like that stop us. He has some ideas for improving the situation. Like competition. Especially competition. A good old-fashioned race…that’s what got us to the Moon.” (“Making Space Happen”, p 122)

So, with astronaut Byron Lichtenberg, Gregg Maryniak, and Colette Bevis, Peter Diamandis – who wanted to travel to space since he was ten, and became a doctor and pilot in the hopes of becoming an astronaut – created the X PRIZE Foundation, to inject a little old-fashioned racing excitement into the sector. The Foundation received some financial assistance from Tom Rogers (“the grand-daddy of space tourism”) and John McLucas.

What is the X PRIZE Foundation?

The X PRIZE Foundation is an educational nonprofit organization whose mission is to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.

When your organization has a mission statement like that, you are setting a high bar for success!

To help meet its stellar goals, the Foundation’s Board of Trustees include Elon Musk, James Cameron, Larry Page, Arianna Huffington, and founder Peter Diamandis.

In May 1996 the X PRIZE Foundation announced the $10,000,000 USD “X Prize”. This was renamed the “Ansari X Prize” in 2004 following a multi-million dollar donation from entrepreneurs Anousheh and Amir Ansari. (Source: Wikipedia).

What were they trying to achieve?

Some Good Old Fashioned Competition 

One of the earliest mentions of prize competitions is in the Iliad, during the Funeral Games, when the best of the Greek heros are shown competing strenuously for prizes.

Ancient Greek Games for Prizes

Ancient Greek Games – heroes competing for prizes and glory. Source: Wikipedia

In 1714, the Longitude Prize was a reward offered by the British government for a way to precisely determine a ship’s longitude, which was key to opening up the trade routes and securing control of the high seas.

In the early Age of Flight in the 1900s, governments created prizes to encourage the fledgling aviation industry. The most famous aviation prize was the Orteig prize. For the $25,000 aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic for the first time, and broke an important psychological barrier for the aviation industry.

An important point about these “inducement prizes” is that the prize money amount does not always cover the entire cost of prize-winning attempts.  Instead, they are an extra impetus for participants, and the competition also provides valuable global publicity and invesment interest.

A side effect of inducement prizes is that the follow-on economic benefits of the prize often far outweigh the amount invested by the sponsoring organization.

“There are hundreds of billions of dollars of capital that could flow toward space if it turned the right people on…And as a benefit of that you’ll get all the ancillary economic engines that go on. Right now I’m trying to tap into…millions of years of evolution and competitive spirit.” (Peter Diamandis, “Making Space Happen”, p 125)

So why didn’t someone think of this doing before, to encourage the private space sector?

“I think everyone just expected that these vehicles would be developed by the government or would naturally happen through the normal entrepreneurial process” (Peter Diamandis, “Making Space Happen”, p 135)

The early successes in space exploration were all driven by governments. That legacy, and the challenges of space exploration, have served to hold back the private sector.

Competitions like the Ansari X PRIZE are breaking down this psychological barrier.

The Rules

The rules were deceptively simple:

  1. The winning space craft must fly the equivalent of three people into space twice within two weeks
  2. Space is defined as 100 km above the earth’s surface
  3. The winning vehicle must be privately financed and constructed
Key elements of these prize rules are that they encouraged reusability, and they were results-based, meaning the prize could be won by almost any kind of spacecraft.
The X PRIZE Foundation required all competing teams to obtain whatever insurance their government demands to comply with all legal regulations. This was to ensure that if there were any mishaps during the competition, they would be adequately protected. The X PRIZE Foundation itself took out insurance to guarantee that the competition winner would receive their $10 M payday no matter what.
There were some reservations about the prize. The height requirement was lowered to avoid the challenges of extreme re-entry heat, and because the Mach 5 requirements of sub-orbital space is 1/25 that needed for Mach 25, needed to enter Earth’s orbit. (“Making Space Happen”, p 135).
Critics contended that suborbital flight wasn’t enough of a goal to kick-start space tourism.
Diamandis dismisses the criticisms: “It’s like saying, you know, the Apple computer. The Apple IIc was a waste, what we really needed was a Pentium chip. Those vehicles will never exist unless you take the first steps. You need to have an industry.”(“Making Space Happen”, p 135)

The Contestants

Twenty six teams from around the world competed to win the prize. You can read the complete list of teams here.

Various ideas for reusable space planes included launches from high altitude balloons, traditional-fuel rocket engines, hybrid-fuel rocket engines, and the Scaled Composites feathered reentry “shuttle cock” plane launched from a jet-powered carrier aircraft.

In spite of the intense interest, for many years there was no obvious activity, as the teams struggled to overcome the technical and business challenges.

However, a number of front-runners began to emerge, as reports of test rocket firings in the Mojave desert (and elsewhere) began to circulate in the international press. Apparent leaders included XCOR, the Da Vinci Project, Armadillo Aerospace, and Scaled Composites / Tier One project.

And The Winner Is…

The prize was won on October 4, 2004, the 47th anniversary of the Sputnik 1 launch, by the Tier One project designed by aviation legend Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, using the experimental spaceplane SpaceShipOne.

The Tier One project made two successful competitive flights: X1 on September 29, 2004, piloted by Mike Melvill to 102.9 km; and X2 on October 4, 2004, piloted by Brian Binnie to 112 km. (Source: Wikipedia). The two prize-winning flights can be viewed on YouTube here:

  1. Flight 1 by Mike Mevill
  2. Flight 2 by Brian Binnie

I remember watching both flights online – it was magic.

$10 million was awarded to the winner on November 6, and more than $400 million was invested in new technologies in pursuit of the prize.

X-Prize Winners

X-Prize Winners receiving their award. Burt Rutan is standing to the left of the cheque, and Peter Diamandis is on the far right. Source, Wikipedia

Aftermath

It’s been 11 years since the Ansari X Prize was awarded. What has this prize helped to achieve?

Inspired by the success of the competition, other prizes have been launched.

NASA sponsors Centennial Challenges for things like development of space tethers for space elevators, sample return, and lunar rover techology.

Another direct space-related inspiration (even down to the name) is Google’s Lunar X Prize which expires in 2015. From their website:

The Google Lunar XPRIZE, the largest international incentive based prize of all time, aims to do something we haven’t done as humanity since 1973, safely land on the surface of the Moon. More than half of the world’s population has never had the opportunity to view a live transmission from the lunar surface. The Google Lunar XPRIZE aims to create a new “Apollo” moment for this generation and to spur continuous lunar exploration with $40 Million in incentive based prizes. In order to win this money, a private company must land safely on the surface of the Moon, travel 500 meters above, below, or on the Lunar surface, and send back two “Mooncasts” to Earth.

Google has partnered with the X PRIZE Foundation to run the event, and describes the specific debt the Newspace movement owes to the Ansari X Prize:

Commercial space companies are now opening up the sub-orbital and orbital frontier – doing things that once were the realm of governments and their contractors and achieving it in ways that are often more cost effective and efficient. This “NewSpace” economy was stimulated in a significant way by the $10 million Ansari XPRIZE, awarded in 2004, for the achievement of regular sub orbital flight.

Suborbital Space Tourism Boom

The Ansari X PRIZE was a huge success for the private space sector. There’s now so much activity in the private sector that there’s more credibility for people who are evangelizing the idea of reusable launch vehicles and space tourism.

Publicity on the event was worldwide. It lent immediate credibility to the idea of space tourism.

Richard Branson announced that his space passenger company Virgin Galactic would commission Scaled Composites (and eventually the SpaceShip Company) to create multiple passenger-carrying spacecraft called “SpaceShipTwo”, a variant of the succesful design of SpaceShipOne.

(On a sad note, three Scaled Composites employees were killed and three seriously injured in 2007, during construction of this variant, when an explosion occurred. Although this accident was an industrial mishap it underlines some of the dangers inherent in rocket-propelled flight.)

Virgin Galactic plans to operate a fleet of five SpaceShipTwo spaceplanes in a private passenger-carrying service, starting in 2014. The spaceplane could also be used to carry scientific payloads for NASA and other organisations. In early 2013, Virgin Galactic says it had signed up 575 people with full or partial deposits on a flight cost of $250,000 USD.

Futuristic private space ports are being built by public-private partnerships to serve these new companies, in Curacao (for XCOR), the $209 M USD “Spaceport America“in Truth or Consequences New Mexico (for Virgin Galactic), Mojave Air and Space Port (XCOR, and Armadillo Aerospace), and proposed sites in Canada, Australia, and elsewhere.

Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnight's first flight over Spaceport America

Virgin Galactic spaceplane carrier’s first flight over Spaceport America. Copyright http://www.aviationnews.eu

This is starting to become mainstream – at the Canadian Space Summit in Ottawa this year, a tourism company showcased the space tourism package offered by one of the main prize competitors, XCOR, with the promise of $100,000 flights in 2014 or 2015.

XCOR Lynx Flight

Presentation on XCOR Lynx space plane flight at CSS 2013

As I mentioned in my last post, I think sub-orbital space tourism will finally open up the private space sector to mainstream adoption – so it is hard to conceive of the Ansari X Prize win in 2004 as anything other than a huge milestone in the history of the private space sector, and an important spur to human expansion into the universe.

Did you watch the historic SpaceShip One flights as they happened? Would you like to fly into space aboard a spaceplane?

Next week: “Making Space Happen”: Voyage to Mars! 

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