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Dreams Turned Schemes, Part 2

Published by Robin on Fri Sep 24, 2004 9:13 am
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SpaceShipOne aims to claim $10 million
By Eli Kintisch
Of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Rumors raced through the crowd of more than 27,000 spectators along the runway at Mojave, Calif., on June 21 as the world’s first private spaceship soared above the stratosphere. Something seemed amiss.

Mission control had lost contact with its astronaut, Mike Melvill, 63. The men who had built SpaceShipOne began to worry that the ship wouldn’t live up to its name.

Airplane designer Burt Rutan and his team were aiming for 328,000 feet – the arbitrary but official altitude marking the beginning of space. But as Rutan and his engineers at Scaled Composites watched helplessly, the craft shot 19 miles off its planned course.

Billionaire Paul Allen, in a blue baseball cap, sat quietly behind Rutan.

Rutan had persuaded Allen to invest more than $20 million into the effort to send a private craft into space. Later in the year, they planned to try to win the Ansari X Prize, which offered $10 million to the private entrepreneurs who could send a two-man craft into space twice within two weeks.

Peter Diamandis had established the prize in 1996 in the hope of luring private companies into the business of space, which had long been the province of big government and highly trained astronauts. Rutan had built his own spacecraft for millions, not billions, with relatively simple gear. A successful flight not only would put Rutan in position to win the $10 million but also would suggest that spaceflight soon might be available and affordable to everyday people.

The altitude gauge showed 310, then finally ticked up to 315, 320, 325 . . .

Then, about an hour after launch, the monitor showed the craft inching just over the magic 328 mark. For a moment the needle rose 500 feet higher.

SpaceShipOne had made it, only barely.

Rutan broke into a wild grin, and turned to shake Allen’s hand vigorously.

Seconds later, Melvill’s voice crackled through the radio. “You would not believe the view,” he said. He could see Las Vegas, San Francisco and more than 700 miles out toward Hawaii.

But they weren’t out of the woods yet. The mission control screens showed a malfunctioning trim flap as the ship began its descent. That could send Melvill into a deadly spin.

Melvill switched to a backup system and fixed the flaps. SpaceShipOne, folded in half for re-entry, plummeted back to the Mojave landing strip. In celebration, Melvill sent a pocketful of M&M’s floating through the cabin.

Down below on the runway, Diamandis jumped up and down and waved his arms, yelling “woo-hoo.”

“Only two flights to go,” Diamandis shouted.

Diamandis believed that having someone win the Ansari X Prize with two consecutive spaceflights would demonstrate that tourism in space could be feasible and relatively cheap. To date, only a handful of private citizens had gone into space.

But now Rutan had gotten someone into space aboard a $30 million vehicle, less than the cost of the throw-away space shuttle tank. Within several years, Diamandis predicted, any ordinary citizen would be able to fly into space for as little as $10,000 on a craft that could be built even more cheaply. And what’s more, a winning team would fulfill Diamandis’ dream.

Diamandis had gone hat in hand from one Fortune 500 company to the next begging for money to finance his $10 million prize. All turned him down. Instead, he had placed a bet, taking out an insurance policy, paying millions in premiums from what donations he was able to gather. He needed a winner by Dec. 31 of this year, or the insurance company would walk away with all the premiums.

A month after SpaceShipOne’s successful flight, Rutan officially announced his bid for the Ansari X Prize. He would launch his ship with two men aboard on Sept. 29. But Rutan did not have the field – or at least the publicity – to himself. Less than a week later, up stepped Brian Feeney, leader of a Canadian team. Feeney, backed by Sun Microsystems, dozens of Canadian tech firms and thousands of volunteers, said he would unveil a rocket soon as part of a team called The da Vinci Project.

He planned to launch the world’s biggest manned balloon to 80,000 feet, from which a rocket would take off to space, returning using a parachute.

Feeney’s sponsor was as unorthodox as his approach. He’d received a six-figure sponsorship from online casino GoldenPalace.com, which regularly paid streakers to disrupt sports events wearing little more than its Web address. As of early this month, the Canadian government had yet to give permission for the launch. Even if the rocket were to work, balloon experts said, it would be impossible for the Canadian team to reuse the material – a key requirement for winning the money.

Launch changed game

Many in the space industry saw Rutan’s June flight as a historic achievement regardless of the $10 million competition.

“Rutan has changed the game,” said Jim Davidson, a programmer and space entrepreneur.

SpaceDev, a company based in Poway, Calif., that helped build SpaceShipOne’s motor, saw its stock price rise with its involvement in the project.

“SpaceDev is the type of company that the X Prize sought to stimulate,” said CEO James Benson, whose engineers are building suitcase-size satellites for the Pentagon.

“When you tell people you’re building a spaceship, people look at you funny,” said Dezso Molnar, a rocket scientist who now volunteers for the Ansari X Prize organization. “I think it’s changing.”

Gateway to space?

What it will mean to St. Louis is less clear. In 1996, Diamandis and civic leader Al Kerth said the competition would prepare St. Louis “for a leadership role in the space industries of the 21st century.” He also said the event would “bring the elite of the space world to St. Louis,” and create the potential for a regional spaceport at MidAmerica Airport in Mascoutah.

But there’s little sign of new space industry here, and it’s uncertain whether the dawn of private space travel will be associated with St. Louis the way Charles Lindbergh’s flight is. St. Louis Science Center President Doug King said no St. Louis leader had taken up the cause here quite like Kerth, who was instrumental in bringing the X Prize to St. Louis. Diamandis called Kerth’s suicide, which rocked the organization in 2002, “an absolute low.”

Still, local donors say they feel glad to be part of history.

“I don’t think the X Prize has disappointed anyone who’s invested in it,” King said. He added that the Ansari X Prize organization has helped educate schoolchildren here and elsewhere. The organization built a “mission control” in the basement of the center from which the Science Center will send a live feed to other science centers during Rutan’s prize attempts.

Former Clayton Mayor Hugh Scott III had been an early supporter of the competition and harbors no misgivings. He said the region had gotten “some terrific publicity,” though he acknowledged that it had yet to realize any economic benefit.

Diamandis has been trying to engage regional leaders. He revisited executives at Energizer and Anheuser-Busch in June after Rutan’s flight, hoping for late sponsorships. Still no dice.

More prizes to come?

In Washington, however, Diamandis received a decidedly warmer reception this summer. NASA had already endorsed his prize, and agency officials were on hand to congratulate Diamandis on Rutan’s successful launch. Dana Rohrbacher, a California Republican and chairman of the House subcommittee on space and aeronautics, invited Diamandis to Capitol Hill for a hearing July 15 on the value of prizes in spurring innovation.

Later that day, Diamandis taxied to NASA headquarters, where he had been hired to help with a government-sponsored prize program called Centennial Challenges.

At a session with NASA hands, Diamandis said he wanted to establish even more prizes – perhaps one for orbital flight that might be winnable in about three years.

After the presentation, marketing manager Barry Epstein stayed behind as Diamandis packed up his briefcase.

“Why’d you do this?” Epstein asked as they walked into the hall.

“What do you mean?” Diamandis said.

“Why did you set up this whole X Prize?” Epstein said.

“The only way I was going to go was to enable everyone to do it,” said Diamandis. “I wanted to go.”

Reporter Eli Kintisch
E-mail: ekintisch@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 314-340-8250

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