The X-Prize: design a spaceship and win $10 million

Peter Hall
Saturday January 6, 2001
The Guardian

After calculating that his chances of becoming a Nasa astronaut were 'one in a thousand', Peter Diamandis, an aerospace engineer and Harvard medical school graduate, decided that he would get into orbit under his own steam.

In 1997, at the age of 36 and with backing from the city of St Louis, Diamandis launched the X-Prize, a $10m reward to entice non-governmental space-boundinitiatives and 'jump-start' the space tourism industry. The real hurdle to space tourism, according to Diamandis, is in our minds. Free our minds and the rockets will follow.

Inspiration for the X-Prize came from the $25,000 prize won in 1927 by Charles Lindbergh and his aeroplane Spirit of St Louis for crossing the Atlantic nonstop. Before Lindbergh became a household name, pilots were called 'aeronauts' and flying was for daredevils. We have come a long way since then: now we are herded like cattle on to jets and complain if our drinks are not mixed right.

'Lindbergh became the most famous human on the planet, and, most important, he wasn't proving new technology,' says Diamandis. 'He completely changed the mindset of the world with regard to aviation. Aviation went from something very much like space is today - something that's expensive and difficult - to something that was exciting, with great potential, that a 25-year-old kid from New York could do. That's what my life has been all about. Changing the public perception that space is something just for governments.'

To win the X-Prize, all you have to do is send the same passenger-carrying vehicle 100km above the earth twice in two weeks. Fifty miles is high enough to earn Nasa astronaut wings and to see the curvature of the earth, that ball of cobalt oceans and wispy clouds below. To prove to the X-Prize judges that your vehicle is quickly reusable, you must take the trip twice.

As you might imagine, the promise of fame, fortune (though not much in terms of space exploration) and the chance to alter history attracts a wide range of proposals, from the believable to the half-baked. Among the 19 registered X-Prize contenders is an engineer in Portland, Oregon, who has submitted a picture of a flying saucer-like contraption dubbed The Space Tourist, which can apparently take off from your local runway. A team from Buenos Aires has sent in a mysterious rocket and parachute scheme under the dubious name of Gauchito ('The Little Cowboy'). An industrial designer from Toronto, meanwhile, plans on using a hot-air balloon, a rocket-and-parachute combo inspired by a Leonardo da Vinci drawing. They laughed at Da Vinci, too.

Most of the frontrunners propose a piggy-backing method to avoid the cost and hazard of firing a rocket from the ground through the thick lower atmosphere. The renegade aircraft designer Burt Rutan, known for Voyager - a super-lightweight plane that in 1986 completed the first nonstop, round-the-world flight without refuelling - has already successfully tested half of his system: a seagull-like high-altitude plane that can carry a little rocket ship to 40,000ft, before letting it shoot off into the mesosphere.

Kelly Space & Technology, a Nasa contractor, proposes using a 747 Jumbo jet to tow a returnable rocket ship to 20,000ft before lift-off.

A Russian initiative, led by space programme pioneer Varley Novikov, uses a carrier aircraft to hoist the rocket, while the Cheshire-based Starchaser Industries (one of three UK bids) has a jet-powered, missile-shaped vehicle with rockets that kick in at the second stage.

By 2003, according to the stoically optimistic Diamandis, we should have a winner. If some of this sounds a little too much like a sky-bound adaptation of the 60s TV cartoon show Wacky Races, heed Diamandis's warning: mock not the underdog.

'Lindbergh was nicknamed "the flying fool" for going with one pilot and one engine,' he says. 'The favourite, by far, was this fellow named Admiral Bird, who had spent $100,000. He failed on take-off.'

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