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Space Race II Looking for a hole in one
CAPE CANAVERAL, (UPI) Fla., Aug. 31 , 2004 -

A weekly series by UPI exploring the people, passions and business of sub-orbital manned spaceflight.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Aug. 31 (UPI) -- The front-runner in a $10 million race to fly a private ship to space is calmly preparing for its opening volley in less than a month, while the closest competitor is hustling to complete its vehicle and run through at least a minimum series of tests to be ready to fly Oct. 2.

There is one other key player, however, that so far is staying silent and perhaps sullen in the background -- a partner without whom there would be no cash award. The firm, whose identity remains officially cloaked, enabled the Ansari X Prize Foundation to make good on its pledge to give the winner $10 million.

In essence, the financing entity -- an insurance company -- made a bet that no one would be able to win the prize before the Jan. 1, 2005, expiration date. If no winner emerges, the company will get to keep the multi-million-dollar premium, which contest sponsors paid to purchase the policy. With just four months remaining for a contestant to claim the cash -- and at least two teams preparing for flight -- it appears the insurance firm soon may be called upon to pay up its lost wager.

When the X Prize Foundation kicked off its space race with a high-profile gala in May 1996, organizers thought the hard part would be attracting teams to compete. It turned out that 26 organizations officially registered as contestants, including a venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and aircraft designer Burt Rutan.

Rather, what proved most vexing was finding a sponsor with deep enough pockets to pay for the prize.

We pitched this to several hundred companies, Jay Coleman, president of Entertainment Marketing Communications International of New York City, told United Press International.

Coleman, who had put together deals for Pepsi sponsorships aboard the Russian space station Mir, has been working for years with X Prize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis to land corporate sponsorships.

Most companies, however, politely or otherwise, told Coleman and Diamandis to get lost. About a dozen invited the duo to make a presentation. A couple, including the Champ Car World Series organization, signed up, but no one claimed the role of title sponsor. Time was running out.

The X Prize Foundation turned to a funding mechanism called a hole-in-one insurance policy. Originally it purchased a $5 million policy to double a commitment by a sponsoring bank. That arrangement would have expired on Dec. 17, 2003 -- the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers flight -- so the foundation also decided to buy an option to purchase its own $10 million, hole-in-one policy that would extend the availability of the cash prize until Jan. 1, 2005. That turned out to be a most foresighted decision.

The money to purchase the policy came from a close-knit Dallas family, the Ansaris, and, in particular, one young woman of that family, Anousheh Ansari. A long-time space enthusiast, Anousheh had explored options to fly aboard the Russian Soyuz space vehicle. She was a co-founder of telecom technologies inc., of Richardson, Texas, which was later acquired by Sonus Networks Inc., of Westford, Mass.

Ansari and her husband also founded a venture capital firm, Prodea Inc., also of Richardson. Diamandis had read about her in a Fortune magazine feature of top entrepreneurs called 40 under 40.

The first time Peter approached us, we were kind of wondering what was the purpose of this, where was he coming from and what the pitch was, Amir Ansari, Anousheh's brother-in-law and her kindred space spirit, told UPI.

"Both Anousheh and I were looking at doing (a Russian) MiG flight or doing what Dennis Tito had done (fly on a Soyuz to the International Space Station) and Peter said, 'You know what? I have some other plan here.'

We listened to his pitch and it kind of made sense to us, Amir Ansari said. As opposed to taking a lot of money and doing a one-shot deal, we could enable technology. Instead of being a part of an older system, we could establish a new system that with a little bit of funding could generate so much excitement, so much energy around an idea, that we could actually maybe start a new industry, he said.

Amir said with their background as entrepreneurs, we were always up to the challenge -- especially if we could increase our chances of actually going up into space.

With the Ansaris' donation, the X Prize Foundation purchased the hole-in-one policy. To the insurance company, it then seemed a safe bet, because:

-- not a single entity, aside from the governments of the United States and Russia, had managed to put a human in space, even four decades after the first flight -- China last year became the third country capable of human spaceflight;

-- aerospace giants Lockheed-Martin, Boeing and Northrop -- and even some of the smaller government contractors, such as Orbital Sciences Corp. -- were ignoring the contest; and,

-- the contest rules not only require the winner to build a three-person passenger ship with private funds, but also to fly the craft twice within two weeks.

In its 40-plus-year history, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has not been able to pull off such a feat. The reusable space shuttles required months of processing time between flights.

The insurance firm did not count on Burt Rutan, however. The acclaimed designer of experimental aircraft including Voyager -- which circumnavigated the globe non-stop and without refueling -- Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites, of Mojave, Calif., in secret concocted a graceful-but-hardy space bird called SpaceShipOne. The craft already has demonstrated its ability to reach sub-orbital altitude. Rutan and Allen's team, now known as Mojave Aerospace Ventures, is preparing to make the first of the two required X Prize flights on Sept. 29.

The insurers also failed to foresee the innovation of two volunteer Canadian teams.

One, backed by the online gambling casino GoldenPalace.com, is working toward an Oct. 2 launch of its Wild Fire rocket. Brian Feeney, an engineer, inventor and aspiring astronaut, heads the team, known as the da Vinci Project.

A second Canadian team, Canadian Arrow, of London, Ontario, has a series of successful engine tests under its wing and recently completed a critical test of its crew cabin. A launch date has not yet been announced, but the team is moving closer to flight.

After eight long years, the X Prize Foundation is preparing for the finish line. Right now, only one company is not smiling.

Irene Klotz writes about space and aviation for UPI Science News. Email [email protected]

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