Space Race II Mind over matter
Cape Canaveral (UPI) Sep 14, 2004
In two weeks, the front-runner in a race to fly a privately developed passenger ship to space is scheduled to make its move.
The pairing of Burt Rutan -- widely regarded as a father of flight for his innovative aircraft designs -- and philanthropist billionaire Paul Allen, already has produced a space-worthy vessel. The test flight in June forever retired the notion that only governments possess the financial and technical resources -- and the legal reach -- to send people beyond the planet's atmosphere.
SpaceShipOne now would have to stumble seriously for another contender in the Ansari X Prize to take over the lead. The closest competitor, a Canadian team known as the da Vinci Project, is still building and testing its Wild Fire rocket, which is to be dropped from a helium balloon and launched mid-air.
At stake is a $10 million cash prize earmarked for the first team to send a three-passenger craft to sub-orbital altitude -- 100 kilometers or 62 miles -- twice within two weeks. Rutan's team alone has spent more than twice that amount to develop SpaceShipOne and its jet carrier, White Knight. That much money would be a windfall for nearly all the other teams that have entered the contest, most of which have raised only a tiny fraction of Paul Allen's donation, but none appears to have a good shot at winning.
So why are they continuing to plug away? And why is a guy like Allen, who had the foresight and business acumen to parlay a startup computer company named Microsoft into the multibillion-dollar behemoth it has become today, willing to settle for -- no, celebrate -- a minus-50 percent return on his investment?
Clearly, the Ansari X Prize is not really about money. Rather, what unites the participants is a stake in history, a role in creating a shared vision of the future, when space travel will become as common as travel by airplane is today.
What we hope will come from the X Prize are more prizes, said Peter Diamandis, head of the non-profit X Prize Foundation, which is sponsoring the space race.
Diamandis came up with the idea while reading a copy of Charles Lindbergh's The Spirit of St. Louis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of his crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.
Lindbergh was one of the lesser-known contenders for a $25,000 prize offered by a man named Raymond Orteig, an emigrant from France who settled in New York in 1912. Orteig eventually came to own two hotels in New York that were frequented by French pilots on assignment in the United States during World War I. He set up the competition to highlight U.S.-French relations, by offering the money to the first team that flew non-stop between New York and Paris, or vice-versa.
Orteig's prize was far from the first challenge that pioneering aviators faced, but it did become the most well-known.
I was surprised when I started researching to find out just how many other aviation prizes there were, Gregg Maryniak, executive director of the X Prize Foundation, told United Press International.
The earliest prize dates back to 1901, when 100,000 French francs -- about $310,000 -- were offered for an airship flight around the Eiffel Tower. Over the next 12 years, various businesses, organizations, individuals and newspapers set up 50 more prizes for aviation firsts.
Most of the contests were geared toward Europe, including a 1908 offer by the Daily Mail to pay a pilot the relatively huge sum of 10,000 pounds Sterling for a flight between London and Manchester that took less than 24 hours. The idea seemed so outlandish at the time that British humor magazine Punch decided to match the challenge by offering 10,000 pounds to whomever could fly to Mars and back within a week.
Two years later, Claude Grahame-White won the Daily Mail's contest. It was just one of 14 aviation prizes offered in 1910.
For all their innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, Americans for the most part were slow to catch on to the value of air travel and how Europe was benefiting from its plethora of aviation contests. That changed instantly when native son Lindbergh clinched the Orteig Prize.
Maryniak summed up the effects as follows:
-- Within a year of Lindbergh's flight, more than 25 percent of all Americans personally viewed his aircraft, which he named the Spirit of St. Louis.
-- The number of U.S. airline passengers increased from 5,782 in 1926 to 173,405 in 1929.
-- The amount of U.S. air cargo climbed from 45,859 lbs. in 1927 to 257,000 lbs. in 1929.
-- The number of applications for a pilot's license in the United States increased 300 percent in 1927, and there were 400 percent more licensed aircraft.
-- Within three years of Lindbergh's flight, the number of U.S. airports doubled.
There was an Internet-like boom in the aviation business, Maryniak said. Rather than adding dot.com to their names, businesses were using the words airplane and aviation, he added.
This happened because the Spirit of St. Louis flight caused people to believe that aviation was relevant to them, Maryniak said. They knew that if they wanted to they could fly. Flying was no longer something done by someone else.
In June, Mike Melvill, a test pilot employed by Burt Rutan, breached the space frontier as part of his job. Two members of the Ansari family, the prime donors to the X Prize Foundation, plan to fly within a couple of years. Rutan himself may be going next month.
Irene Klotz writes about space and aviation for UPI Science News. Email [email protected]All rights reserved. Copyright 2015 by United Press International. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by United Press International. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of by United Press International.