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The X Prize's second stage

Laura Rauch / AP file

Flash from the past: SpaceShipOne astronaut Brian Binnie waves the flag at
California's Mojave Airport after his X Prize-winning flight on Oct. 4, 2004.

It's been exactly two years since a privately developed craft last flew a human to space, on a mission that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize. At the time, the founder of the X Prize said SpaceShipOne's achievement on Oct. 4, 2004, heralded a "personal spaceflight revolution." To some, that climactic X Prize flight seemed to kick off a commercial sprint to space as captivating as the superpower marathon initiated by Sputnik's launch on Oct. 4, 1957.

But it's taking a while for this space race to get started - and the revolution's success is by no means assured.

One spectacular failure could conceivably slow down or even call a halt to the race. All this enthusiasm over low-cost spaceflight could end up as little more than a false start, as it did back in 1999. The X Prize's organizers are already turning their attention to other frontiers as well, such as the genetic challenge being announced today, or the automotive prize due to be announced next year. So two years after the last private space pilot finished his flight, what does the X stand for?

In the beginning, the "X" in X Prize stood for "experimental" - as well as the Roman numeral for 10, as in the $10 million purse awarded to the first team to send a privately developed, piloted ship past the 100-kilometer boundary of space twice within two weeks. That's what Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation, told Philanthropy magazine last year.

This week, that $10 million figure and the experimental thrills are popping up again, in connection with the genomics prize. So far there's nothing that rich being offered for private-sector space feats: Billionaire Robert Bigelow has essentially put a hold on his $50 million America's Space Prize for orbital spaceflight, deciding that no one could satisfy the prize conditions by the 2010 deadline. And NASA's Centennial Challenges are largely limited to earthly analogs, such as this month's $2 million Lunar Lander Challenge.

But Diamandis says the seeds have been sown for many more space challenges down the line - with a key backer of the first X Prize, Iranian-American entrepreneur and recent space flier Anousheh Ansari, playing a leading role.

"Space is first and foremost in my heart," he told me this week, "and if you look at Anousheh's blog, you can see her speaking about what we've been talking about ... X Prizes for orbital flight, for the moon, even for asteroids."

Since the X Prize was won, the foundation has added some high-powered board members, including Google co-founder Larry Page, SpaceX founder Elon Musk, genomics whiz Craig Venter and robotics whiz Dean Kamen. The foundation has added employees as well, boosting the staff to 40 people - which is more than it was at the height of the X Prize flights, Diamandis said.

He said the decision was made to devote one-third of the foundation's resources to space-related activities, such as this month's X Prize Cup in New Mexico, and the other two-thirds to other frontiers. The annual X Prize Cup was "really critical" to keeping the personal spaceflight revolution going, he said: "It's not enough to spark it. You have to keep the attention and the pressure on."

But an annual festival won't do much good if the personal spaceflight business isn't a real business. And even Diamandis admits that the past two years haven't quite matched his wildest dreams.

"I wish we had had additional flights to 100 kilometers by now," he said, "but of the 25 contenders, about seven or eight are still viable and moving forward. I've talked to some of the teams, and when it comes to raising capital and having suborbital flight taken seriously, there's a night and day difference between what it was before the X Prize and what it is now."

SpaceShipOne's flights definitely took the "giggle factor" out of the idea of private-sector spaceflight. More companies seem to be seriously trying to solve the puzzle of low-cost access to space - including members of the aerospace establishment such as Lockheed Martin.

"We have effectively credentialed suborbital flight as a new and viable industry, and we've attracted private capital to the industry," Diamandis declared.

But is it for real? There was much of the same feeling back in the mid-1990s, when the rise of companies such as Iridium, Teledesic and Globalstar created visions of a satellite bonanza for launch-industry entrepreneurs - people such as Gary Hudson, who has been working for nearly 40 years to stir up a revolution in the launch industry.

He recalled this week that it was "actually easy to convince people" to invest in space ventures back in 1969, when men first walked on the moon and Hudson began his own business quest.

  • But in 1979, after Apollo's end, "things had slipped around and it was really a hard sell."
  • Then, in 1989, in the midst of the space shuttle program, Hudson said there were heightened hopes that truly reusable, affordable rocket ships were just around the corner.
  • But in 1999, the bottom dropped out of the satellite telecom business, Iridium went bust, and the visions for entrepreneurial spaceflight began to look like an illusion.

"By 2009, it will become real," Hudson predicted. "And it's only taken 40 years."

Why is he so sure things will turn out differently this time?

"There's exactly one thing that's different," he said. "What that is, is that in the late '90s all of us were having to scramble for funding. Today, the bulk of the progress is being made by individuals or businesses that are spending their own dollars."

As examples, he listed Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk's SpaceX, Robert Bigelow's Bigelow Aerospace and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.

"As long as they're persistent, there's little likelihood that setbacks or market twists and turns are going to dissuade these people, who have committed not only their fortunes, but also their egos, to this business continuing."

March's unsuccessful maiden launch of SpaceX's Falcon 1 illustrates the point, he said.

"It's not uncommon to lose two or three vehicles, or have less than optimal performance when you strike out and do something that's new," Hudson said. "I expect setbacks, but the real difference is that there are no investors to be deterred.

"Investors are easily spooked," he observed. "Zealots - and I mean that in the good sense - are not."

To be sure, the fact that high-profile billionaires and millionaires are spending their own money on space ventures also boosts the courage of angel investors, venture capitalists and government program managers who have less of a taste for adventure. "A rising tide lifts all boats," Hudson said.

You could argue that Hudson is riding one of those boats. He's currently the chief executive officer (and founder) of Air Launch, which is working on the Pentagon-funded Falcon project to develop a new breed of low-cost launch vehicles.

Hudson said Air Launch's QuickReach booster could have its first flight in late 2008, depending on the funding schedule. That's just about the time that Virgin Galactic, Rocketplane Kistler and other suborbital spaceflight ventures might be getting off the ground.

NASA's $500 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, which aims to encourage the development of new spaceships to service the international space station in the 2010 time frame, provides another example of how things have changed in the past two years, Hudson said. Transformational Space, a consortium that includes Air Launch, lost out in its bid for COTS funding - but Hudson said he was hopeful there would be more opportunities coming up.

"The groundwork has been laid for so many years," he said. "It's just starting to bear fruit."

Back in 1999, Hudson bemoaned the fact that capital was being drawn away from space ventures to be put into seemingly cool dot-coms like pet-supply Web sites. This time around, he doesn't expect the personal spaceflight revolution to lose the spotlight. And the fact that rocket science is glamorous again could well be counted as yet another legacy of the X Prize race.

"There's no other enterprise out there right now that has the coolness factor of what we're doing, that's for sure," Hudson said.

Update for 6:40 p.m. PT: Folks like Diamandis and Hudson are naturally interested in preaching the gospel of the commercial space race, so I wanted to talk with someone who could serve as a devil's advocate. GlobalSecurity.org's John Pike, a longtime space-policy analyst (and a longtime skeptic about space tourism) returned my call this morning and agreed to take on his traditional role as "designated curmudgeon."

Here are some of Pike's piquant sound bites:

On suborbital space tourism: "This is what made this country great - the freedom to spend your money any way you want to. If some guy's got a quarter of a million dollars and thinks that when he's standing there in his spacesuit with a helmet in his arms, that photo in his reception area would make him look pretty good, then so be it. ... I just don't think it goes anywhere. These people who claim that this is going to open the universe to common citizens, it seems to me, have a different understanding of space than I do. ...

"These actually are, by American standards, flown astronauts. I will grant them that. But to say that this is on the pathway of humans to the moon, I think, is patently false."

On millionaires with space ventures: "They have failed to grasp the extent to which they have a physics problem, not an engineering problem. Particularly Musk ... He comes from the world of Moore's Law, where there is just continuous, explosive improvement. But spaceflight was just born full-blown from the brow of Zeus, like Athena. There's been no improvement in the specific impulse or the cost of getting to orbit since John Kennedy."

He acknowledged that some economizing was possible. For example, you can cut the cost of access to orbit in half by using "big rockets rather than little rockets," or by operating in a low-wage economy, such as China. But he doesn't subscribe to the idea that "New Space" mammals will be able to do spaceflight for dramatically less than the "Old Space" dinosaurs:

"I will tell you that I'm the last anarchist. I am unfit for working in any enterprise that has more than a dozen people in it. I hold no brief for big bureaucracies. But year in, year out, all across the planet, the answer keeps coming back - $10,000 per pound for access to orbit, more or less. I say maybe Mother Nature's trying to tell you something. I've been hearing this 'cheap access to space' crap for 35 years now, and it just never happens."

These quotes might make Pike sound like an old sourpuss, but he's actually a pretty funny guy when you talk with him - kind of a Lewis Black for the space set (or maybe the anti-Rutan). So my advice for the true believers of the personal spaceflight revolution would be not to get angry at John Pike, but to see if you can prove him wrong. In another two years, we should know.