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What's next for X?

Laura Rauch / AP file
Five-year flashback to Oct. 4, 2004: Astronaut Brian Binnie unfurls the American
flag atop SpaceShipOne after the flight that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

Five years after the first privately funded space plane won the $10 million Ansari X Prize, the spirit behind the contest has spread far beyond spaceflight. Have realities kept pace with the expectations sparked back in 2004? What are the next multimillion-dollar feats on the horizon?

OK, maybe the second privately funded space plane is not quite ready for takeoff yet. And maybe the dream of having an annual rocket festival known as the X Prize Cup has faded somewhat. But it's still possible to meet the timeline laid out by SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan in this TODAY interview five years ago.

"In 10 years, everyone will know that if they want to, they can go to orbit in their lifetime," Rutan said at the time, speaking from SpaceShipOne's hangar in Mojave, Calif. "They will know that instead of just hope or dream."

Five years after that interview, Cirque du Soleil billionaire Guy Laliberte is clowning around in orbit, after paying a $35 million fare. In another five years, that price may or may not come down. But the long-term trend is on Rutan's side. That's based on comments from Eric Anderson, president and CEO of Virginia-based Space Adventures, the company that helped put Laliberte in space.

"Hard to believe it's been five years, isn't it? Wow," Anderson asked when I reminded him about the X Prize milestone.

Click for video: SpaceShipOne designer Burt
Rutan and the X Prize Foundation's Peter Diamandis reflect on the future of spaceflight in an interview from Oct. 5, 2004.

"Things have never looked brighter, but spaceflight is a business that requires patience, so we seem to be two years away from suborbital spaceflight - like we have been since 2001, right?" he joked. "But that's OK. Most of these companies have made it through the global economic crisis. I'm confident that once this industry opens up it will exceed everyone's expectations."

Another Mojave milestone is expected to take place later this year, when SpaceShipTwo finally rolls out of its hangar at Rutan's Scaled Composites shop. The rollout is still on track to take place on Dec. 7, according to Stephen Attenborough, commercial director of Virgin Galactic.

But wait ... there's more:

Over the past few weeks, the X Prize Foundation has been posting a series of blog items commemorating the five-year anniversary of SpaceShipOne's victory. The bloggers have included space pilot Brian Binnie, space millionaire Anousheh Ansari, Virgin Galactic's Will Whitehorn, Romanian rocketeer Dumitru Popescu ... and Peter Diamandis, the guy who started it all as the X Prize's co-founder.

Earlier this week, Diamandis took time out from a whirlwind tour of Abu Dhabi and Europe to answer a few questions I posed about the past, present and future of the X Prize. Here's the full Q&A, which Diamandis fleshed out into a blog item and a half:

Peter Diamandis: As we celebrate the five-year anniversary of SpaceShipOne's winning of the Ansari X Prize, I'm taking the liberty to reflect on a number of key questions ... On what worked well, what didn't, and what we learned.

Ultimately, what was the real value of the competition?

I often think about the real value that the Ansari X Prize contributed to this field of spaceflight, which I love so much. I think ultimately it gave teams around the world permission to dream, to assemble teams and dare to think about building private spaceships. By creating the structure of the competition, it validated the importance and the viability of private spaceflight. It defined a 'clear goal' ... or a meaningful finish line that teams could pursue. As my friend and early X Prize founder Astronaut Byron Lichtenberg is fond of saying, "Without a target you will miss it every time!" We gave space dreams and entrepreneurs a target to shoot for.

Before the X Prize there really wasn't a generally accepted definition of where space begins. There were always three numbers thrown about, namely 50 kilometers, 100 kilometers and 162 kilometers (100 miles). In retrospect, I'm pleased that we picked 100 kilometers, because it was "just hard enough" ... and if we had chosen 100 miles (162 kilometers) we might not be celebrating this five-year anniversary!

The competition also created the public excitement, expectations, rooting interests and, ultimately, future customers who were lining up to buy a seat on the Ansari X Prize class of spaceships.

I also feel that we played an important role in driving the regulatory policy that today allows private, reusable, piloted spaceships to carry paying passengers. Only a year before the prize was won, the rules were not defined and there was no clear way for such a ship to be licensed to fly. We worked closely with FAA Administrator Marion Blakey and Associate Administrator Patricia Smith to get the rules in place. Rutan had threatened many times to take his ship out of the country (I think he bluffed that he would launch from Mexico) if needed to fly, since the U.S. obviously didn't (yet) allow these types of flights. Remind me never to play poker against Burt!

Would this have happened anyway?

I have no doubt that eventually someone would have flown privately to space, just as someone would have flown across the Atlantic (in the case of the Orteig Prize and Lindbergh). But I do believe that the structure of the prize, the creation of a competition and the involvement of the public and the media helps to supercharge the paradigm transformation. As humans we have evolved to compete… it is in our genes and we love to watch a competition.

Any big-picture thoughts on this five-year milestone?

The most important legacy and meaning of the Ansari X Prize on its five-year anniversary lies in the fact that the event kicked off a new industry. In the same way that Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic in 1927 is seen as an inception point for today's $300 billion aviation industry, I'm extremely proud that the Ansari X Prize has created a new personal spaceflight industry. Not only did these historic flights culminate in a beautiful exhibition in the Smithsonian, at the entrance to the National Air and Space Museum, but much more profoundly, the winning flights by SpaceShipOne kicked off the personal spaceflight industry which has had over $1 billion invested in it during the past five years.

There were a lot of X Prize competitors, but was there really a race? Was the Da Vinci Project or Armadillo really in the running?

When the X Prize was announced on May 18, 1996 (before it was even called the Ansari X Prize), I knew of maybe three or four potential teams that might compete for the purse. I was shocked in the final result to have 26 teams from seven nations in the running. In retrospect, I would say that the 26 teams could be divided into three groups. The first group, about a third of the field, had a shot at building the vehicle. They had a strong design, a strong team and the money or the ability to raise the funding. The second group had a strong design, a strong team, but lacked the real ability to raise the funds. The final group was made up of those whom we registered, but who were unlikely to ever make anything significant happen beyond their basic concept.

We discussed in the early days the criteria for registration, and the conditions under which we would turn away teams. Gregg Maryniak would always remind us that we "didn't want to turn away those pesky bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio."

In retrospect, Burt truly had a commanding lead ahead of the pack. Both the Da Vinci Project and Armadillo were there as leading contenders, but had a significant way to go in their financing and construction. Regardless, I would always remind the media and remind Burt that Admiral Byrd (first person to fly to the North Pole in an airplane) was the leading contender for the Orteig Prize, but Byrd crashed on take-off and a somewhat unknown aviator, Charles Lindbergh, ultimately claimed the purse.

What would you have done differently?

As I think back to the Ansari X Prize, the one thing which I wish we would have done differently is to have offered a second-place prize of some amount, perhaps $1 million or $2 million. Such a second prize would have kept the drive for other teams to continue their development. At this time, a number of the Ansari X Prize contenders, and new players that have come forward since them, are pursuing suborbital craft. For them the prize is the marketplace. But without the pressure of the prize and its deadline, these teams have relaxed pushing forward and have taken a much more measured course of development.

It's worth noting that when I asked Burt Rutan what he thought we should have done differently, his answer was a bit of a surprise to me. He would have preferred that we required three actual humans onboard the two winning flights rather than a pilot plus the weight and volume equivalent of the two passengers. Clearly the X Prize offered this alternative option (weight and volume rather than actual humans) as a safety measure. I think Burt would have wanted the excuse to ride in the back seat himself.

Now that several X Prize competitions have been launched, what makes a good X Prize vs. a not-so-good X Prize?

The X Prize Foundation and its entire team have learned a lot over the past 15 years. With a team of nearly 50 people, we've invested over 500 human-years into studying and learning about incentive prizes, what works and what doesn't. We've studied other great successes like the work done by DARPA, NetFlix, GoldCorp and others. Recently I wrote a detailed paper called "Using Incentive Prizes to Drive Creativity, Innovation and Breakthroughs" (available on the X Prize Web site for download) which outlines the cumulative thinking on this matter. In summary, I would say that a Great X Prize is one that is telegenic, with a clearly defined goal, simple to explain, addresses a market failure (or area that is stuck) and something that can be won by a small dedicated team.

How do you feel about Virgin Galactic?

The fact that the Virgin logo was on the side of SpaceShipOne on Oct. 4, 2004, was fantastic. To be honest, at the time, I was really somewhat angry that Richard Branson had pulled off yet another marketing coup and captured the prime real estate for the Virgin brand (we had originally wanted to have the Ansari X Prize logo in that spot). But I quickly changed my point of view. Clearly Richard and his entire team are the marketing geniuses.

In the days and years following the winning of the $10 million purse, I've come to appreciate that having the Virgin brand on the ship that day was really a success for the X Prize as well. Had the SpaceShipOne flight only ended up as a museum piece and a historical story, it really would have been somewhat of a failure. It is the fact that the winning flights ended up creating an industry and the fact that this industry was born co-temporal with the winning of the prize that is great news. So thank you, Richard, Will Whitehorn, Alex Tai for taking the risk and moving the industry forward!

What prizes is the X Prize operating today? What is their status?

Since the award of the Ansari X Prize, three additional competitions have been launched. Each of these is stretching our mission and our reach. They are:

  • Archon X Prize for Genomics - $10 million prize for the first team to successfully sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days. Thus far, we have about nine teams registered with another five or six teams on the wings waiting to register. I would be surprised if this prize was not claimed in the next 24 months.
  • Google Lunar X Prize - $30 million prize for the first privately funded teams to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit video, images and data back to the Earth. Thus far, we have 21 teams registered from 11 nations. The recent discovery of H20 and OH [hydroxyl] in the lunar soil makes this prize more important than ever. Each of these vehicles being developed represents future "prospecting" missions looking for resources on the Earth's nearest celestial neighbor.
  • Progressive Automotive X Prize - $10 million prize for the team that can demonstrate an automobile which is fast, safe, manufacturable, affordable and exceeds 100 MPGe (energy equivalent) fuel economy. I was blown away that we had 134 different designs that registered.

How does the Lunar Lander Challenge, which may be reaching something of a climax this year, compare with the Ansari X Prize atmosphere?

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the amazing success of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, a $2 million competition that the X Prize operates in cooperation with NASA (which provides the purse).

The competition is challenging teams to create a rocket that can launch a vertical takeoff and landing that achieves the total delta-V needed for a vehicle to move between the surface of the Moon and its orbit. What is amazing about this competition is the teams and what they have been able to accomplish with a small part-time team (typically three to eight people) working on five- or six-figure budgets.

While this competition hasn't had the visibility and historic significance of Ansari, I'm very much proud of what we are doing here. The companies that are actually building and demonstrating hardware are creating a cottage industry of propulsion engineers that will give us the experience base needed to fuel entrepreneurial spaceflight efforts. The engine, for example, being used by Armadillo in the NGLLC is the same engine that they will use to power their suborbital human-carrying vehicles in the next 24 months.

What Space Prizes are you excited about going forward? What would you recommend to NASA's Centennial Challenges program?

We've thought about space prizes along the following lines:

  • Rapid point-to-point travel, say, New York to Paris in less than 60 minutes.
  • An Orbital Debris X Prize, that is, a prize for the team able to target and remove a specific pieces of orbital debris.
  • Asteroid rendezvous and mapping.
  • Asteroid deflection – demonstrate the ability to deflect an asteroid in a precise and controlled fashion.

Perhaps my favorite space X PRIZE and the one that I'm spending the most time promoting is what I call a "Beamed Energy Propulsion X Prize." If you stop and think about it, the form of propulsion used today hasn't changed in over 1,000 years - since the invention of fireworks by the Chinese. Basically, you burn (oxidize) a material in a tube, hot gases come out one end and the vehicle flies in the opposite direction. Sure, our rockets have gotten bigger and more efficient, but the basic design remains unchanged.

The concept I'm excited about is demonstrating propulsion that uses a ground-based energy source, typically high-energy directed microwave beams, that are precisely aimed at a rocketship that absorbs the energy using it to heat a working fluid (typically hydrogen or water) that is then expended out of the nozzle. Such a system (which I believe is very feasible today) would revolutionize propulsion.

Draft guidelines for such an X PRIZE might look something like:

(1) Demonstrate a fully-reusable system able to launch a 10-kilogram payload to 30-kilometer altitude which derives 100 percent of its energy from a ground-based beamed power system.

(2) Recover the launch system and payload and repeat the launch within 48 hours.

(3) Team can replace no more than 10 percent percent of the dry mass between launches.

What future prizes are you interested in outside of space?

The prizes of most interest outside of the space realm are the following:

  • Health Care X Prize – Must improve health care value by 50 percent in a 10,000-person community during a three-year trial, changing health financing, care delivery and create new incentives to improve health value for individuals and communities. (Funded by Wellpoint, Inc.)
  • TB Diagnostics – Develop a fast, portable, accurate diagnostic system that can rapidly diagnose tuberculosis, the second most lethal infectious disease in the developing world. (Funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)
  • Ocean X Prize Suite – Focusing on research, exploration, conservation and healing to improve the Earth's oceans. In particular, we are looking at prize concepts for mapping the ocean floor and developing efficient, safe and affordable human transportation to the ocean floor. (Funded by Eric Schmidt.)
  • Bionics – Develop a set of prosthetic biomechanical legs that allow a paraplegic the ability to walk and function normally in society at the same time that these legs could allow a person to climb a mountain.
  • AI Physician – Develop an artificial-intelligence agent that can diagnose a patient through a natural language interview at the same level of accuracy as a board certified physician.
  • Autonomous Car - There are two versions of this prize that we are thinking about. The first is for the first autonomous car that can drive nonstop from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., 100 percent autonomously, do it within 3 days and obey all of the traffic laws. The second version is the equivalent of the "Big Blue" chess match. This prize would be for the first autonomous car to win a grand prix race against a top human driver.

How does the X PRIZE Foundation and the recently founded Singularity University fit together?

Both organizations are focused on future breakthroughs. While the X Prize Foundation is in the business of clearly defining and articulating these challenges, the Singularity University is focused on attracting and educating the graduate students who will ultimately form the teams to competing in these future X Prizes.

How do the recent water findings on the moon affect the Google Lunar X Prize?

Today's launch costs are unfortunately extremely expensive. On the average it costs something on the order of $20,000 per pound to get supplies into low-Earth orbit (where the International Space Station is located) and, optimistically, 10 times to 20 times that cost, or approximately $400,000 per pound, to land something on the moon's surface.

So the cost of transporting water to the lunar surface, or oxygen, or hydrogen is about $400,000 per pound or $25,000 per ounce… about 25 times the price of gold today!

Revealing water in significant quantities on the moon could truly be a turning point in space exploration. Who will set up the first water mining plants? Given low-cost availability of water, hydrogen and oxygen, what type of off-Earth economies and exploration will this enable? The question is not too dissimilar to those questions asked when oil was discovered buried deep under the Earth or under the oceans. We eventually designed the technology to mine and extract this precious resource. It's what we do as humans and entrepreneurs.

I'm excited for all of the teams building vehicles for the Google Lunar X Prize. I think of these vehicles as low-cost "prospectors" looking for information and valuable data. Perhaps equivalent to the pick-and-shovel suppliers for the California Gold Rush. Utlimately, everyone will benefit from low-cost lunar exploration, and these Google Lunar teams will be on the cutting edge of a new gold rush.

Given the success of the Ansari X Prize, are other organizations being to emulate the incentive prize model?

The success of the Ansari X Prize has proven that incentivized competition stimulates growth in industries that have the potential to benefit the entire world. As noted in a recent McKinsey & Co. report, "prizes attract diverse groups of experts, practitioners, and laypeople – regardless of formal credentials – to attempt to solve difficult problems, dramatically expanding the pool of potential solvers and lower the cost of attempting or recognizing solutions." Further, "prizes highlight and elevate superlative behaviors, ideas, and achievements in order to motivate, guide, and inspire others. Identifying excellence remains the cornerstone of many prizes – the essence of their power to produce change."

Incentive prizes represent the future of philanthropy and driving breakthroughs. X Prizes offer incredible leverage (typically 10 to 40 times the prize purse is spent to win the prize) and efficiency (you only pay the winner).

You get what you incentivize. Incentive prizes work. Today, there are now more than a dozen $1 million or greater incentive prizes in a wide range of areas. A decade from now, there might be well over 100 active multimillion-dollar incentive prizes.

Update for 9 p.m. ET: It goes without saying that Sunday not only marks the fifth anniversary of SpaceShipOne's X Prize win, but also the 52nd anniversary of Sputnik's launch and the opening of the Space Age. But lest we forget, you can check this flashback to the 2007 observances as well as my golden-anniversary musings on the next space age. Feel free to reflect on either space age by leaving a comment below.

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