Inside the Capitol

Sunday, October 10, 2004

New Mexico Big X-Prize Winner?

SANTA FE Was New Mexico the big winner when SpaceShipOne soared 68 miles into space last Monday to capture the $10 million Ansari X-Prize?
We are, as far as Rick Homans and the state Economic Development Department are concerned. Companies such as Armadillo Aerospace, Pioneer and American Astronautics are poised to come test and develop their spacecraft at White Sands Missile Range, and later at the adjacent private spaceport as soon as it is finished and licensed.
They are coming here, we are told , because New Mexico has been awarded future X-Prize competitions. This year, competitors for the X-Prize could launch from anywhere. Burt Rutan and Paul Allen chose to launch SpaceShipOne from a private base in Mojave, California, which already is built and licensed.
Rutan hasn’t sounded particularly enthused about coming to New Mexico for future testing and launches, but Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize, told a full house in Gov. Bill Richardson’s conference room last May that “Rutan will come.”
Evidently X-Prize officials had good information at the time that Rutan was in the lead to claim the prize. In fact, Diamandis flatly predicted that day that the X-Prize would be claimed within three to five months. It sounded like a wild prediction at the time, but less than four months later, the prize was claimed.
The Ansari family of Dallas, Texas, established the prize eight years ago to kick-start the development of privately built rocket ships that could make spaceflight available to the public. Earlier this year, it was announced that the offer would expire this coming January.
It sounded as though the Ansaris might be backing out, but it seems more likely now that it was an effort to move things along more quickly.
It wasn’t as though Rutan needed the money. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen already had put up more than twice that amount and is good for much more. When Rutan received the prize, he announced he will split the $10 million among his employees.
And during the five days in between SpaceShipOne’s two flights, Richard Branson, the British airline mogul and adventurer, announced a $25 million deal to use Rutan’s technology to begin offering paying customers flights into space beginning in 2007. He says fares will start at just over $200,000.
Who would pay that much? Two people already have paid the Russian space program $20 million apiece for a trip to the international space station. Another race already is being organized with a $50 million prize for the first private company to put space tourists into orbit.
This is a huge victory for backyard science and entrepreneurship. None of the Boeings or Lockheeds were among the more than two dozen competitors. Apparently they are interested only when there is a huge government contract, not when they have to spend their own money.
The government claims to be happy, but its talk turned immediately to developing regulations to govern the new industry. That could easily stifle future creativity. So far, private space efforts have been safer than the government’s space program.
But did Rutan win too big? With secure financing and happy employees $10 million richer, the future seems very rosy. No other company is even close to a manned test. But several of them claim the Rutan success is attracting venture capital their way, hoping to hit it big, as Rutan’s company already has.
X-Prize officials likely have anticipated the situation. Next summer’s competition will be only an exhibition, held at White Sands Missile Range. Prizes won’t be awarded until 2006, when it is hoped the Southern New Mexico Spaceport will be ready.
By setting deadlines, as it successfully did this year, the X-Prize folks hope to have other companies ready for demonstrations in 2005 and competition in 2006. And it hopes to nudge New Mexico into speedy completion of its spaceport.


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