Inside the Capitol

Monday, November 15, 2004

X-Prize Major Players

SANTA FE The $10 million X-Prize was awarded this week to the first private business to send a manned rocket to the edge of space. It also included an impressive 150-pound trophy, suitable for placing in the reception area of Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, Inc.
As the names of NASA’s early space heroes begin to fade in our memories, we are beginning a new era of space pioneers, in the grand tradition of Charles Lindbergh, who flew the Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize back in 1927.
As the government appears ready to direct its attention to new space achievements, such as a moon base and exploration of Mars, look for private industry to take over the field of commercial space travel.
The X-Prize was the first baby step in that direction. Future competition will involve a “grand prix of space,” called the X-Prize Cup, to be held in New Mexico beginning in 2006.
And all the big names among the new space pioneers will be here. By then their names will be household words. Here’s an opportunity for you to become familiar with them now.
Paul Allen is an old friend to New Mexico. Along with Bill Gates, he co-founded Microsoft in Albuquerque back in 1975. They moved to the Seattle area in 1979 to be closer to family and venture capital, but they didn’t forget New Mexico. Both have made investments in our state.
In 2000, Allen bought the former Georgia O’Keeffe estate in Santa Fe and last month announced he will build a computing exhibit for the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. Allen owns the Seattle Seahawks football team, the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team and is a major investor in Hollywood’s Dreamworks.
With more than $20 million, Allen was the major bankroller of the company that built SpaceShipOne, the rocket plane that captured the X-Prize. Allen has been present for all of SpaceShipOne’s flights and was present for the awarding of the X-Prize.
Burt Rutan is the designer of SpaceShipOne, built by his company Scaled Composites, Inc. Rutan attained international renown in 1986, when his now-famous Voyager, piloted by his brother Dick, made a record-breaking nine-day, non-stop flight around the world on one tank of gas.
Rutan’s penchant is for designing light, strong, unusual-looking, energy-efficient aircraft at his Mojave Desert plant. He beat his 26 competitors handily for the X-Prize. They aren’t expected to give him much of a challenge for more than a year. That is why the X-Prize Cup competition in New Mexico won’t begin until 2006. A demonstration at White Sands Missile Range is scheduled for next summer, however.
Peter Diamandis is chairman of the X-Prize Foundation. He presented the $10 million check and trophy to Rutan and Allen. He co-owns Space Adventures, which offers various space-related adventure tourism packages. The company helped arrange the flights of Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth to the International Space Station, at a cost of $20 million apiece.
Diamandis holds graduate and post-graduate degrees in astronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctor’s degree in medical research from Harvard. The degrees were to prepare him to become a NASA astronaut, but after becoming familiar with the NASA program, he decided it moved far too slowly for him.
So in 1988, Diamandis started his own firm, International Microspace to develop a satellite launch vehicle. In 1996, he founded the X-Prize with the goal of beginning an age of spacecraft development and competition like the Wright Brothers touched off at Kittyhawk.
Richard Branson may soon be the best-known of the space pioneers. The British entrepreneur has made billions through projects such as Virgin Airways and Virgin Records. He now has entered into a deal with Rutan to license SpaceShipOne’s technology to offer commercial spaceflights by 2007. It will be called Virgin Galactic. He expects it to fly 3,000 passengers in its first five years. Fares will start at $208,000.
And yes, he’s also the Rebel Billionaire of TV fame.


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