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Private space race nears its climax

/ Source: The Associated Press

In a race to achieve the first privately funded manned spaceflight, two teams of rocket engineers are poised to compete for the $10 million X Prize by launching people to the edge of space and bringing them back safely twice within a two-week period. Peter H. Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, said he expects that one of the two teams will launch within the next few months.

A MOJAVE DESERT airport in California has already been approved for use as a launch pad for the suborbital missions.

“We expect to have a winner within the next nine to 12 months,” Diamandis said in a presentation Friday to officials of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Federal officials said that the applications of the two rocket teams have already been approved by the FAA.

The teams are Scaled Composites, led by aviation maverick Burt Rutan; and Armadillo Aerospace, a Dallas group headed by John Carmack, a computer game designer who made a fortune on “Doom” and “Quake.”

There are 23 other registered groups from seven countries competing for the $10 million cash prize. There are teams from Russia, United Kingdom, Romania, Israel, Argentina and two from Canada. The rest are headquartered in the United States.


Diamandis said the goal of X Prize is to promote commercial human spaceflight, just as prizes offered early in the 20th century jump-started the aviation industry. For instance, Charles Lindbergh made the first solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 while competing for a $25,000 aviation prize, he said.

Lindbergh’s flight, said Diamandis, “was a mind-shift breakthrough” for the public. Within 18 months after that daring flight, the number of people boarding airlines rose from 5,700 a year to almost 200,000.

Demonstrating that private companies can build and fly spacecraft can be a major step toward making human spaceflight as routine flying on an airliner is now, he said.

“The floodgates will open when a group of private people can plan on going some place in space,” Diamandis said. He said earlier prizes opened “the golden age of aviation,” and with private firms racing to reach space “it’s happening again, right now.”


The X Prize contest calls for launching a manned craft to 62 miles (100 kilometers), generally considered the cusp of space, and returning it safely to Earth. And then doing it again within 14 days. The craft must be able to carry three people, although the contest rules permit contestants to use one pilot accompanied by equipment equal to the weight of two people.

Diamandis said the craft will not go into orbit and will not fly far from its launch site. But it will graze space, giving an orbitlike view of Earth and perhaps brief moments of weightlessness. The whole adventure would probably last about 15 minutes.

Yet, Diamandis said market surveys suggest that there are about 10,000 Americans who would spend up to $100,000 for such a space adventure.

“Think of it as barnstorming” but with a $1 billion market, he said, referring to the 1920s practice of freelance pilots who charged a fee for airplane rides.


Asked about the risk involved, Diamandis didn’t pull punches in his talk to FAA officials.

“People may die,” he said. “This is dangerous stuff.”

But Diamandis argues that taking such risks is a basic human right that the government should honor.

“They should have the right to risk their own lives for something they believe in,” he told government executives whose jobs include aviation safety. America was settled by pioneers who chose to risk all for new land or to explore the unknown, he said, and without such a spirit humans will always be earthbound.

“We are living in a risk-averse society, and giving birth to the space travel industry is very difficult under those circumstances,” said Diamandis.

The X Prize is financed by private donors. The list of supporters includes Dennis Tito, an American who spent $20 million to fly on a Russian craft as history’s first space tourist; Erik Lindbergh, a pilot and grandson of Charles Lindbergh; former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn; and movie actor Tom Hanks.

First USA Bank donated $1 million, as did the New Spirit of St. Louis Organization, a descendant of the group that sponsored the trans-Atlantic flight by Charles Lindbergh in 1927.

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