Thursday, September 24, 2009

Launching Commercial Space Flight: Part Four - Anousheh Ansari and Her $10 Million Purse

Launching Commercial Space Travel - Part 4

Anousheh Ansari and Her $10 Million Purse

Ever since I was a young girl in Iran, I have had a deep curiosity and active imagination which peak whenever I look up at the night sky.  I’m fascinated to think about how we got to this place and time, what will come after us and what else is out there.  For many others the dream of space is tied to the thrill of riding a rocket, but if I could blink my eyes and be there, I would do so. To me, rockets are just transportation – the allure is in exploring the universe. 

I have also always had an inner voice which compels me to follow my dream and aspirations.  This voice has been my guide in my journey to the U.S. and in rough road of entrepreneurship to successful business.  Even though my Entrepreneurial aspirations were not directly related to my passion for space, they ultimately provided me the financial means to make space travel a realistic possibility.  And so, having carried the dream of space exploration throughout my life, I was incredibly excited when Peter Diamandis came to visit our family (me, my husband, Hamid, and his brother, Amir, who are also space enthusiasts) to tell us about the X PRIZE. 

As entrepreneurs, we knew the huge amount of work that it would take to make his idea succeed, as well as the many setbacks he would face along the way.  And yet, sitting there listening to him, what was so captivating about Peter was his passion, because in the end, we knew that only passion that strong would keep him going in the face of the tremendous challenges ahead.  Additionally, his vision really resonated with us; we had been looking for possibilities to go to space and perhaps find a way for other like us with a passion for space to be able to do it as well.  While some options existed, they lacked credibility.  The beauty of the X PRIZE was that we didn’t have to decide which company had the greatest probability of building a safe and useable private spaceship, we could support all of the competing teams (and therefore multiple solutions) and we would not have to pay out unless there was a winner.  The investment also offered considerable leverage, as the $10 million prize purse would incentivize multiple teams around the globe to compete, and those teams would find sponsors to invest in their technology (in the end team and sponsorship investment amounted to over $100 million).  So we signed on to sponsor the prize, which then became known as the Ansari X PRIZE.

Throughout the competition, for selfish reason, I hoped with all my heart that someone would win.  I wasn’t sure if it was possible, but I always maintained hope – even when the first deadline passed and the prize remained unclaimed.  As a family of entrepreneurs, we are eternally optimistic, so we decided to extend the deadline by a year.  When I realized the second deadline was drawing near, I still didn’t lose hope.  I had witnessed miracles in the past, and I knew we were on the brink of something really important.

When the prize was at last won (with less than a month until the deadline!), it exceeded all of my expectations.  Witnessing SpaceShipOne hanging in the Air & Space museum really proved that we had made history.  And when we learned that the prize had sparked a new industry and that Sir Richard Branson commercialized the technology…well, that was just the cherry on top. 

Now, as a member of the Board of Trustees and the Vision Circle of the X PRIZE Foundation, I have the opportunity to continue to make history using incentive prizes to drive radical breakthroughs.  Although there are four different areas, including Energy & the Environment, Life Sciences, Exploration, and Education & Global Development, that are being addressed with X PRIZEs, I am a space cadet.  I look forward to the day when the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE is won, and I am committed to developing more space-based prizes which will give us further access to crucial materials and energy necessary to solve some of mankind’s greatest challenges.

Tune in next week for the culmination of the blog series, when Brian Binnie tells about what it felt like to fly in the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE winning flight!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Launching Commercial Space Flight: Part Three - Will Whitehorn and Virgin Galactic Want to Bring You to Space

Launching Commercial Space Travel - Part 3

Will Whitehorn and Virgin Galactic Want to Bring You to Space

The '60s and '70s were space eras. NASA had launched the Apollo program (1963 - 1972), and with that, space exploration was alive. We had accomplished a significant and daring feat with the Apollo 11 moon landing. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey brought the story of space exploration to the big screen. The buzz of space was everywhere and ushered in a new wave of hope and excitement...something we had never before witnessed. People began to dream that, they too, could someday travel into space. But, as time progressed, the dream began to disappear. We saw a string of horrendous accidents - including the 1986 Challenger explosion. Scientists began to make the argument that robots (and not man) should travel to space. Slowly, our hope and promise for space exploration had morphed into a general malaise. I clearly remember the turn of the millennium as a time in which the dream of space seemed to be lost.

And then along came the X PRIZE. The Ansari X PRIZE was launched at a time when space was coming back on the agenda. Satellites, probes and the Hubble Space Telescope were all good stories, and a new generation had forgotten this "man vs. robot" debate. The topic of space exploration had gradually made its way back.

I first learned about X PRIZE in 1997 when Peter Diamandis called Sir Richard (Branson) and me. Now, incentive prizes as drivers of innovation had gone out of fashion since the Second World War. But after talking with Peter, I said to Sir Richard, "This is fascinating. We should seriously be looking at the technology of whoever wins." We debated whether or not it was possible for the prize to be won. In the end, we decided that because technology had changed so much and because prizes were such strong drivers of technological breakthroughs, that it was a possible achievement. The X PRIZE was trailblazing the incentive prize model; even from the word "go" it couldn't be dismissed.

The response to the X PRIZE was global. From Japan to Scotland and from Scandinavia to South Africa, people all around the world were watching and talking about it. Almost every where you went, there was somebody who knew about the Ansari flight. Maybe they didn't know all of the details. Maybe they just knew that there had been a private space flight or that someone had made it to space, but to achieve that kind of global awareness, in a world where there was so much going on, was extremely impressive.

The most exciting thing about all of this was the chance that no winner would be announced by the deadline. It was an enormous risk for Sir Richard to sign the deal with Paul Allen and Burt Rutan (the sponsor and the engineer of the team that won the Ansari X PRIZE). It was this 19th century idea of "if we build it they will come." Yet in 2004, their SpaceShipOne DID win the $10 million prize. And think about how that happened: because Burt came out of the aviation industry and was an aerodynamicist, not a rocket scientist, he was able to develop a practical technological solution that we, as a business, could apply to many other things. That's the success of the prize model.

In 2004-2005, we launched Virgin Galactic using the spaceship we licensed from Paul Allen. We anticipate that approximately 600 people will go to space in the first year that SpaceShipTwo begins space tours. That's essentially the total number of people who have ever gone to space. By our tenth year, we anticipate taking close to eight or nine-thousand people a year. With these numbers, the economies of scale and amortization of costs will dramatically drive down the price, just as it did in aviation, which first began as a luxury very few people could afford. And as we start to add on other businesses, including satellite launches, space science experiments and others, we'll attract venture capital to transform the industry.

So, considering how far we have come since that call in 1997, the Ansari X PRIZE was not only a catalyst for developing the commercial space industry, but also for keeping the dream of space alive.

Please tune in Fridays through October 2 to read the inspirational stories of the visionaries and heroes who turned my "crazy idea" into a reality. Next week you will read about Anousheh Ansari, the first woman to privately go to space, and her $10 million purse. We will conclude the series the following week with the exciting story of Brian Binnie and his prize winning flight of SpaceShipOne.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Launching Commercial Space Flight: Part Two - Dumitru Popescu Builds His Dream Rocket

To commomorate the 5th anniversary of the winning of the Ansari X PRIZE, every week through October 2, read the inspirational stories of the visionaries and heroes who turned their "crazy ideas" into a reality.

Guest Blogger Dumitru Popescu:

In 2000, I recruited a highly educated and skilled Aerospace team; started a small commercial space organization in a country where that is unprecedented; and dedicated all of my spare time and money to a contest I was sure we would not win. THAT is the power of incentivized competition.

I first heard about the X PRIZE Foundation by pure coincidence. My wife and I were surfing the web in an internet cafe when my search for rocket engines unearthed the Ansari X PRIZE website, which would change my life forever. I learned about the competition to privately launch a rocket into sub-orbit. As someone with a lifelong passion for Aviation and Astronautics, as well as a degree from the Aerospace University in Bucharest, I have always wanted to build civilian rockets, but in Romania this sort of activity is limited to the military. I knew competing in this contest would require a lot of technical expertise. I also knew that securing the funding would be difficult as there are very limited opportunities in the EU for entrepreneurs interested in starting small, commercial space businesses. If we went forward, we would do so with our own wallets.

Despite these hurdles, my wife and I teamed up with University students to create ARCA, a private organization that would eventually build a rocket to compete for the Ansari X PRIZE. From the beginning, my colleagues were skeptical about whether or not we could make ARCA a serious organization, let alone be a serious contender in the X PRIZE competition. Regardless, it was a great opportunity to gain experience and learn about space, so we decided to move forward. My dream to build rockets became a reality.

Early on we did not talk publicly about what we intended to do. We waited until we could leverage the product of our work to increase our credibility. After completing a small pressurized tank, we showed it to various potential sponsors and succeeded in convincing them to donate money and to sponsor our team for a few years. The donations and sponsorship amounts weren't very big, but they enabled us to keep going. After we completed our first rocket, we were ready to share our achievements publicly. The press and our community became excited when they witnessed our engine tests. It was that moment when others began to realize what was possible.

With a half a year remaining in the competition, I attended a meeting with the other teams competing for the Ansari X PRIZE. On that day, I told Burt Rutan, designer of Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne, in the presence of all the competitors, that he would win the competition. This was hard for a lot of people to accept, but I was right. One of my colleagues was in attendance for the first flight of SpaceShipOne, and he carried with him the support of our whole team. We wanted very much for Burt and his team to succeed (my team and I were very concerned when their vehicle began to spin out of control). In the end, Burt and his team claimed the $10 Million Ansari X PRIZE. A lot of teams were disappointed as they found themselves suddenly left without a main objective. We at ARCA decided to keep moving forward.

In 2006, I had the opportunity to speak with Peter Diamandis at the X PRIZE Cup. I expressed my hope to him that the X PRIZE would initiate another space-based competition in which ARCA could compete. By the end of 2007, this hope was realized when I learned about the $30 Million Google Lunar X PRIZE. Once again, I said, "Let's go forward with this competition." I had listened, learned and taken the best from the teams in the Ansari X PRIZE and five years later, I am armed with that knowledge and ready for a new competition...a competition with larger ambitions. This time our sights are set on the Moon. And when the time comes for us to launch our space probe to the Moon, I will decorate that probe with a picture that was taken in Los Angeles of myself and the other Ansari space pioneers back in 2004. And after the probe lands on the Moon, I plan to call each one of them to say that, "Your picture is on the Moon and it's looking at you!" Then we will laugh together just as in the days of the Ansari X PRIZE Competition.

 Next week we will hear from Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic, the personal space tourism company now licensing the Ansari X PRIZE winning SpaceShipOne design and technology.  Other guest bloggers in this series include Anousheh Ansari, Ansari X PRIZE title sponsor and Brian Binnie, the astronaut who flew in the Ansari X PRIZE winning flight.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Launching Commercial Space Flight: Part One - Dr. Peter H. Diamandis Finds The New Spirit of St. Louis

Many people look at the X PRIZE Foundation and say, "WOW" - what a great idea." What they may not know is how one person's initial concept evolves to that "WOW" stage of achievement. Here's my journey.

I am a space cadet.

Since the age of 6, I've always wanted to go to space. So, I studied medicine - thinking that was my path to orbit, but alas, NASA didn't agree, so I had to find another plan - a plan that led to the founding of the first X PRIZE.

In 1994, to motivate me to complete my pilot's license, my good friend, Gregg Maryniak, gave me Charles Lindbergh's autobiography of his solo flight across the Atlantic. The Spirit of St. Louis told the tale of Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize. I had no idea his motivation was a prize - and suddenly, my path was clear. If it worked for Lindbergh, it would work to incentivize private spaceflight and in the course, my trip to space. My first hurdle was to find the seed money to get the idea off the ground. The active space communities seemed a natural fit, but my friend, Doug King, the newly installed President of the St. Louis Science Center, proposed that St. Louis would be the ideal place to launch the X PRIZE. The synergies were obvious: it was where Charles Lindbergh raised the seed money to build his prize-winning aircraft nearly 75 years earlier; it was home of the McDonnell Douglas Corporation which had built the Mercury and Gemini Capsules; and St. Louis is historically known as the Gateway for early exploration of the West.

I had my first meeting with Al Kerth, head of the St. Louis community's Civic Progress Organization, the man whom I was told was "the guy you have to convince in St. Louis." I will never forget the moment, when halfway through my impassioned pitch about my X PRIZE vision, Al got up out of his chair and said "I get it! I get it! This is huge! We need to do this in St. Louis!"

Over scotch that evening, Al told me about his own vision for the X PRIZE - to find 100 St. Louisans to each pledge $25,000 (the size of the Orteig Prize that Lindbergh won) to form the NEW Spirit of St. Louis. Together, Al and I met one-on-one with incredible people ... folks like spirited explorers Lotsie Holton and Doug King; civic leaders such as Dick Fleming, Walter Metcalfe and Hugh Scott; corporate giants like John McDonnell and Andy Taylor; and entrepreneurs like Bill Maritz and Marc Arnold. Through their generous contributions, the X PRIZE now had the opportunity to revive the pioneering legacy of Lindbergh and the original Spirit of St. Louis and to find the Lindbergh of our generation.

On May 18, 1996, underneath the St. Louis Gateway Arch, and on stage with NASA Administrators, FAA Associate Administrators, Buzz Aldrin, Byron Lichtenberg, Owen Garriott and 17 other astronauts, along with members of the Lindbergh family (including X PRIZE Trustee Erik Lindbergh), we announced the $10 Million X PRIZE for the first private team to fly two consecutive flights to the edge of space within two weeks. With more than 50 media outlets recording this incredible event, I was convinced that the hardest part was behind me and that we would rapidly find a purse sponsor. With the support of NASA, the FAA and some of the biggest names in the Space industry, who wouldn't want to get involved? Especially since they would only have to pay if the prize was won! The harsh reality, though, was that every CEO said the same three things: "Can anyone really do this?" "Isn't someone going to die trying?" and "Why isn't NASA doing this?" It was a long struggle with a few high points, like when Tom Clancy spontaneously donated $100,000 during our 1997 gala. But the $10 Million title sponsor, our holy grail, still evaded us.

That was, of course, until a magical moment in 2001 when I met the Ansari family, who immediately saw the vision and signed on as the title sponsor of what we would historically rename the "Ansari X PRIZE." Five years after we announced the competition, I could finally take a deep breath and enjoy the fact that the purse money was secured. But then the real challenge began - making sure there would be a winner...

Please tune in next week and every Friday through October 2, to read the inspirational stories of the visionaries and heroes who turned my "crazy idea" into a reality. Next week we will hear from the Romanian team who overcame significant hurdles to compete for the Ansari X PRIZE, and is now set on winning the Google Lunar X PRIZE. Other guest bloggers in this series include Anousheh Ansari, Ansari X PRIZE title sponsor; Brian Binnie, the astronaut who flew in the Ansari X PRIZE winning flight; Lori Garver, NASA Deputy Administrator; and Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic, the personal space tourism company now licensing the Ansari X PRIZE winning SpaceShipOne design and technology.

SpaceShipOne - Ansari X PRIZE winner