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.


G said...

I love what the X Prize competition has done for space travel,

Looking into the future, take a look at what the X prize is doing in the automotive world. check out

Unknown said...

Lets go out there and explore. I want to be part of it and as a humble earth man the X Prize could make it possible for me.