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The space visionary behind the X Prize

Published by Robin on Sat Oct 16, 2004 10:15 pm
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Spaceflights advance Peter Diamandis’ lifelong dream

MSNBC.com By HELEN O’NEILL, The Associated Press, Oct 16, 2004

Peter Diamandis wasn’t thinking about history as he stood in the Mojave Desert and watched a small, shuttlecock-shaped craft glide back to Earth, having nudged the edge of space.

He just thought it looked beautiful.

It was the next day, after the thousands of cheering spectators had disappeared, after the jubilant speeches had dried up along with the champagne, as Diamandis was driving his father back to Los Angeles, that euphoria – and relief – swept over him.
So many people had trusted him, backed him, bailed him out even when others had ridiculed his notion of jump-starting space tourism by offering a $10 million prize for the first privately financed passenger craft to soar 62 miles through the atmosphere and return safely to Earth.

At last, he told his father, “the fuse has been lit.”

Gently, his father reminded him that he was the one who ignited it.

The headlines from the Oct. 4 flight (and the congratulatory call from President Bush) went to aviator Burt Rutan, who designed SpaceShipOne; to pilots Michael Melvill and Brian Binnie, who flew it in two separate suborbital flights a week apart; and to billionaire Paul Allen, who financed it.

The vision behind the voyage, the brains behind the $10 million purse that spurred it, belong to a small, intense, impeccably dressed son of Greek immigrants, a man so obsessed by space that even his mother jokingly wonders whether her son carries an extraterrestrial gene.

Diamandis, 43, is deadly serious about his dreams, and they go far beyond the commercial space travel many say was initiated this month.

Diamandis has visions of living in space, of exploring the stars and of – eventually, though perhaps not in his lifetime – colonizing them.

As his friends and even skeptics point out, Peter Diamandis has a habit of turning dreams into reality.

“Peter is truly the Raymond Orteig of our time,” said his longtime friend and partner Gregg Maryniak.

Orteig was the immigrant French hotelier who in 1919 offered a prize of $25,000 for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris, a prize that was captured by Charles Lindbergh when he landed his Spirit of St. Louis in Paris on May 21, 1927, 33 1/2 hours after setting off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island. Lindbergh’s flight forever changed the way people viewed air travel. Within years, trans-Atlantic passenger flights had become a fact of life.

Diamandis predicts his X Prize will do the same for space.

Unlike Orteig, however, Diamandis is far more than the moneyman.

From the time he was a child in Long Island, smitten by images of the Apollo moon landings, Diamandis has poured his heart and soul into researching space and trying to speed up his chances of getting there. He gave up on the idea of government-sponsored spaceflight after the 1986 Challenger disaster derailed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s space shuttle program. The quickest route to space, he decided, would be through privately funded missions.

So Diamandis set out to make it possible.

In 1980, as a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he founded Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, which now has chapters all over the world. He hosted conferences, gave speeches, wrote papers and became the natural leader of a like-minded band of brothers who followed the teaching of futurist and Princeton University physicist Gerard O’Neill.

“The meek shall inherit the Earth. The rest of us are going to the stars.” It became Diamandis’ mantra.

Diamandis moved on to Harvard Medical School largely to please his parents, who were more than a little baffled by their only son’s obsession.

“I understood his passion,” said Tula Diamandis, who urged her son to become a doctor like his father. “It was just hard for me to embrace it.”

Even over the phone, Diamandis seems to find it a little disquieting, how his dreams have defined his life. Eventually he would like a home and family, he says, but first he wants to get to space.

“I feed on it intellectually. I believe in it,” Diamandis said. “I just don’t feel right doing anything else.”

Diary Launched The Dream

And so, over the years, Diamandis has done little else. He organized space conferences and Web sites. He started foundations to promote space travel. He founded the International Space University, which started as a summer school and now has permanent campus and staff in Strasbourg, France.

He got a medical degree from Harvard and an aerospace engineering degree from MIT. He started his own rocket company. He co-founded the Zero Gravity Corp., which just this summer got approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct weightless flights for the public aboard a specially modified Boeing 727-200.

Remarkably, he always found backers and believers, and though occasionally his schemes sputtered, more often they thrived.

“Peter just refuses to let things die,” said Maryniak, who first met Diamandis as a student and now is executive director of the X Prize Foundation. “He just thinks differently, finds another way, and people end up admiring and then believing and then backing him.”

In 1994, Maryniak gave his friend a copy of Lindbergh’s Pulitzer-winning autobiography, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” hoping it would inspire Diamandis, as it had Maryniak, to get his pilot’s license.

It wasn’t Lindbergh who captivated Diamandis. It was Orteig.

By the time he closed the book, Diamandis was calling everyone he knew, pitching his plan to create a space prize. He would call it the X Prize: X for mystery, X for experimental, X for the Roman numeral 10, representing the $10 million that would go to the winner.

He found supporters, people such as Doug King, president of the St. Louis Science Center, who urged Diamandis to capitalize on the Lindbergh- St. Louis connection and base his organization in that city. In March 1996, a group of businessmen was invited to the dining room of the historic Racquet Club. Over drinks, at the same table where an earlier generation of locals had pledged to bankroll Lindbergh, they listened as Diamandis sold them on space.

St. Louis could become a “gateway to the stars,” Diamandis told them as clips from the 1957 movie “Spirit of St. Louis,” starring James Stewart, played in the background. Look what Lindbergh and his backers achieved, Diamandis said. You can become the “New Spirit of St. Louis” and do the same for space, he told them.

Seven pledged $25,000 on the spot. On May 18, under the Arch, surrounded by more than a dozen astronauts, including Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, Diamandis announced the creation of the X Prize.

Columnist Humbled

Charles Lindbergh’s grandson, Erik Lindbergh, came onboard. So did science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, after Diamandis trekked to Sri Lanka to record his message of support. The Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the organization that had certified Lindbergh as the winner of the Orteig Prize, approved. NASA Administrator Dan Goldin offered his support.

Still, there were as many skeptics as believers.

“It probably comes as no surprise that some of the leading citizens of our community have too much money and too little sense,” veteran columnist Bill McClellan, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote in a piece that so offended Diamandis he stuck it over his desk for years. McClellan, who acknowledged in a recent column how wrong he was, chuckles at the memory.

McClellan couldn’t deny that Diamandis’ competition had fired the imagination of space enthusiasts. Around the globe, teams started building rockets. Some were sleek and sophisticated and well-financed, others no more than “backyard mechanics,” as McClellan described them. They had names such as Starchaser, the Da Vinci project, the Mayflower – and, of course, SpaceShipOne.

The race to space was on.

From the start, the hardest part for Diamandis was raising the prize money.

By 2001, friends and family worried privately that Diamandis might go bankrupt trying to keep the race alive. Investments had dried up, though Diamandis was working 16 hours a day trying to find backers. Maryniak was beginning to view his friend as a tragic hero.

Diamandis didn’t care; Lindbergh had had his doubters, too. And the competition already had generated enormous funding for space research, which was one of the goals of the X prize. (Allen, who financed Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, ended up spending over $20 million.)

Then, in September 2001, Diamandis read a Fortune magazine article about two wealthy Texans who longed to “see the stars.” He flew to Dallas, met Anousheh Ansari and her brother-in-law, Amir, and flew back to St. Louis with a commitment of more than $1 million. The competition was renamed the Ansari X Prize. The infusion of money attracted more investors, and the race was back on.

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