The payoff dangled before spacecraft entrepreneurs by the Ansari X Prize was a tidy $10 million. The challenge: Fly a privately financed rocket 62 miles (100 kilometers) into space twice within two weeks — proving that commercial space exploration is both reliable and financially viable.
In 2004, the SpaceShipOne, a craft sponsored by the Scaled Composites aerospace company, claimed the prize after a second successful flight over California.
Many people were watching with interest, including British mogul Richard Branson and American venture capitalist Alan Walton. Branson, founder of Virgin Airways, immediately signed an agreement to use the technology in a planned second-generation design — SpaceShipTwo — to fly commercial passengers into space via his newly formed Virgin Galactic enterprise by 2007. And Walton promptly forked over $200,000 for the chance to someday ride into space himself.
“For most of us, escaping the constraints of gravity is only something we've been able to achieve in our dreams, until now,” said Branson.
But turning the dream into reality has taken longer than many have expected. Regulatory roadblocks and mounting concerns over passenger safety have so far limited private spaceflight to a select few wealthy individuals, who have dished out millions for rides on Russian Soyuz launches to the International Space Station.
In 2001, American investor Dennis Tito paid a reported $20 million to become the first space tourist aboard the station, orbiting Earth for nine days along with its crew of astronauts. Six others have followed, the latest being Cirque du Soleil founder and CEO Guy Laliberté this month.
Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté clowns around before his trip via a Russian Soyuz TMA-16 rocket to the International Space Station. He returned on Oct. 11 after a two-week stay. (AFP/Getty Images/Alexander Nemenov)
“Very few people can afford to travel into space as I did,” Tito told a congressional committee in 2003, but “audiences seem genuinely inspired by the plausibility that one day they or their children could fly into space themselves.”
To date, around 250 would-be astronauts have committed to Virgin Galactic's more affordable $200,000 fare — with $20,000 deposits — which includes a three-day preflight training session.
If all goes according to plan, said President Will Whitehorn, the inaugural flight could occur by mid–2011, carrying Branson, his family and SpaceShipTwo designer Burt Rutan into space for a two-hour sightseeing jaunt just beyond Earth's atmosphere.
But Walton intends to ask for his deposit back if there's no fixed launch date by April 2010, when he'll turn 74. “This was going to be the highlight of my old age,” he said.
X Prize founder Peter Diamandis, CEO of Zero Gravity Corp., insists that despite current obstacles, the industry is moving forward. “The personal spaceflight industry has had over $1 billion invested in it” since the X Prize was awarded, he said.
In addition to Virgin Galactic, several other companies are planning space ventures. Blue Origins, set up by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, anticipates having weekly manned spaceflights by 2012. Germany's Project Enterprise plans to test unmanned flights by 2010.
Confident in the potential scientific benefits that could arise from commercial space exploration, the state of New Mexico has committed $200 million to the construction of Spaceport America, which will serve as the base for Virgin Galactic and other commercial space operations.
The federal government has released a set of proposed rules for space tourism, including passenger-screening procedures and training for emergency situations.
And the nonprofit Space Tourism Society has been formed to educate the public and promote the industry.
Enough will be accomplished logistically, technologically and legally to allow flights within 24 months, insists Diamandis. He promises that like the hoopla that accompanied the X Prize, there will be “another large injection of excitement in public interest once those vehicles begin operating and the public starts getting flown.”
Diamandis says the SpaceShipOne flight has spawned a new space industry, just as Charles Lindbergh's 1927 flight across the Atlantic Ocean helped spur today's $300 billion aviation industry.
“Not only did these historic flights culminate in a beautiful exhibition … in the National Air and Space Museum,” Diamandis said. “The most important legacy and meaning of the Ansari X Prize on its five-year anniversary lies in the fact that the event kicked off a new industry.”
— Darrell Dela Rosa