As the pitchman for the XPRIZE Foundation, Peter Diamandis knew he had his work cut out for him when Dr. Yes (Richard Branson) said ‘no’ when asked to become a sponsor of the $10 million dollar XPRIZE. Peter drew up a list of people with deep pockets and began a six year courtship of potential sponsors to fund the prize that would go to the first non-governmental group to successfully launch a suborbital flight beyond the recognized 62 mile limit twice in a two week period. One of the people he set his sights on was Reeve Lindbergh, the granddaughter of Charles A. Lindbergh. Having won the $25,000 Orteig Prize for his nonstop, solo flight over the Atlantic Ocean, Charles Lindbergh had been one of Peter’s inspirations to start the XPRIZE competition. Reeve listened politely to Peter and then suggested she talk to the only flyer in the family, her brother Erik.
Like most of the Lindbergh clan, Erik wasn’t keen on using the family name for fame or fortune. He was an avid sportsman and ski bum who aspired to own an outdoor outfitting shop one day. In August of 1986, the then 21 year old Erik, his older brother Leif and cousin Craig Vogel made a climbing trek to the peak of the 14,411 foot Mount Rainier, the highest mountain in the Cascade Range. During and after this climb, Erik began experiencing debilitating joint pain that came and went in the weeks after the climb. He finally visited a doctor and was told that there was a chance that he had the chronic disease rheumatoid arthritis that produced symptoms like Erik was experiencing: pain and swelling of the wrists, feet and ankles. As his condition got worse, he tried various medical regimes and homeopathic remedies but nothing worked. His formerly athletic body began to betray him and by the time he met Peter Diamandis, sitting in a chair could be an excruciating experience for Erik.
Erik Lindbergh was always an environmentalist and when Peter first tried to enlist him (and the Lindbergh family name) to help the XPRIZE Foundation, Erik said, “I can think of a lot of ways to use ten million dollars right here on Earth.” After much discussion on the topic, Erik began to understand that if the XPRIZE could give more people the experience of seeing the planet as the ‘Big Blue Marble’ that many astronauts described it as, that perhaps it would be another way to generate a broader, more responsible environmental view of the Earth. Erik had never even visited the city that helped launch his grandfather’s dream, but he said he would try to be there for the announcement of The XPRIZE. The flying Lindbergh could barely walk and seldom flew, but without knowing it, Peter had planted a seed that would help Erik Lindbergh get back his active life and help fund the XPRIZE at the same time.
By January of 2001, knee replacement surgery and the new anti-arthritis drug Enbrel had given Erik some of his mobility back. Able to be active again, he slowly gained back much of his vitality and self confidence. Embracing his grandfather’s legacy, he volunteered to help the XPRIZE Foundation raise funds by recreating Charles solo trans-Atlantic flight. Friends and family tried to talk him our of it but he resolved that it would give him a better understanding of what his grandfather experienced. He also wanted to demonstrate to people who were suffering that they could get their lives back like he did.
Erik endured the brutal emergency training needed to be certified to make the flight. In 2002 he and his team pulled it off in time for the 75th Anniversary of his grandfather’s flight. The XPRIZE had been inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s flight and now his grandson Erik was helping Peter move toward his dream by attracting attention and new donations generated by his flight.
Even though Richard ‘Dr Yes’ Branson and dozens of other potential backers said ‘no’ to funding the XPRIzE during the three years after the program was announced, Peter finally got some good news: First USA Bank would put up half of the $10 million prize, but only if the flight was made by December 17, 2003 – the one hundredth anniversary of the Wright Brother’s first powered flight. This meant that Peter needed to find the other $5 million dollars. Between Erik’s May 2002 flight and the looming December 17th date, things began to get a little desperate until XPRIZE Foundation member Bob Weiss came up with an ‘out-there’ idea to fund the other $5 million: hole-in-one insurance. If they could get an insurance company to bet against someone winning the prize (which is fairly common in fund raising situations where a group runs a promotion for a large prize if someone makes a half court basketball shot, for instance). After the insurance company did a complete analysis of the groups working on entries and the difficulty of the endeavor, they more or less decided that this would be the easiest money they had made in quite a while.
In the negotiation process, Peter was able to get them to extend the deadline into the next year and double it to a $10 million dollar payout. If a group won the prize by the Wright centennial, they would pay out the $5 million. If no one collected the prize by then, they would cover the entire $10 million if the goal was met within the next year, therefore covering the First BANK’s contribution if their 2003 deadline was missed. This would require Peter and the XPRIZE Foundation to make sixteen monthly premium payments of $50,000, and a one time balloon payment of $1.3 million dollars. Peter could not pass on the deal and the fully funded XPRIZE was finally a reality. It became the Ansari XPRIZE when the Ansari family pitched in to support the Foundation.
The Ansaris family (Anousheh, her husband Hamid and her brother-in-law Amir) left Tehran to escape Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution. They arrived in the United States speaking no English and with little money. Eventually, they all ended up working at MCI where they were able to save $50,000 and open their own company, Telecom Technologies. Peter had come across their names on a list of the forty wealthiest self-made people published in Fortune magazine. They had sold Telecom Technologies to Sonus Networks for $1.2 billion dollars, but what caught Peter’s attention was this statement: “Anousheh – the 35-year-old Sonus Networks VP – one of two women on this year’s rich list is talking about her desire to board a civilian-carrying, suborbital shuttle. ‘It would be nice,’ she said, ‘ to get outside the planet and see the universe for what it really is.’” It would be Peter that would eventually broker the agreement to get her beyond suborbital and make her the second space tourist to fly on the ISS after billionaire Dennis Tito.
The Ansari’s listened to Peter’s pitch. While he did not get a fully fund single sponsor as he had hoped for, they agreed to front the XPRIZE Foundation $1.75 million dollars and help the Foundation continue raising operational funding. If they managed to bring in more than $4.5 million in donations, they would get their original $1.75 million investment back. Six years after the announcement of the XPRIZE, Peter could turn his attention from the constant struggle to find money (the $50,000 monthly insurance premiums came to be called ‘money Fridays’) and concentrate on following the progress of the teams trying to beat the deadline. Peter was glad the actuaries at the insurance company hadn’t banked on a competitor like Burt Rutan entering when they decided to back the prize.
Burt Rutan had been a maverick airplane and balloon designer and builder for his whole career. It was his plane (Voyager One) that his brother Dick and Jeana Yeager had piloted around the world without stopping or refueling in December of 1986. He had settled in making radical airplane designs at his Rutan Aircraft Factory (later reformed as Scaled Composites) in the Mojave desert in 1974. He was one of the speakers at the XPRIZE announcement in 1996, stating that he was intrigued by the prospect of Peter’s dream of opening the new era of civilian space travel. He hinted that he might join in the fun. When Burt Rutan finally threw his hat into the ring of enthusiasts chasing the XPRIZE as a competitor, he immediately became the odds on favorite to win it all. He sketched, planned, and tested, finally settling on a design that meld a high flying mother ship to carry his shuttle to 50,000 feet with a smaller craft similar to the Bell X-1 that Chuck Yeager had first broken the sound barrier with in 1947. Burt later quipped, “The program is a lot like the X-15, but we had this minor annoyance: we had to build our own B-52.” The mothership ship was named White Knight (and sometimes referred to as White Knuckles during the testing phases) and the ship that would be released to climb past the boundary into suborbital space was named SpaceShipOne. The chutzpah Rutan’s team showed in designing and manufacturing the winning entry is too involved to relate here. Julian Guthrie has done a marvelous job of tracking the minute details in her book How to make a Spaceship (Penguin Press 2016) which I highly recommend if one wants more details than presented here.
The story of the XPRIZE Foundation did not end with the awarding of the first XPRIZE. If one checks out the Foundation website (http://www.xprize.org), there is a long list of prizes that have been awarded and/or are currently spurring innovative ways to solve problems from medicine to moon landings. Others who got on board the space train because of Peter Diamandis are now carrying on with programs like Jeff Bezos and his Blue Horizon rocket program, Paul Allen (of Microsoft fame) who quietly backed Rutan’s SpaceShipOne project, and Elon Musk (co-founder of PayPal) whose SpaceX corporation has grown into a major player in the civilian space race. Musk has set his sights on not only getting into space with a faster turn around and reusable rockets, he has designs on getting the first humans to Mars. His most recent entry in the history books was the first successful re-use of a rocket stage that had been used to launch a resupply mission to the International Space Station in April of 2016. This stage was the first to successfully land on their drone ship at sea, be refurbished to launch a satellite payload and be successfully landed (again) on their drone ship on March 30, 2017.
Perhaps one day civilian space programs will make NASA and ESA obsolete, but it is certain that these programs will allow the governmentally sponsored programs to stretch their shrinking budgets to maximum effect. A NASA fan since the early 1960s, I was some what ambivalent about the concept of civilian space flight until I realized that NASA won’t be adequately funded with the current political atmosphere in Washington and the civilian programs are necessary to the future of space exploration. There are a lot of questions waiting to be answered, and we are lucky enough to be watching history unfolding before us. It feels like the dawn of the space age all over again.
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