July 3, 2017

FTV: Peter, Erik, and Burt, Oh My!


    If the title above makes you think of the iconic line in The Wizard of Oz (Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!), then your mind must work a lot like mine.  When I hear certain strings of words together, my brain has a tendency to attach them to the rhythm of some song that is stuck in my subconscious.  I could write an entire article about the things that get hummed in my head to the tune of The Beer Barrel Polka (you know:  Now it’s time to roll out the barrel, cause the gang’s all here!) A hundred words in and I have already lead readers astray because this FTV isn’t going to be about Oz or polkas, but about the current state of non-governmental sponsored spaceflight.  Confused?  Sorry.  Now I guess you will have to read on to sort out this puzzle of an introduction.

    The Peter referred to in the title is one Peter Diamandis.  The New York born son of a doctor, his lot in life was to become a doctor.  His passion, however, was space.  To mollify his parents in the doctor department, he eventually landed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he could work on his pre-med degree and still be involved with space related projects.  In 1980, while a student at MIT, the nineteen year old founded an organization called SEDS (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space) that grew from one meeting attended by 30 other interested parties to a worldwide network.  His fraternity brothers called him PIS (short for ‘Pete In Space’) and he added organizing SEDS to his busy schedule of classes and two undergraduate research projects.    He burned the candle at both ends and in the middle, yet managed to gain entry to the Harvard School of Medicine.

   As SEDS grew, Peter enlisted Bob Richards (the chair of SEDS-Canada) and Todd Hawley (who started a SEDS chapter at George Washington University) to help organize the first international SEDS conference.  The first SEDS conference was held at GWU in July of 1982 and from it, peterbobtodd (as they became known due to their shared vision and drive),  were invited to the United Nations conference on space to be held in Vienna.  Among the many contacts they made in their quest to focus on “the peaceful, non governmental use of space” (which happened to be the theme of the Vienna conference), peterbobtodd introduced themselves to Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001:  A Space Odyssey and a god-like figure to any and all space geeks.  Clarke was not responsive to Peter’s first introduction (“We are from SEDS and . . .”) and walked away.  Naturally, Bob and Todd were mortified that Peter again approached Clarke after his Vienna talk, offering him a chance to dine with them!  Clarke replied,”I will call you.”   Peter answered the phone later that evening and upon hanging up, turned to his two companions and said, “That was Arthur.  He said he can’t allow us to take him to dinner.  He wants to take us to dinner.”  In the end, they enlisted “Uncle Arthur” (as peterbobtodd took to calling him with Clarke’s blessings), one of the most influential space visionaries of the 20th century to become an adviser to SEDS.  If one is starting to see Peter Diamandis as an unstoppable force, then one won’t be surprised to find out his next project was to start an International Space University, concurrent with that other little project he had on the front burner:  medical school.

    Even a buzzsaw personality like Peter Diamandis can bite off more than they can chew and it was his medical school studies that began to suffer.  As he neared the end of his studies, he was summoned to the Dean’s office to explain why he should remain in the program.  Peter laid out his grand plan:   become a doctor so he would not offend his parents and use it as a springboard to get into space.   The Dean was sympathetic, figuring anyone crazy enough to endure medical school without actually wanting to be a doctor must be driven by some inner force of will.  He agreed to let Peter conclude his program as long as he promised that he would never practice medicine.

    There are more details to the story but you will need to find Julian Guthrie’s book How to make a spaceship – A band of renegades, an epic race, and the birth of private spaceflight to fill in the details.  The amount of time Guthrie spends on Diamandis is necessary because he sowed the seeds that would eventually jump start the nongovernmental spaceflight programs that are still evolving today.

    Jumping ahead to the early 1990s, we find Peter running two companies designed to open space travel to the masses:  International Microspace and Angel Technologies.  He had a third company in development called Zero Gravity Corporation (ZERO-G).  His International Space University made it possible for individuals interested in civilian space travel to exchange ideas and engineer what had previously been thought impossible:  make spaceflight available to the public without governmental control.  While reading about Charles Lindbergh’s historic 1927 transAtlantic flight, Peter discovered that Lindberg had done so in pursuit of something called The Orteig Prize.  By offering $25,000 to the first person to fly the Atlantic Ocean solo, Raymond Orteig had generated innovations in aviation from nine groups who invested $400,000 in 1927 dollars to try and win the prize.  Diamandis discovered that prizes for ‘firsts’ were quite common and all generated similar technological leaps.  “Why wouldn’t that work with spaceflight?” Peter wondered.  By February of 1994, the first draft of the charter that would become to be known as The XPRIZE was written and included the following passage:  “Throughout all of history, the greatest accomplishments of the human race have been instigated and acted upon by the individual or the small group – never have the masses brought about innovation.  We have the accomplishments of Charles Lindbergh and the Rutan/Yeager/Apollo team as our guiding stars, and every NASA program since Apollo as our incentive to bring about change.”

    The XPRIZE was formally announced under the Gateway Arch in St. Louis on May 18, 1996.  St. Louis was chosen for the announcement because Lindbergh’s plane was named The Spirit of St. Louis after the place that supported his flight.  As Peter explained in his opening remarks, “The Spirit of St. Louis carried Charles Lindbergh from New York to Paris and into the hearts and minds of the world.  Today, all eyes are on St. Louis again.  The XPRIZE has been created for one major purpose, to accelerate the development of low-cost, reusable launch vehicles and thereby jump-start the creation of a space tourism industry.”  The prize offered $10 million dollars for the first craft built for three occupants to breach the internationally acknowledge lower limit of space (62 miles or 328,000 feet) twice within a two week window.

    Among the speakers at the introduction of the XPRIZE was Erik Lindbergh, grandson of Charles Lindbergh who said, in closing, “The XPRIZE is an event that has the potential to capture the world’s imagination,  It has the potential to shift people’s interest from conflict and war to an adventurous goal.”

    NASA Chief Dan Goldin endorsed the XPRIZE by adding,”We need to encourage the participation by as many people, by as many organizations, in this noble venture.  I hope that my grandson, Zachary, who is two years old, will be able to go with his children on a trip to a lunar hotel.”

    Uncle Arthur weighed in via a video message from Sri Lanka:  “I’d like to send my fondest greetings to Buzz (Aldrin) and Peter.  I recently had the pleasure of having Peter here.  He explained the commitment you have made to launching a new era in private space travel.  Thirty years ago, Stanley Kubrick and I made this little movie, 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  We predicted by that time, space tourism would begin and if you had money, anyone who wanted to could go to orbit.  Sooner or later this will happen, and I hope the XPRIZE will contribute to that.  I think I may need to revise my predictions to the date 2004 instead of 2001.  I invite teams from every nation in the world to lay their plans and begin the competition for the prize.  May the best team win.  I am Arthur Clarke, signing off in Sri Lanka, to you in St. Louis – to be known one day as the gateway to the stars.”

    The word spread quickly and the XPRIZE Foundation did indeed kickstart projects in the United States, Argentina, England, and countless other locations around the world.  Peter had the ball rolling on an enterprise that could make space available to more and more people.  He had a vision.  He had a team of like minded people working on the project.  The only thing Diamandis didn’t have was the $10 million dollars.  As the deadline to claim the XPRIZE sped toward him, Peter would spend the better part of the next six years trying to secure the money offered to the winning team.  To illustrate how difficult this would be, he pitched the idea to Richard Branson, he of the Virgin-everything industries (Virgin Records, Virgin Airlines, etc etc).  Branson is an innovative investor and known as “Dr. Yes” for his penchant of funding wild and crazy ideas.  Peter tried to sell him on sponsoring the Virgin XPRIZE and failed.  Dr. Yes told Peter Diamandis ‘No’!

    What of and Burt?  In part 2, we shall take a look at how Peter Diamandis was able to finally fully fund the XPRIZE and single out two individuals from the hundreds of interested participants in the XPRIZE story:  Erik Lindbergh and Burt Rutan.

Top Piece Video – the first flight of Spaceship One in the quest to win the X-Prize competition