Edge-of-Space Ship Designers Vie for Sky-High Prize

July 7, 2003

Government space agencies just can't fly fast enough to satisfy the demand for in-space applications like satellite communications, tourism, and energy harvesting.

So entrepreneurs around the world are developing a private aerospace industry with the passion, resourcefulness, and energy of pioneers.

One incentive that symbolizes the new private space race is the X-Prize: U.S. ten million dollars for the first team to send three people to the brink of space—about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Earth—and return them safely, then duplicate the feat in the same spacecraft within two weeks.

The X-Prize puts a premium on a reusable, economical spacecraft—not a ponderous, pricey shuttle.

To aerospace entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, mastermind, chairman, and president of the privately funded X-Prize Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri, the award is akin to the Orteig Prize that inspired Charles Lindbergh to cross the Atlantic in 1927.

"We now have 25 registered teams, and at least six are actively building flight hardware," Diamandis says. "It's possible that we'll see one or two teams make flight attempts toward the 60-mile [100-kilometer] threshold before the end of the year, but I expect that the actual winning flights will be in early 2004."

"The most important thing going on here is people are starting to dream again," says Diamandis.

Registered teams come from Argentina, Canada, Great Britain, Israel, Romania, Russia, and the United States.

Ground Zero for American Private Rocketry

The hotbed of American private rocketry is the Mojave Civilian Flight Test Center, in Mojave, California, ground zero for half a dozen new rocket companies.

Like other high-tech industries, private rocketry relies mainly on venture capital for funding.

"For the first year we funded ourselves out of our savings accounts," says Dan DeLong, Chief Engineer at XCOR Aerospace. "None of us is rich, and that got really scary. Fortunately, Mojave is a real low-cost-of-living place to be."

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