Unsung heroes of the personal spaceflight revolution
by Robin Snelson
|Just recently, I started to believe in that future again, and it was because the X Prize woke me up.|
There was a solution to all the world’s problems, and the way Jesco von Puttkammer told it, with his engineer’s stage fright flavored by a charming Bavarian accent, it sounded so convincing. Over the next few years I wrote a few (and bought quite a few more) stories about the coming age of space settlements and clean, limitless energy from space, mostly published in Future Life, a lavishly illustrated (if partially pulp) youth-oriented magazine, a hybrid that was part futuristic science and part present-day sci-fi. Excuse me: SF, for the purists. Speculative Fiction, if you’re Harlan Ellison.
But I was lured away from that rowdy playground, to a better-paying job on a magazine with slicker paper called NEXT, The Magazine of the Near Future, published by Litton Industries. Unfortunately, just like the actual near future, NEXT soon expired. And my enthusiasm for the future I thought I saw in space, after a year of ridicule by my co-workers at the terminally adult NEXT, also began to fade.
I went to work in another field, and lost touch with most of the people in what I’d come to think of as the Radical Space Underground. And, honestly, after a while, I lost hope in the dream of regular people ever going to space in the way that regular people had crossed oceans and journeyed west to settle new frontiers. Maybe it was all sci-fi. SF. Science Fiction.
Turns out, it was all… true.
And it still is. We’ve just been on the wrong path to get there. The ideas didn’t come from NASA geniuses, as I’d first thought. They came from an advanced physics class at Princeton University taught by Professor Gerard K. O’Neill. Later, they evolved into NASA studies, and then O’Neill’s book, The High Frontier, and then a bunch of pretty pictures and grand ideas that faded away while NASA struggled with its “stepping stone,” the dull, troubled and sometimes tragic space shuttle.
Just recently, I started to believe in that future again, and it was because the X Prize woke me up.
Gregg Maryniak, space philosopher extraordinaire, is Executive Director of the X Prize Foundation. He worked with O’Neill at the Space Studies Institute for the last years of O’Neill’s life. He still believes in that future, and is one of its most eloquent advocates. He’s also one of the architects of a new route to that old promised land.
“The X Prize creed is to foment human breakout into space,” Gregg tells college audiences and business groups and reporters and probably his wife in his sleep. “Expand the solution set. End the limits to growth. That’s the ultimate goal.”
The Ansari X Prize is a race. It’s exciting, it has drama and comedy and high stakes, it’s dangerous, thrilling and adrenalin-producing, and it has only one purpose.
“We mean to jumpstart the personal spaceflight revolution” is how Gregg Maryniak says it. The contest’s very specific rules were carefully designed to weed out the one-man stunt or a winner from big aerospace or government. The contest aims to inspire cheap, reliable ways to get off the planet.
More than that, though, the deeper intent is to change minds, to get the message across—as Lindbergh did for air travel—that space travel is even possible and not some crazy futuristic dream.
It’s not technology that’s lacking: there’s plenty of that on the shelf and in the fertile minds of garage-mechanic rocketeers around the world, especially in North America, with all the surplus on eBay. It’s the market that’s missing. That’s the genius of the X Prize. It’s creating the magic payload of the future: Us.
|“The X Prize creed is to foment human breakout into space,” says Maryniak. “Expand the solution set. End the limits to growth. That’s the ultimate goal.”|
Space colonies, solar power satellites, asteroid mining operations—those steps were all too big, too impossible even for NASA. This path makes more sense: start the journey with a small step and barnstorm our way off the planet. First, you rope in the tourists who can afford the high-priced tickets for space thrill rides, and the rest will follow incrementally. If you can only convince people that it’s possible, they will line up to go.
When I say the X Prize woke me up, what I really mean is that Burt Rutan’s spaceship woke me up.
I’ve known about the X Prize for years. An old friend from the Radical Space Underground, the rocket scientist/movie producer Bob Weiss, is another of its chief architects. As a matter of fact, I’m starting to think he is the chief architect, based on information from a source high in the organization (Gregg Maryniak). I’ve collected news and chatter off the Internet about the X Prize since 1998, not too long after it was first announced, but it never really grabbed my attention. I didn’t get it. There was also the whole lost hope thing: space was too far in the future to get excited about.
The first flight of SpaceShipOne to actual space is what really got me going, like some kind of sleeper agent awakened at a crucial point in the operation and called to duty. I trekked to Mojave, scored a room at White’s Motel, and wandered freely on that first day of summer (is that a Heinlein title?), 2004.
It was partly sunstroke, but the whole thing made me giddy. It was better than Jesco von Puttkammer! I found some old friends from the Radical Space Undergound there (you know who you are), and snapped photos of some new recruits in the crowd on launch day. Hung out with Erik, who I met in the dark airport looking for a good viewing spot. He flew from Boston and drove from Las Vegas, and wasn’t much interested in space travel, but he built a Long-EZ with his dad when he was a teenager and loved flying it.
After the landing, I saw Bob Weiss striding purposefully (he really does that), surrounded by a cloud of people in X Prize logo’d attire. He was wearing a Mojave Civilian Flight Test Center hat, and saying, “Where’s my hat? Who has my hat?” I congratulated him and give him a hug. We chatted for a few seconds, and he introduced me to Gregg Maryniak, an incident that both would later deny—or be unable to recall, due to electrolyte imbalance, possibly.
Anyway, long story short, through a series of ad hoc viral marketing maneuvers and with the superior knowledge of certain key email addresses freely available on the X Prize website, I’ve ended up with my fingertips in a few corners of the X Prize world, and it just keeps making me giddier and giddier.
|The first flight of SpaceShipOne to actual space is what really got me going, like some kind of sleeper agent awakened at a crucial point in the operation and called to duty.|
First, I decided to write a book. Then I joined the all-volunteer staff at X Prize Space Race News, the “indispensable guide” (according to Alan Boyle of MSNBC.com) to everything X Prize, and accidentally became its publisher, if owning the domain name for a co-op news digest makes you a publisher—who knows what the law is these days? Next I started haranguing X Prize staffers with suggestions and opinions and website bug reports, and attempting to penetrate Bob Weiss’s AOL spam filter to invite him to lunch.
That’s how I ended up contributing my vast (if not always perfectly fact-checked) research on the X Prize race to the cause: the live webcast that will show the world it’s possible for regular people to go to space.
Really, I’m hardly doing anything except what I meant to be doing anyway, following the race, researching the history, and this way I get a few glimpses behind the scenes in a very hot sector of the Personal Spaceflight Revolution.
Everybody’s heard of Peter Diamandis, right? He did think up the idea, and his name is most often linked with the X Prize. He’s a hero, too, but you already know about him, so he’s not unsung. I haven’t met him, but I will one day soon I imagine.
Eli Kintisch wrote a series last week for the X Prize’s hometown newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that I highly recommend for X Prize historians. In that story, Peter Diamandis recounts that “a friend” suggested the hole-in-one insurance policy, the clever way the X Prize figured out to pay a $10 million purse it doesn’t actually have in the bank.
Bob Weiss told me how he got the idea for the insurance policy. It happened while he was back home in Chicago, reading about a Catholic charity fishing contest and, as he often did, thinking about how to fund the X Prize. If you catch the fish in the pond with the religious medallion clipped to its tail, you win a million dollars. Bob got to thinking, how does a Catholic parish afford to pay a million-dollar prize, just in case somebody does actually catch the fish? So he called up the parish and asked. The priest explained to Bob the concept of hole-in-one insurance, and Bob passed the idea along to Peter. Now, isn’t that a much better story?
In an exclusive interview with the indispensable X Prize Space Race News, Sigurd Gabriël de Keyser asked Bob Weiss why he, a movie producer, got involved with the X Prize.
“I had been complaining that there was no near-term outlet for my space aspirations.” Bob answered. “All the talk was what was going to happen 50, 75 and 100 years from now. I wanted to get involved with something that would make a difference in MY lifetime.”
“Producing movies does not totally fulfill my desire to see us turn into a spacefaring civilization.” Bob said. “It just helps subsidize my efforts in that regard.”
Bob Weiss has made some very big and very funny movies, and he knows how to put on a show. At this moment, the show is the thing. The message is the medium most likely to transport us to space. It’s the one that’s been holding us back until now.
|“Producing movies does not totally fulfill my desire to see us turn into a spacefaring civilization.” Weiss said. “It just helps subsidize my efforts in that regard.”|
My oldest friend, I mean the friend I’ve known for the longest time—she’s my age, 51, not that old—is an artist who lives in New York and doesn’t have cable TV. But she’s heard about the X Prize and the “little spaceship in the desert.” Although she has no personal interest whatsoever in space travel, the idea delights her. She said it makes her think of how it must have been when the first cars were invented and started driving on public roads. People were used to trains, but a thing you could drive yourself, a scary machine with a motor and no engineer and no tracks to follow, people probably acted the same way they’re acting about spaceships now, like, “You’re going to ride in that?!”
For minds to be changed, people have to see things with their own eyes, or at least on some kind of video screen or in the newspaper.
Bob Weiss is Executive Producer for the live webcasts and broadcasts of the Ansari X Prize flights by SpaceShipOne scheduled for September 29 and October 4, and Gregg Maryniak will be on camera providing color commentary and historical perspective, live for three and a half hours, maybe more.
These two Unsung Heroes of the Personal Spaceflight Revolution (now in progress) are working day and night, and they’re absolutely serious about creating the future they want to live in. And I don’t mean just the upcoming show days.
Did you think this was going to be about Jesco von Puttkammer and Gerry O’Neill? The space race isn’t history anymore, it’s happening now and this time it’s serious fun. Don’t miss the show!