On October 4, 2004, commercial astronaut Brian Binnie won the Ansari XPRIZE for flying the first commercial spaceship out of the atmosphere twice within two weeks. That third spaceflight of SpaceShipOne netted $10 million for investor Paul Allen and builder Scaled Composites (whose leader, Burt Rutan, split the company’s share with his employees).
The winning of the XPRIZE marked a milestone in spaceflight, blowing up the myth that only big government programs could send people into space at a cost of billions of dollars. Scaled and Allen spent around $26 million in the effort. Although it was considerably more than the prize money, it was the clincher that got Richard Branson to invest in SpaceShipTwo as the flagship for his Virgin Galactic. And SpaceShipOne got a place of honor in the National Air and Space Museum’s Milestones of Flight gallery, right next to the Spirit of St. Louis that inspired its creation.
Even more importantly, October 4, 2004 marked the beginning of the era of commercial spaceflight, with investment flowing from there into space startups, with major aerospace firms and NASA investing in commercial space ventures, and the public daring to dream big about space again.
Back then, the effects of the winning of the prize weren’t immediately obvious. XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandis imagined that it would launch a fleet of suborbital space startups competing to send tourists past the 62-mile, 100-kilometer Kármán Line into space on regular schedules. In fact, the Spaceship that Could, as Binnie likes to call it, is to date the only privately funded manned craft to send people into suborbital space and back (Binnie’s colleague Mike Melvill flew SpaceShipOne on its first and second spaceflights earlier in 2004).
And yet, as the Start-Up Space report put out earlier this year by The Tauri Group points out, a space startup, SpaceX, has joined the rarefied ranks of unicorns—private companies worth $1 billion or more. And a serious competitor for suborbital tourist flights to Virgin Galactic remains, Blue Origin, headed by Amazon.com chief Jeff Bezo. Both Virgin and Blue are also working on orbital ventures, and SpaceX is heading to Mars.
These are just some of the high profile commercial space ventures whose business plans would have been ridiculed as impossible before SpaceShipOne’s pioneering advance. A host of smaller companies with the funding and expertise needed to succeed is also charging ahead in commercial space, including flight test company Masten Space Systems, asteroid mining company Planetary Resources (co-founded by Diamandis), and lunar landing companies (and current XPRIZE competitors) Astrobotic and Moon Express (headed by Diamandis’s old friend Bob Richards).
The Tauri Group report puts the overall investment in commercial space startups for last year alone at $2.7 billion, including from more than 50 venture capital firms. Simply put, investors now see space as the next business frontier. As one investor puts it in the report,
“You can now make money with space investment, which wasn’t largely a true statement before.”
This is the legacy of the Ansari XPRIZE.
Now, just in time for the anniversary of SpaceShipOne’s prize-winning flight, comes a new book that goes deeper and in more detail than any that has gone before into the creation and winning of the Ansari XPRIZE (including my own Rocketeers, which covers a wider swath of activity).
In writing How to Make a Spaceship, journalist Julian Guthrie got unprecedented insight into the inner workings of the XPRIZE and how it came to be (and almost didn’t).
We’re treated to the formerly private musings of Diamandis, who conceived of the XPRIZE as a way to jumpstart private space exploration. We go behind the scenes at the formation of the organization that continues today to offer prizes in everything from Star Trek Tricorders to lunar landings, and we meet all the other people who made the first commercial manned spaceflights happen, including Richard Branson (who wrote a foreword to the book), Burt Rutan, Erik Lindbergh—whose reenactment of his famous grandfather’s transatlantic flight gave the prize a life-saving jolt of publicity and cash at just the right time—and many of the XPRIZE competitors who spurred Rutan and his team on in building and flying SpaceShipOne.
And we get inside the cockpit of the Little SpaceShip that Could as first Melvill and then Binnie shoot for the stars. We’re right there with them as Guthrie’s words brings these historic moments of weightless freedom to life.
I asked Guthrie to share some of her thoughts on writing the book and what the XPRIZE means to her and the future of commercial spaceflight.
On drawing from Diamandis’s diaries to write the book, she told me,
There was nothing that was off limits. It was incredible because these journals were very raw. They started when Peter was a senior in high school and ran through the winning of the XPRIZE in 2004. I read them and felt like I watched him grow up. I was sad when he was failing and happy when he was succeeding. I felt like I was with him when more than 150 people said no to funding the $10m XPRIZE. I also was a fly on the wall (as the reader of the book will be) when Peter was meeting some incredible people, from Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to Richard Branson. I spent a month just reading the journals.
As for what we can continue to learn from the Ansari XPRIZE, says Guthrie:
The takeaways are many: unless we take risks, we don’t reap rewards, we don’t advance as a species; small teams can do amazing things; incentive prizes can jumpstart an industry; perseverance is key to success; innovation comes from unlikely places. It was a spectacular series of events, but it was not a one-off. It made people dream again, and brought back some of the magic of the Apollo days. It showed this amazing bootstrap mentality, where anything is possible. Elon told me he was inspired by Peter. SpaceShipOne led to Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo. The Google Lunar XPRIZE is a direct result of the ANSARI XPRIZE. There are myriad private space companies today that are thriving, many connected to Peter and the XPRIZE. Jeff Bezos was a chapter head at Princeton of SEDS, the student space group Peter founded while at MIT.
To be sure, there’s still a lot of work to do before, say, Elon Musk’s dream of a city on Mars can be realized. But those future Martian urbanites will have the XPRIZE to thank for helping to get them there.