Machine Design

In the wake of the X Prize

The X Prize Foundation spawned the civilian space industry with its Ansari X Prize. But it's greatest impact may be that it led to even more technology prizes.

Edited by Stephen Mraz

Ian Murphy
X Prize Foundation

SpacesShipOne, the spacecraft, sits beneath White Knight, the aircraft that carries it aloft for launching, wait for takeoff for the second flight to do an altitude of 100 km, high enough to win the Ansari X Prize.

Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne is now the prototype for larger versions he is building for Virgin Galactic.

One of the highlights of future X Prize Cups in New Mexico will be the annual finals of the Rocket Racing League. The course will be about 2 miles long, 1 mile wide, and about 5,000 ft high, running perpendicularly to spectators. It will be based on Grand Prix tracks, with long straightaways, vertical ascents, and deep banks. Pilots will fly rocket planes, called X Racers, using differential GPS technology to ensure minimal chances of physical contact between racers. Onlookers will easily follow the race as the rocket planes remain in view, leaving 20-ft rocket plumes behind them.

Geoff Sheering and the rest of the Canadian Arrow Team show off a mock-up of their X Prize entry. Despite the fact the competition is over, the team, now called Planetspace, still plans on carrying passengers into space in a few years.

Famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen used Mojave Aerospace Ventures and Scaled Composites Inc. to build and fly a three-person spaceship, SpaceShipOne. That spacecraft will lead the way for other vehicles that will be able to take the rest of us to a place fewer than 500 humans have previously traveled. That craft was inspired by the Ansari X Prize, the largest prize in history. It gave $10 million to the person or team that built and flew the first privately funded spaceship into space (100-km altitude) and back, and repeat the trip within two weeks. On Oct. 4, 2004, the Mojave team flew SpaceShipOne above 100 km for the second time to win the prize.

The X Prize Foundation, which originated the X Prize, was created in 1996 by Dr. Peter H. Diamandis shortly after he finished reading The Spirit of St. Louis by Charles Lindbergh. The book convinced him that competitions like the $25,000 Orteig Prize, which rewarded the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris, and the hundreds of other aviation prizes offered early in the 20th Century, helped create today's $250 billion aviation industry. Diamandis wanted to do the same for space exploration. He also wanted to further his life-long dream to visit space. (The prize was initially called the "X Prize", but was renamed the Ansari X Prize in 2004 following a multimillion dollar donation from the Ansari family.)

In all, 26 teams from seven nations competed for the X Prize with all types of different aircraft, from balloons and airplanes to traditional rockets.

Based on the success of the X Prize, it seems that offering prizes is the most effective and efficient way to cultivate R&D breakthroughs. And the two major components of a successful prize are a clear and concise set of rules and a viable road map for funding and management. The goal is to create a financial, regulatory, and creative atmosphere that brings about breakthroughs quicker than conventional methods.

With that in mind, the Foundation wants to accelerate R&D in energy resources. It is currently formulating a prize that would drastically reduce vehicle dependence on petroleum. It has held several meetings with industry experts to discuss problems and determine how large the prize should be to stimulate competitive R&D. The Foundation is also looking at similar prizes for genomics, education, and nanotechnology, as well as several new space-oriented goals.

The first X Prize was for $10 million. New prizes could be worth substantially more and will likely have second and third place prizes as added incentives. An X Prize is a great cash payout, but it can also be used as leverage towards additional capital investment. For example, Paul Allen funded the X Prize venture because he trusted Rutan and knew he would be getting a large pay-back immediately after winning. Allen was also pleased when the project brought in a $120 million contract to build several larger ships for the Virgin Galactic fleet.

In terms of building knowledge and making technological breakthroughs, competitions drive people to create what many believe is impossible. And if they hit a wall, they look for partners who can keep the project moving. Rutan's Scaled Composites partnered with two other competitors to create a new kind of hybrid rocket motor and onboard control system for Space-ShipOne. Without this partner-ship, the feat would have taken much longer to accomplish. And much of the early space research and exploration was a direct result of the Space Race, a Cold War competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

The X Prize also threw a bright spotlight on those who competed for it, bringing with it significant public-relations value. It was mentioned over 5 billion times in the media, well in excess of $50 million in equivalent advertising and marketing, capturing the hearts and minds of the general public. Similarly, new competitions will provide individuals and companies enormous amounts of exposure just for taking part. When Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic Ocean to win the Orteig Prize, for example, he became the most famous man on the planet. Many historians believe he was one of the first international celebrities.

The X Prize Foundation, along with the state of New Mexico, leveraged the spirit of the X Prize into the X Prize Cup and Personal Spaceflight Expo. They hope it will grow into a large, actionpacked spectator event like Grand Prix Racing and The America's Cup. It is envisioned as an event the entire family can attend to see the next generation of space vehicles up close, learn about the technology, and watch them fly and compete against one another. Visitors can also build their own rocket or telescope, operate a robot, and talk to astronauts. Highlighting the event will be the annual finals of Rocket Racing League, an exciting new racing venture started by Diamandis

New Mexico won the right to host the X Prize Cup in a national competition conducted by the X Prize Foundation in 2003, winning over Florida, California, and Oklahoma. New Mexico has allocated $9 million to develop the infrastructure, including the launch and landing facilities, necessary to host the competition and related events, and to prepare the Southwest Regional Spaceport in Upham, near Las Cruces. It should be the country's first licensed inland spaceport.

The X Prize Cup will help open space to all private citizens, while bringing new companies, new jobs, innovation, and tourism to New Mexico. This year's X Prize Cup ( takes place Oct. 19-22 at the Las Cruces Airport in New Mexico.

What's the X Prize done for me lately?

Besides inspiring an engineering team and company to build the first private spacecraft, which is no small feat, the X Prize has compiled an impressive list of accomplishments. And more are sure to be added. Here's the current scorecard of X Prize achievements:

Changed the paradigm of spaceflight. After the Apollo program, the public was convinced that affordable private space travel was just around the corner. But it soon became depressingly apparent that NASA had little or no intention of carrying citizens into space. Today, Virgin Galactic, buoyed by Rutan and his team winning the Ansari X Prize, is building spaceships that will give private citizens access to space in just a few years.

Ignited public interest. Over the last two years, space travel has reemerged as a major goal of the human race. Every major media outlet covered the X Prize and continues to follow the industry closely. Conferences and events such as the X Prize Cup in New Mexico set records for attendance as families and enthusiasts from around the world take part in what can only be described as a personal spaceflight revolution.

Demonstrated and rekindled interest in prizes. At the dawn of flight, prizes were used in a variety of ways to stimulate growth in the aviation industry. The X Prize showed that this tool is still

immensely effective by generating nearly $100 million of R&D. The X Prize Foundation has since been approached by other organizations about conducting competitions in their industries.

Leveraged our start-up donation by fiftyfold. A prize can exponentially accelerate R&D. For example, the X Prize Foundation started with a $2.5 million donation. It quickly grew to at least $10 million (first prize). All together, the winning team spent $26 million to win a $10 million prize. In fact nearly $100 million was spent by the competitors. The competitive nature of prizes means relatively small cash incentives can be leveraged into huge increases in industry growth.

Inspired 26 teams from seven nations to compete. An effective prize inspires the greatest talent and minds of the world. Typically, influential discoveries are not made inside the confines of a corporation. They are made in the home offices and struggling laboratories that exist on the fringes of capitalist society. The geniuses that make breakthroughs in science operate best when they work without arbitrary deadlines and traditional business methods. A prize levels the playing field. After all, prize rules don't have infrastructure requirements or discriminate against individuals or approaches.

Created a marketable core competency for the industry. One firm does not comprise an industry. Simple economics tells us that having more companies in a market drives down prices, making the product or service more affordable to consumers. A prize can help start new firms in any market and encourages their participation and success.

Inspired NASA Centennial Challenges. Several organizations watched the X Prize and saw how effectively it stimulated R&D in a tightly focused area. Many of these organizations have started their own prize programs. The most notable of these is NASA's Centennial Challenges Program, which was started with the help of the X Foundation. NASA is offering prizes in the space industry to accelerate development of services and products that support space launches and missions.

Transformed FAA regulatory structure into law. The X Prize showed that it was imperative to have proper government regulatory structure if the aerospace industry is to thrive. Today, the X Prize Foundation works closely with government institutions at all levels to help competitors identify where and when they will need to coordinate efforts with local, state, and federal governments.

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