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How a historic race gave birth to private space flight
Alone in a Spartan black cockpit, test pilot Mike Melvill rocketed toward space. He had eighty seconds to exceed the speed of sound and begin the climb to a target no civilian pilot had ever reached. There was a chance he would not come back alive. If he did, he would make history as the world’s first commercial astronaut.
The spectacle defied reason, the result of an improbable contest dreamed up by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, whose vision for a new race to space – requiring small teams to do what only the world’s largest governments had done before – had been dismissed as fantastical.
The tale begins in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Diamandis was the son of hard working Greek immigrants who wanted their science prodigy to do the family proud and become a doctor. Peter was a dutiful son, but from the time he was eight years old, staying up late to watch Apollo 11 land on the moon, he had one goal: getting to space. He started a national student space club while at MIT. He launched a rocket company in Houston while getting a medical degree from Harvard - a degree he pursued to improve his chances of becoming an astronaut. But when he realized NASA was winding down manned space flight, Diamandis set out on one of the great entrepreneurial adventure stories of our time. If the government wouldn’t send him to space, he would create a private spaceflight industry and get there himself.
In the 1990s, the idea of private space flight was the stuff of science fiction. The undaunted Diamandis found inspiration in an unlikely place: the first golden age of aviation. Reading Charles Lindbergh’s The Spirit of St. Louis, Diamandis was stunned that the aviator had attempted the first transatlantic flight from New York to Paris to win a $25,000 prize. The historic flight galvanized the commercial airline industry. Why, Diamandis thought, couldn’t a similar contest be held for space flight? In 1996, standing under the arch of St. Louis – the city where Lindbergh found his backers - Diamandis announced the $10 million Xprize. To win, a privately funded team would have to build and fly a manned rocket into space twice – in two weeks. The deadline: December 31, 2004.
On a brilliant morning in the Mojave Desert, with little time to spare, a bullet-shaped rocket called SpaceShipOne was launched. The story of SS1, and other scrappy teams in the hunt – all spurred by Diamandis as he struggled to keep the prize afloat – became a testament to the American spirit of ingenuity and oversized dreams. The winning of the Xprize marked the end of the government’s monopoly over space.
Julian Guthrie, author of The Billionaire and The Mechanic, an acclaimed bestselling account of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison’s pursuit of the America’s Cup, thought she knew about obsessive pursuits, but the XPrize race spurred another level of drama, sacrifice, and technical wizardry. With Diamandis’ cooperation, Guthrie had access to all of the players – from Richard Branson and John Carmack to Burt Rutan – and has melded their stories into a spellbinding narrative, a combination of Rocket Boys and The New New Thing. In the end, as Diamandis dreamed, the result wasn’t just a victory for one team; it was the foundation for a new industry, including SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and others. Today, SpaceShipOne hangs in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, above the Apollo 11 capsule and next to Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis plane.