10 years of XPrizes: Fixing the world one competition at a time

It was October 4, 2004 that Scaled Composites won the Ansari XPrize. 10 years later, what started as one man's quest to get to space has evolved into an international organization for global good.

White Knight and SpaceShipOne at sunrise.WPPilot via Wikimedia Commons

It's October 4, 2004, exactly 47 years since the launch of Sputnik. Thousands of people crowd around the Mojave Airport early in the morning, squinting into the bright blue sky as an oddly proportioned white aircraft lifts from the two-mile-long runway. Its cigar-shaped body is white, perched high atop a long, skinny wing to make room for another craft slung below. White Knight gradually made the climb up past 40,000 feet, taking SpaceShipOne and pilot Brian Binnie along for the ride.

Just over an hour after takeoff, White Knight releases his cargo. SpaceShipOne wavers on its stubby wings for just a moment, struggling to maintain flight, before pilot Binnie ignites the rocket motor. The craft banks upward into a vertical climb as White Knight disappears behind. Soon, the rest of the world does, too.

The ship would climb to an altitude of 367,442 feet before spiraling back to earth and touching down gently on the Mojave runway from which the journey began just about 90 minutes before -- and just five days after having achieved the same feat. And that's exactly what made this flight so phenomenal.

By flying to an altitude greater than 100 kilometers twice over the course of two weeks, team Scaled Composites had won the $10 million Ansari XPrize, SpaceShipOne entered the history books as the first fully commercially funded, re-usable space vehicle and what started as one man's passion for getting to space was about to become something more.


Charles Lindbergh Library of Congress

In 1919, Raymond Orteig, a French-born hotel magnate living in New York, offered $25,000 to anyone who could cross the Atlantic nonstop. Paris to New York was the idea, though the other direction was acceptable, and it's not hard to imagine Orteig salivating at the prospect of a new generation of intercontinental tourists filling hotels on both ends of the journey.

The idea seems quaint now. As I write this, I, too, am bound for Paris, sitting comfortably in a Boeing 767 traveling covering 569 miles every hour, 30,987 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. There's an LCD in front of me with a selection of high-definition movies, power outlets to my right, and a platoon of helpful flight attendants uncorking bottles of California wine.

Yet 90 years ago, men were lumbering off runways in flimsy planes overloaded with fuel, many meeting death in pursuit of Orteig's purse and the fame that would come along with it. The sort of fame showered upon Charles Lindbergh after completing his trans-Atlantic journey in the Spirit of St. Louis in May of 1927.

The Orteig Prize is a major component of aviation history. Before the close of 1927, the number of airplanes licensed in the US went up by a factor of four, and by the end of the decade, the number of people buying airline tickets grew by a factor of 30. Gregg Maryniak, Corporate Secretary and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Board of XPrize calls this "the most insane hockey stick jump. Unlike anything we've seen before or since. Lindbergh literally changed the way everybody thought about flying."

XPrize President Bob Weiss, Secretary Gregg Maryniak and Chairman Peter Diamandis XPrize

Yet despite this enormous impact, few have heard of Raymond Orteig or his prize, or the incentive that got Lindbergh to point a dangerously overweight plane eastward. Indeed, Peter Diamandis himself was unaware of the competition until Maryniak purchased him a copy of "The Spirit of St. Louis" (Lindbergh's Pulitzer-winning autobiographical account) as a gift. The intention was simply to inspire Diamandis to finally get his private pilot's license, something he'd been putting off for years, but the result was altogether different.

"He was really excited by this idea of a technical prize," Maryniak recalls. "He said 'This guy Ortig's a genius! He doesn't have to pay a dime unless these guys complete their task!'" Diamandis was struck by the idea that a simple prize in a straightforward competition could kickstart something as massive as the trans-Atlantic travel system. He knew of a similar area that could use a similar boot: commercial space travel.

Diamandis speaks of how the competition began. "I'd love to be revisionist about it, but the original goal was very specifically to make a childhood dream come true, and overcome the frustration of the government space program." A child of the '60s, as Diamandis grew up he experienced one achievement in space after another: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo. In the '70s and '80s, the Space Shuttle made the concept of a re-usable space vehicle a reality. And then...nothing. Or virtually nothing. The space program seemed stuck in orbit -- a visibly degrading circuit with no signs of improvement. Diamandis yearned to push it forward.

"It took me two years to get enough momentum to announce the idea of the prize, which was done in May of '96. Then we ended up spending five years trying to raise the $10m."

Maryniak recalls the announcement, done beneath the St. Louis Gateway Arch. "We didn't have any money for the prize. We announced our intention for the prize. Nobody asked us if we had the money, which was kind of interesting. We thought it'd be easy to raise the money and hard to get teams to participate. We got it exactly wrong."

Twenty-seven teams from seven nations would enter the competition, but it would five years, nearly as long as the competition itself, for Diamandis to find someone to fund the thing.

The Ansari XPrize

Anousheh Ansari, XPrize patron and namesake. Sarah Tew/CNET

Anousheh Ansari's quest for space began at a young age. "I was born in Iran, and I always loved summer nights because I could sleep outside and look at the stars. It was like this big field for me to let my imagination go wild and think of other places and other beings, aliens, all sorts of things. I was a big 'Star Trek' fan, big sci-fi fan, would read Jules Verne and read other books about space. That whole dream world fascinated me and became the reason that I got interested in astronomy and math and science."

That passion drove Ansari to pursue a career in engineering, which led to some successful business ventures with husband Hamid and brother-in-law Amir. These ventures would ultimately provide the kind of funding required for her to become the first woman to buy a ticket to space, spending an estimated week-plus at the International Space Station in 2006.

Two years before, in 2004, Anousheh became the funding source for the first XPrize, which by then had many active participants but still no actual money. She was on the beach in Hawaii with her family when she heard from her assistant. Ansari remembers the message: "'There is this guy who is very, very persistent, and he wants to meet you. His name is Peter Diamandis.' I asked 'Well, what does he want to talk about?' and she said 'Space.'" The two arranged a conversation (after she returned from her trip), and the rest is history. "When he described what he is trying to do, I thought 'This is it. Not only I can go, but everyone who wants to do this. This is opening the way for everyone.' From that moment on, we became partners."

Anousheh and her brother-in-law Amir would front the majority of the $10 million purse -- approximately half the reported cost for an individual to purchase a ticket for a single trip to the International Space Station. What had simply been the XPrize became the Ansari XPrize for suborbital spaceflight. For Diamandis, Maryniak and others organizing the prize, the pressure was finally off. For the teams reaching for space, the hard work was just beginning.

The competition

The engineering challenge of the Ansari XPrize was immense, but it was a problem considered by many before. Gregg Maryniak recalled an early meeting with Diamandis and NASA Space Shuttle Payload Specialist Byron Lichtenberg, sitting around a whiteboard and sketching out a matrix of all the ways one could get to the edge of space. Single-stage rockets, multistage rockets, balloons, jets... "All these ways to skin a sub-orbital cat. By the end of the competition, we had all those options populated by one or more teams."

And then there's the financial challenge. $10 million seems like a huge prize for an open competition, but building a vessel capable of carrying three passengers (safely) up to an altitude of 100 kilometers is an expensive proposition. Constructing that vessel such that it can do it twice within the span of two weeks makes that challenge massively more complex. It's estimated that over $100 million was spent by the 26 international teams that entered the competition, a disproportionate amount by a chosen few.

Canadian Arrow

Dan McKibbon / Arrow Rocketman

One of the most promising entries came from north of the border. Canadian Arrow relied on a two-stage rocket design to launch a crew capsule to the required height. Of all the exotic designs and attempts, this was perhaps the most traditional looking to an outsider. But, after raising about $5 million through sponsors and private donors, the team simply didn't have the funding to complete the challenge. It progressed no further than a splash-down test of its crew capsule in Lake Ontario in August of 2004, less than two months before the competition was over.

Armadillo Aerospace

Armadillo had perhaps the most star-power onboard, founded and funded by Id Software's John Carmack. The company was relying on a series of gyro-stabilized rockets that could be combined together into stages to achieve the required altitude. The project failed to mature in time for the Ansari XPrize, but the team would come through and win the 2008 Lunar Landing Challenge XPrize. Sadly, the Armadillo has now been put in "hibernation," according to Carmack.
Armadillo Aerospace / Matthew C. Ross

Pioneer Rocketplane

Rocketplane Global

Some teams used rockets. Some used craft more like a traditional airplane. Pioneer Rocketplane tried to bring together the best of both worlds with an aircraft that could fly like a jet to a given altitude, then flip on a rocket motor and blast the rest of the way up. Sadly, the proposed hybrid ship never got past renders.

da Vinci Project

Thanks to the notable name, and a somewhat notorious sponsor (GoldenPalace.com), the da Vinci Project got a lot of attention for its plan to launch a re-usable, rocket-powered crew capsule from a balloon. The ship, the Wild Fire VI, wasn't unveiled until August of 2004, just months before Scaled Composites won the competition. It was never demonstrated.

da Vinci Project

Scaled Composites

Test pilot Mike Melvill and Burt Rutan. WPPilot via Wikimedia Commons

Burt Rutan is a bit of a legend when it comes to outlandish aircraft design. The white shapes he crafts typically look like they'd be better at tumbling out of the sky than gliding across it. He's won numerous competitions and challenges over the years with his own creations, perhaps most famously the Voyager, flown around the world by brother Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager -- a nonstop, nine-day marathon.

His company, Scaled Composites, was an early front-runner in the Ansari XPrize. Funding from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen enabled the team to pursue a seemingly complex approach to the problem. Rutan's company would build not one but two custom craft, a lifter called White Knight that would carry a rocket-powered payload, SpaceShipOne, to an altitude of 40,000 feet or so before firing it off like a human-guided missile. Target: the heavens.

It's a similar approach to that used by the US Air Force's X-15 in the '60s, launched from beneath a B-52 also aiming for the stars. Rutan's privately funded creation, however, would ultimately go higher for a fraction of the cost.

In another interesting twist, the SpaceShipOne would be something of a transformer, flying vertically like a rocket at greater than three times the speed of sound. Then, fuel depleted, its wings feather upward and it falls like a shuttlecock to Earth. Finally, after scrubbing off enough altitude, it transforms again into a glider and cruises home relying on nothing but gravity and aerodynamics.

The sequence of events sounded far too complicated to possibly work, but it did, completing its first official XPrize flight attempt on September 29, 2004, and the second, prize-winning one on October 4.

Virgin Galactic

Celebration after the second qualification flight. XPrize

Among the thousands in attendance on that day in 2004 was Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, who was adding a new venture to his portfolio. Scaled Composites was to become a supplier to Virgin Galactic, an enterprise that, the world hoped, would capitalize on the fruits of the Ansari XPrize in much the same way the entire airline industry grew out of the Orteig Prize 100 years before. Given the apparent ease the team demonstrated in winning the competition, the belief by many was that Virgin would be carrying passengers to the edge of space within a year or two.

A decade later, we're still waiting.

The delays are largely thanks to a decision to not move forward with the current design for SpaceShipOne, to instead create a larger craft, capable of carrying more passengers in more comfort. "They're building a physically much larger rocket," said XPrize's Gregg Maryniak. "SpaceShipOne, you could cram three people into it, but it wouldn't be a lot of fun, apart from the view." There was only a single pilot, and the passengers would be crammed into small seats, into which they would have to stay firmly strapped for the duration of the flight.

"The vehicle that they're doing now is remarkably larger, big enough for those six people to unstrap and play." Passengers will now be able to enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness -- though not caused by the ship escaping the gravitational pull of the planet, rather by the free-fall nature of its return to it. Additionally, a second crew member will add a crucial bit of human redundancy.

Bigger ships and more passengers means more weight, and more weight means more thrust and more speed to achieve that same goal: 100 kilometers above the ground. Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites have been plagued by numerous setbacks and challenges over the years, including multiple fundamental changes to its rocket design and, most tragically, the deaths of three Scaled Composites employees in July of 2007 due to a nitrous oxide explosion. An accident like this during a flight with passengers would be catastrophic for the nascent industry.

"I very much respect Richard Branson and [Virgin Galactic President] George Whitesides in that we will fly when we're ready," says Diamandis. "We're not going to pressure them to do it in any fashion that isn't safe. I do believe that they have a shot at doing it soon, and you know, before the end of the year there's a good shot. And that's great. That would be great."

A recent partnership between Virgin Galactic and Grey Goose Vodka would seem to imply that they're in the final stages of preparation for initial launches, but as of now none of the hundreds who have paid $250,000 for an opportunity to ride to the edge of space have had their ticket punched.

The XPrize Foundation

XPrize Foundation Chairman Peter Diamandis Sarah Tew/CNET

What had been simply a somewhat optimistic attempt at giving the commercial space industry a boost has ultimately grown into something rather larger, taking the same approach -- a lump-sum prize tied to a lofty goal -- and applying that to problem areas of all sorts. The XPrize Foundation, as the group is now known, has since launched competitions like the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup XChallenge, a $1 million prize given to winner Elastec / American Marine for demonstrating a technique that could clean up oil spills in a third the time of previous solutions. The Progressive Insurance Automotive XPrize paid $5 million to Edison2 for demonstrating a car with four seats and four wheels capable of delivering greater than 100 MPGe -- 102.5, to be exact. Other ongoing prizes include the Google Lunar XPrize, a $30 million purse encouraging private teams to deploy rovers on the moon, and the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize, a $10 million competition to create a device capable of providing reliable medical diagnosis in the field.

As you may be able to tell by the names, long gone are the days of announcing the competition before the funding comes through. Most modern XPrizes launch with a single corporate or individual sponsor attached at Day One, with the competition's namesake covering the prize itself and associated overhead costs.

But that isn't always the case. "We're looking for big, grand challenges that are stuck, that the public thinks can't be solved," says Diamandis. "We took on space flight 10 years ago, we took on the Qualcomm Tricorder Xprize for global health, and when I think about one of the most important things we do for the planet it is giving literacy. The more literate a populace is, the more peaceful, the more prosperous. So can we do that, and do it at scale?"

It's the Global Learning XPrize, a $15 million competition to create a sort of automated education device intended not to replace teachers, but to provide a system of learning for those areas where formal education is limited or simply doesn't exist. Diamandis explains: "Can this be something that understands your passions, your favorite color, sports stars or movie stars; can engage you in a personal fashion so great that it is mesmerizing. I hate to use the term 'addicting' in talking about kids and education, but can it be so compelling that it takes kids from illiteracy to reading and writing and numeracy in a fully autonomous, self-taught fashion. That's the dream, it's Neal Stephenson's Young Lady's Illustrated Primer from The Diamond Age."

XPrize has already raised $27 million in funding to launch the competition, but this time the foundation is looking to you to help, starting an Indiegogo campaign with a goal of $500,000. Those who donate will get early access to the resulting software, as well as stickers and the usual crowdfunding incentive fare.

It seems odd, twisted even, to have individuals and teams compete over a cash prize to see who's best at teaching kids in developing nations how to read or do math. Maryniak says there are plenty of practical reasons. "People are really, really smart, and the beauty of competition is that it focuses innovation by really bright people. The problem with innovation is that you need to find the innovator. It's much harder than finding a needle in a haystack." Competition, he says, turns the tables. "If you do it right, you attract the needles to come to you."

It also brings out the best of us, says Diamandis. "In sports, why do you have an Olympics? Why don't you just have people collaborate? In the thrill of competition, in the heat of competition, we push ourselves as far and as fast as we can. Ultimately a collaboration is an outcome of that, because the members of a team collaborate. The teams themselves in every XPrize, we've seen collaboration between them."

A little spectacle never hurt, either. "If you put one horse around a track people don't notice. If you put a bunch of horses, you have a horse race and people start noticing. It's just how we're bred."