Go Ballistic

You can leave and reenter the atmosphere, feel the kick of a rocket, and see the curvature of Earth. Step right up and lay down your 200 grand.

SpaceShipOne got the free-market-rocketry ball rolling. (Eric Long/NASM)
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Anyone thinking of becoming a pioneering space tourist and forking over $200,000 for five minutes in the cosmos come 2008 or so might want to delay the travel plans. To judge by a recent showcase dubbed “Countdown to the X PRIZE Cup,” held in the high desert of southern New Mexico, your chariot does not exactly await.

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Of eight blastoffs and test ignitions meant to wow 13,000 onlookers at Las Cruces airport, near the White Sands missile range, all but two were scrubbed. The first test system, a squat rocket from Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace, remained airborne for maybe eight seconds, returned to Earth with a thud, and fell over onto its side. The fall caused a leak in the fuel lines, forcing cancellation of two more launches that had been promised by Armadillo CEO John Carmack, an endearing motor-mouthed geek in khaki shorts who is funding his space adventure from the fortune he made designing the Doom series of computer games.

The Countdown’s all-day-awaited finale, the test-firing of a kerosene-propelled, 15-ton-thrust engine by Starchaser Industries of Manchester, England, ended in an inferno that blew the engine to bits. A voice of restrained alarm announced over the scratchy two-way radios: “Emergency—we have an emergency situation on the field”—and sinister-looking black smoke wafted for miles out toward the Organ Mountains.

X-Prize Foundation Chairman Peter Diamandis was unperturbed. “Wasn’t that great?” he cried, descending on the press tent as puzzled reporters were interviewing each other, trying to piece together details of the blink-and-you-missed-it Armadillo flight. “Next year we’re going to have two of them racing straight up side by side.”

In fact, Diamandis has earned the right to some enthusiasm. If last year’s X-Prize victory enshrined Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne as the Wright Flyer of the personal-spaceflight revolution, Diamandis is emerging as the movement’s P.T. Barnum. A diminutive 43-year-old given to flashier jewelry and a bossier demeanor than the average guy with an M.D. from Harvard and an engineering degree from MIT, Diamandis established the X-Prize in 1995, later convincing Iranian-American telecommunications entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari to put up $10 million for the winner. While pushing hard to turn the X-competition into an annual event that “families will plan their vacations around,” he is also a lead investor in the two most visible space tourism businesses: Space Adventures, which last autumn took its third

$20 million passenger to the International Space Station, and Zero Gravity Corporation, purveyor of the “vomit comet,” a ballistic Boeing 727 that simulates spaceflight for its passengers by treating them to moments of weightlessness for $3,750 a head.

Diamandis was in an ecstasy of activity at Las Cruces, alternately terrorizing a young aide to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson over a detail of logistics and jumping on photo-ops with visiting dignitaries like Steve Robinson, the astronaut lately returned to Earth after walking in space to remove stray fibers from Discovery’s heat shield. Diamandis’ X-rhetoric is inflammatory in a carefully calculated way. “What the government is doing in space is like IBM of the 1950s,” Diamandis said. “These guys,” he waved at the space tinkerers fitting valves and stenciling logos all around him, “are the Apple Mac. They’re the rocket equivalent of playing Pong on an Atari. They are going to blow by the Lockheeds and the Boeings because the military industrial complex is stuck in its paradigm.”

That sort of talk evidently appeals to a growing number of tycoons who made it big a generation ago by being inventive, outlandish, or lucky. Sir Richard Branson lit the afterburners of the new space race in September 2004, announcing he would stake Rutan to $100 million to build SpaceShipTwo, a winged vehicle comfortable and flight-tested enough to give seven super-platinum customers their whiff of weightlessness aboard Virgin Galactic starlines. (Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen financed SpaceShipOne with $25 million.) Elon Musk, founder of the PayPal e-payment system, is much more quietly backing SpaceX Corporation, which is building some new cargo launchers called Falcons. Amazon.com megapreneur Jeff Bezos is bankrolling Blue Origin. No one knows anything about what they are doing, except that they have the cash to do it.

This trickle of capital has lured from the woodwork a gleefully self-described band of pyromaniacs, overage Trekkies, and former juvenile backyard destroyers addicted to space but too rambunctious to hold desk jobs at NASA. Geoff Sheerin, head of Ontario-based Canadian Arrow, which aims to take passengers beyond the stratosphere aboard a modified version of Nazi Germany’s V-2, spent his leisure time through much of the 1990s skulking around archives at the V-2’s birthplace in Peenemünde, finally laying hands on a buried cache of original technical documents. “I thought life had passed me by until X-Prize came along,” he says. “The prize gave me my first ounce of credibility.” Starchaser boss Steve Bennett quit his job as a chemist in 1992, no longer able to bear the frustration of being prohibited from producing explosions. An appealing bunch of characters to be sure, but would you trust your life to them?

Listen for 10 seconds or so to any spaceflight revolutionary and you will hear the Big Vision, a vague but impassioned rendering of mankind’s multiplanetary future that makes liberal use of analogies to Columbus, the California gold rush, Lindbergh, and other ultimately lucrative leaps into the unknown. “There will definitely be population centers beyond the Earth by the end of this century—space miners, space hotel keepers,” says Esther Dyson, the New York publisher and venture capitalist whose Release 1.0 newsletter took the pulse of the Silicon Valley revolution and who is now an investor in Space Adventures.

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