Peter Diamandis drew more than a few incredulous looks in 1996 when he created the X Prize Foundation to raise $10 million in prize money for the first nongovernment team to send people into space twice and back within a two-week period. For openers, accomplishing the feat seemed likely to require an investment far in excess of that amount.
But not only was Diamandis consciously trying to encourage low-cost, high-risk approaches, he was looking to rekindle the spirit of early 20th century aviation pioneers who saw a value in winning cash prizes that was greater than the actual monetary reward.
The skeptics were silenced in 2004 when the SpaceShipOne vehicle built by aviation design wizard Burt Rutan and bankrolled by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen claimed the Ansari X Prize. But it is only now that Diamandis’ underlying vision of making space accessible to the public is on the cusp of reality: Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson’s suborbital space tourism venture, plans to begin powered flight testing this year of its Rutan-designed SpaceShipTwo vehicle, with commercial operations beginning next year.
Among Diamandis’ other ventures are Zero Gravity Corp., which enables paying passengers to experience periods of microgravity aboard a modified passenger aircraft, and the Planetary Resources asteroid mining company.
He spoke recently with Space News correspondent Irene Klotz.
It’s been eight years since the Ansari X Prize was won. Did you think space tourists would be flying by now?
I’m amazed at how long it has taken. I would have thought that we would at least have had a vibrant suborbital market after the Ansari X Prize was won. That is still before us. Virgin Galactic is doing what they have to do, which is take its time, make sure everything works, be safe and start flying when it’s time to start flying. The good news is the company is well capitalized and there’s no question about it becoming operational.
Beyond Virgin, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have the wealth and the technical savvy to make any number of space futures materialize. These are people — the Paul Allens, the Richard Bransons, the Jeff Bezoses, Elon Musk, and others — who are prepared to make sizeable investments to open up space for many reasons: One, they want to go; two, they think we should have been there by now and they’ve given up on governments being the mechanism for getting us there; and three, they see it as a lucrative future.
I think we’re going to start to see a lot more high-profile efforts like Stratolaunch, like Blue Origin, like Planetary Resources, like SpaceX coming down the line. After all, many of these people are now in their 50s or 60s and this is a great way to leave a legacy and to change humanity on a galactic level.
Is there anything you can see that could stop the momentum, or have we already reached a tipping point?
I do think we have reached a tipping point. Barring a major disaster, I anticipate that we’re due for a “Netscape moment,” something like SpaceX going public, that would get the general public excited about investing in space. I personally experienced this excitement around Planetary Resources. When we were raising our initial capital from a group of extraordinary backers, eight of the first 10 people Eric Anderson and I approached all said yes. Then when we announced the company a few months ago, we had some 2,500 email requests from people asking if they could invest.
That’s a far cry from what you went through to get the X Prize funded.
Yeah. It was difficult for me to raise early money for the Ansari X Prize or for Zero Gravity Corp. or Space Adventures. The fact of the matter is the idea of investing in commercial space has become much more acceptable. People are beginning to see business models and I think are much more willing to take a risk.
Do you think space has the same allure for kids today as it did for those of us who grew up in the 1960s?
That’s one of the biggest challenges that space still has. It remains not participatory. That’s been my purpose for 30 years — how do you make space something that the general public can actively be part of? Zero-G Corp. comes from that — even Planetary Resources. We’ve had almost 4,000 job applications. We’ve had tens of thousands of people reach out to us on our website saying they want to be involved in this bold mission of identifying and ultimately mining asteroids. That’s huge.
So in this day and age, it’s no longer enough to watch traditional astronauts and robots explore space?
We’re living in an I-generation where people want access and they want to participate. We’re at a point where the virtual worlds that are being created are extraordinarily compelling. Future missions need to be designed in a fashion where kids can actively go and participate in a telepresence.
We’re also beginning to see “the crowd” basically get involved. The idea of the large-scale government monolithic program is very quickly going to end. One of the things we’re working on as a side element to Planetary Resources is maybe launching one of our space telescopes at cost where the crowd can operate it: It’s the public’s personal space telescope; it’s crowd participation in science, design, funding. That’s an exciting future to be part of.
Why do you think it’s taking so long to get to a new way of doing space exploration?
I think there have been very few examples for people to point to. The Ansari X Prize served as a first case to get other people to take risks. The technology now finally exists that allows small teams of individuals to do big and bold endeavors. It used to be you needed an entire industrial ecosystem and tens of thousands of employees to launch anything into space. Burt Rutan with Scaled Composites built SpaceShipOne with effectively 30 people. Elon Musk with SpaceX has created a completely vertical production line — aluminum goes in one end and Falcon 9s come out the other. We’re now living in a day and age when exponentially growing technologies — computers, artificial intelligence, robotics, digital manufacturing — enable small teams to do what only industrial giants and governments could do before. The technology and capital concentration and the risk profile are finally intersecting in a way where more and more people are going to try.
How do you see these efforts fitting into what is happening in the country, and even the world, economically and politically?
Creating a real breakthrough requires significant risk-taking and we’re not living during a time and age when governments are willing to take significant risks. Governments will take a big risk only at the end, where there is no other option. At the same time, private individuals and small teams are now able to do what only governments were able to do before and they’re willing to take much bigger risks. A lot of innovation is coming out of small teams.
Look at Solyndra. You have one failure and it just puts a halt to everything. That’s pathetic. In these times, the government should be taking a hell of a lot more risk and there should be a much higher failure rate because the government should be about taking risk, should be about doing things that have a high probability of failure. That’s where true breakthroughs come from.
If every time there is a potential failure everything grinds to a halt, all that does is teach the system to never try anything risky, only do incremental small steps. The government no longer becomes the place where breakthroughs occur, where bold visions are tried. There’s a huge game-change happening. The most important thing that needs to happen is the government needs to: A, not prevent it; and B, realize that it should be supporting it.
What happened with NASA and SpaceX is a perfect example. There were a lot of people who were resistant to that. I don’t know if any of them at this point have said, “Oh my god, we were wrong.” The fact is Falcon 9 has the potential to finally put the U.S. back in the lead of the launch industry. And that would never have come out of the current industrial-military complex. But Falcon 9 was fought all the way. What a perverse system we’re living in where the American entrepreneur who has potential to revolutionize an industry is being fought by politicians only to maintain the status quo. That’s disgusting.