The hotel was a haunt of World War I pilots, including French officers on deployment to the U.S. who were helping set up the fledgling Army Air Corps. This association, together with speeches about Franco-American friendship at a 1919 Aero Club of America dinner to honor Eddie Rickenbacker, persuaded Orteig to offer a prize of “$25,000 to the first aviator of any Allied Country crossing the Atlantic in one flight, from Paris to New York or New York to Paris.” This was of course won by Charles Lindbergh, who completed the first transatlantic flight, solo, in May 1927.
Seven decades later, Diamandis read Lindbergh's book about his pioneering flight The Spirit of St. Louis, and used the Orteig concept as a model for an X Prize focused on access to space. The prize was just what the nascent market needed to spark it into life, says Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, the world's first “spaceline” designed to carry tourists to sub-orbit. Based on a growth version of the carrier aircraft and launch vehicle concept developed by Scaled Composites, the Virgin Galactic business model has expanded to include science missions and satellite launches.
“The Ansari X Prize was critical because it identified some truly world-class talent and proved to me and to our future astronauts that this goal of privately sending people to space was actually possible,” says Branson. “Of course, we'd been wanting to start a spaceline since long before the X Prize was announced; we even registered the name Virgin Galactic well before I knew about SpaceShipOne. But a name and idea don't mean much at all unless the technology is there to back it up, and in speaking to all of the 'usual suspects' in the space industry, we'd found no one who could deliver a safe but wonderful experience at the price we thought the market would bear. The X Prize fixed that for us: All of a sudden, here were 26 teams trying to solve that specific problem, and we could observe and simply pick out the best one.”
Although not necessarily an answer to every conundrum, the idea of a competition can sometimes be useful to opening other doors, says Branson. “Prizes don't work in every case, but when they do work, they are extremely effective. As an entrepreneur, I can absolutely understand why these challenges are so powerful,” he says. “They call to innovators and inventors, and force them to tackle an interesting problem quickly and efficiently. We tend to keep an eye on the progression of these prizes. Even when we don't compete directly, they are great ways to identify new talent and new ideas.”
David Masten, founder and chief technology officer of Masten Space Systems, recalls that he was “at the airport to watch the original X Prize attempt in June 2004.” However, the Mojave-based company's big break came with a follow-on competition—the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, a NASA Centennial Challenges program conducted by the X Prize Foundation.
“That was pretty much how our company got into this world,” says Masten. “We'd been around for four-and-a-half years, working quietly in the background and, all of a sudden, NASA knew who we were.” The company, which is developing reusable vertical-takeoff-and-landing rocket launch vehicles, was a contest winner along with competitor Armadillo Aerospace. “I had difficulty before that getting people to return my calls and, after winning that, I sometimes had difficulty getting work done between calls!”
Masten engineer Travis O'Neal says he, like many working today in the “new space” industry, was inspired by the original X Prize. “I was getting out of the military at the time and I didn't know what to do. The whole X Prize happened and made me realize that commercial space was possible, and that is the next frontier. So I went to school to do aerospace engineering—I didn't even know Masten existed at that time.”
Masten cautions, however, that the “prize” concept is not necessarily a panacea. “I think prizes, as long as they are done well, are very good for the industry. The difficulty is getting the prize amount to the right level to suit the challenges you are trying to overcome. For instance, with the amounts set by NASA for the Centennial Challenge we said it wasn't worth it.”
XCOR President Jeff Greason also agrees that X Prizes can have a significant impact but, so far as commercial space development is concerned, he says the Ansari X Prize event was “useful, but I don't think it was pivotal.” The prize was most useful in raising space awareness, he says. “There have been few events that have acted to change public perception of what space is, and what can be done there. The X Prize has helped make suborbital spaceflight a household word again. I used to have to explain it all the time. It helped popularize the notion that companies will be selling tickets.”