Sep 23rd 2016

The renegade whose dream started the latest space race

Elon Musk’s company SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origins have grabbed the headlines in the space race, both of them building rockets and spacecraft.  But there is fascinating backstory on how this race and the private space industry came into existence.  It is the tale of a renegade entrepreneur, Peter Diamandis, who founded the XPRIZE foundation to incentivize the building of the rockets—in order to find a way into space himself.

The story is told in a new book, How to Make A Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, An Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight (Penguin Sept. 20, 2016), by journalist Julian Guthrie.  It’s a book that reads like a thriller, and it reveals many secrets.  In 2011, Diamandis recruited me to be head of academics at a futuristic think tank, Singularity University, that he and Ray Kurzweil had founded.  I am in awe of him and have a bias.  Nonetheless, I have no doubt that the lessons in the book will resonate with today’s entrepreneurs, engineers, and adventurers, because they illustrate how the impossible can be made possible.  And shopping, in a few years’ time, for spaceflight tickets without understanding the background of the private space race is like carrying an iPhone without knowing it started with a desktop computer—or flying in a plane and having no awareness that it started with the Wright Flyer in 1903.

As Guthrie narrates the story and as I have heard from Peter Diamandis on several occasions, it all started with Apollo 11’s landing on the Moon, in July, 1969.  Watching this, Diamandis became determined to fly into space himself and organized his life around that dream.  He completed two degrees from MIT and a medical degree from Harvard—in order not to practice medicine but to enhance his chances of getting into the Astronaut Corps.  Then he founded a national student space club that Jeff Bezos was chapter head of at Princeton; an international space university; and a rocket company.  When NASA began to wind down manned space flight, Diamandis realized the government wouldn’t get him where he wanted to go and he would have to do it on his own.

He found his inspiration for a modern-day space race in an unlikely place: in the golden age of aviation, in a $25,000 prize offered by French hotelier Raymond Orteig to the first person to fly non-stop between New York and Paris.  Several unsuccessful attempts had been made before an American airmail pilot named Charles Lindbergh had won the competition in 1927 with his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, galvanizing creation of the commercial airline industry.  Nine teams competed for the $25,000.  Between them, they spent around $400,000—sixteen times the value of the cash prize.  Peter marveled: “Orteig didn’t spend one cent backing the losers.  By using incentives, he automatically backed the winner… great return on his money”.

In May 1996, Diamandis launched a $10 million prize for the first nongovernmental team to build and fly a manned rocket to space twice within two weeks.  When he announced the prize, tentatively titled the XPRIZE, he didn’t have the money.  He did what entrepreneurs do: make big promises with the hope that all would work out. It took him years to raise the money and it came from the most unlikely or sources:  an Iranian woman, Anousheh Ansari, who had just sold her company and shared his dream of going into space.

When the XPRIZE was announced, only the world’s largest three governments—those of the U.S., Russia, and China—had launched men into space.  The XPRIZE soon had 24 teams from more than a dozen countries competing.  Across the globe, engineering students scraped together money and resources to try to build a manned space program.  Space scientists ignored ribbing from colleagues who said the dream of private space was impossible.  Retirees working in rice fields in Texas built engines and rockets.  A famous programmer named John Carmack (now C.T.O. of Oculus Rift) decided to try to do for aerospace what he had done for video games.

And in the Mojave Desert, an airplane designer named Burt Rutan, who had secretly attracted funding from a billionaire—Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen—began his covert space program.  He had fewer than 30 engineers working on the spaceship.  As with breakthroughs that came later with the Internet, personal computers, and smart phones—wherein failures were expected and iterations were the norm—Rutan had begun with foam models thrown off the Mojave tower, created on the basis of doodles on a napkin.  With every new type of plane, Burt plotted and planned and worked out hundreds of details in his mind before testing anything in a computer.  There was never an epiphany, a single “aha” moment; only iteration after iteration, layer after layer.  How these foam models led to the world’s first private spaceship, SpaceShipOne, is one of the great entrepreneurial adventure stories of our time.

Burt Rutan won the $10 million XPRIZE in 2004.  Richard Branson bought the rights to the technology and is developing SpaceShipTwo, to fly paying passengers to the edge of space.  Elon Musk, who met Peter in the spring of 2001 and was inspired by the XPRIZE, has hit one milestone after another and hopes to take NASA astronauts to space beginning next year.  Jeff Bezos, who met with Peter in the early days of the XPRIZE, is also making history with his own suborbital spacecraft.

The story sounds incredible: from the pages of science fiction. And it has a happy ending. But as all entrepreneurial ventures go, nothing went according to plan: It was riddled with failure and disappointment, ugly battles broke out between friends and founders, the world often looked like it was coming to an end, and Diamandis had to gamble everything he had. Most interesting was an observation that Richard Branson made in the book’s foreword: there isn’t much of a difference between being an adventurer and an entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, you push the limits and try to protect the downside. As an adventurer, you push the limits, and protect the downside—which can be your life.



For Vivek Wadhwa's site, please click here.

To follow Vivek Wadhwa on Twitter, please click here.


TO FOLLOW WHAT'S NEW ON FACTS & ARTS, PLEASE CLICK HERE!

Vivek Wadhwa is a Fellow at Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Stanford University; Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at the Pratt School of Engineering,  Duke University; and Distinguished Fellow at Singularity University. He is author of  “The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent”—which was named by The Economist as a Book of the Year of 2012, and ” Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology”—which documents the struggles and triumphs of women.  In 2012, the U.S. Government awarded Wadhwa distinguished recognition as an  “Outstanding American by Choice”— for his “commitment to this country and to the common civic values that unite us as Americans”. He was also named by Foreign Policy Magazine as Top 100 Global Thinker in 2012. In 2013, TIME Magazine listed him as one of The 40 Most Influential Minds in Tech.

Wadhwa oversees research at Singularity University, which educates a select group of leaders about the exponentially advancing technologies that are soon going to change our world.  These advances—in fields such as robotics, A.I., computing, synthetic biology, 3D printing, medicine, and nanomaterials—are making it possible for small teams to do what was once possible only for governments and large corporations to do: solve the grand challenges in education, water, food, shelter, health, and security.

In his roles at Stanford and  Duke, Wadhwa lectures in class on subjects such as entrepreneurship and public policy, helps prepare students for the real world, and leads groundbreaking research projects.  He is an advisor to several governments; mentors entrepreneurs; and is a regular columnist for The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal Accelerators, LinkedIn Influencers blog, Forbes, and the American Society of Engineering Education’s Prism magazine.  Prior to joining academia in 2005, Wadhwa founded two software companies.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."