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How Charles Lindbergh Inspired Private Spaceflight

7 minute read
Guthrie is a journalist and the author of How to Make a Spaceship

There are prizes for everything from coloring contests to sports. Most of these prizes are ephemeral—fun and rewarding in the moment (a first-place trophy or a blue ribbon) but soon forgotten. There are bigger prizes—for books, poetry, medicine and human rights. Many of these big prizes, such as the Pulitzer or the Nobel Peace Prize, are important but subjectively decided. A different type of prize exists that does more than pit one person against the other. This is the incentive prize, designed to spur on spectacular feats of human endeavor, solve intractable problems and jumpstart an industry. Incentive prizes are awarded for achievements rather than attempts, and are decided with clear and measurable metrics. These prizes have a history of attracting the outliers, those with a disdain or distrust of governments or large corporations, those who toil in obscurity until their genius suddenly surfaces.

Early in the 18th century, a clockmaker with little formal education won a prize offered by the British government to solve the problem of longitude in the race to dominate commerce on the high seas. Late in the 18th century, a French confectioner and brewer won a prize offered by Napoleon to devise a better way of preserving food, an invention that gave birth to the canning industry. In the early 20th century, daredevil pilots took to the skies to try to win dozens of aviation prizes. They dreamed of flying long distances years before it was actually possible.

The idea of an incentive competition dawned on entrepreneur Peter Diamandis in late 1993. He was visiting his parents’ retirement home in Boca Raton, Fla., for the Christmas holidays when he sat down and began to read a dog-eared copy of The Spirit of St. Louis, a gift from a friend who wanted him to complete the requirements for his pilot’s license. Peter had always assumed that the young airmail pilot Charles Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic in 1927 as a stunt or maybe a dare. Peter was surprised to learn that Lindbergh had made the first-ever nonstop flight from New York to Paris to win a prize.

As it turned out, Lindbergh, flying solo, was among nine teams competing for the $25,000 Orteig Prize, named after its benefactor Raymond Orteig. The competition was riddled with drama and casualties, as some of the world’s top pilots and newest planes were lost to the cold expanse of the North Atlantic. Newspapers took to calling it “the greatest sporting event of the age,” and the public took to calling it “the world’s greatest air derby.” The barriers were both psychological and technical: The distance of 3,600 miles from Paris to New York was almost twice the distance that had been previously covered by an airplane on a single flight. Few thought Lindbergh had a chance.

The successful flight not only made Lindbergh famous, but it also created a global perception that flight was safe and available to the common man. Lindbergh was, after all, an Everyman-turned-Superman story: he dropped out of college to pursue his dream of aviation and then used his own engineering skills—partnering with the scrappy Ryan Airline Company in San Diego—to get off the ground. He embodied the belief that adventure is essential to civilization, and that risk reaps rewards.

When Peter finished the book in December 1993, he saw something that he felt had been staring him in the face for a long time: a space prize.

The idea of prizes and competitions was not new to Peter. He had talked with friends about the potential of prizes and had studied other incentive prize competitions. Now, for Peter, the notion of a space prize seemed like the natural next step, and the idea was keeping him awake at night.

From the time he was 8 years old, when he watched Apollo 11 land on the Moon in July 1969, he had dreamed of going to space. But NASA, once the maker of magic, now had a costly and flawed space shuttle program. There was no private space industry, and no way for an average citizen to get out of Earth’s atmosphere. Only a few of the lucky ones who made it into NASA’s astronaut program would ever actually fly to space.

Not long after finishing The Spirit of St. Louis, Peter organized a weekend retreat for rocket enthusiasts. He invited scientists, investors, engineers, and space aficionados to brainstorm over reusable rockets and a private path to space. Over several days at a private residence looking out to the snow capped Ouray Mountains in Montrose, Colorado, the group talked rocket propulsion, rocket equations and rocket gurus—Konstantin Tsiolkovksy, Hermann Oberth, Wernher Von Braun. Toward the end of the gathering, Peter finally felt it was time to unveil his under-the-radar idea: the space prize.

Standing at the whiteboard on this day in February, 1994, Peter wrote, “PRIZES WORK.” Peter wanted to do for space what Orteig—through Lindbergh—did for aviation.

Peter emphasized the importance of clearly articu­lated and logical rules for the award: The prize must involve a human feat with a level of danger and drama that would capture the interest of the public. The prize must involve a feat in which the public could someday imagine themselves participating. The prize must involve competitors racing against time and each other. The prize must be sufficiently lucra­tive to entice a number of competitors and must be well advertised.

The spaceship must be built privately for a cost and using a method that can be repeated. The spaceship must be reusable. The flight must return the crew and spaceship safely to Earth. The entrant must demonstrate the ability to refurbish the spaceship within seven days for a repeat of the flight. And the spaceship cannot be a surplus vehicle from any government program.

The funding of the prize would come from two primary sources: individuals who want to create a “living monument” to honor someone and “pledges from the space advocate population,” through phone-a-thons and direct mail campaigns.

Around the long rectangular table, sketches were already being made for private spaceships. No one was daunted by the reality that only the world’s three largest governments—Russia, the U.S. and China—had succeeded in sending a man to space. Instead, the focus was on moving ahead.

Back in his room that night, Peter opened his leather-bound journal. Pausing to look out the window at the snowy expanse, he wrote: “This is the story of men and machines and the dreams that entwine their lives. It is, perhaps, our oldest fable: the attempt to touch the heavens.”

The idea for something thoroughly modern had come from an unlikely place–from the golden age of aviation, an intrepid airmail pilot and a 75-year-old prize.

Adapted from Julian Guthrie’s How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight, with a preface by Richard Branson and an afterword by Stephen Hawking, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Julian Guthrie.

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