Until recently, anyone hoping to slip the surly bonds of Earth needed to talk to a federal bureaucrat; there was no such thing as a private or nonprofit space effort. That began to change in 1996, when a group of donors led by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis announced they had formed the X Prize Foundation to reward the first non-governmental team that could successfully send a three-passenger vehicle at least 100 kilometers into space twice within two weeks. The prize money was set at $10 million thanks to gifts from the Ansari family. The inspiration for the effort was the Orteig Prize—a $25,000 bounty offered in 1919 by a French hotel owner to the first aviator who could fly nonstop between Paris and New York City. Nine teams spent several hundred thousand dollars hoping to win the Orteig Prize, which was eventually claimed by Charles Lindbergh. (See 1919 entry.)
The X Prize had a similar effect. More than two dozen teams invested over $100 million in pursuit of the reward (and the companies created for the competition later received more than a billion dollars in additional private investment). A group bankrolled by philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen was first to meet the requirements in 2004. That success inspired the X Prize Foundation to subsequently offer other prizes for achievements in rocketry, 100-mile-per-gallon vehicles, techniques for cleaning up oil spills, and other causes. Currently active is a $20 million X Prize for any private team that successfully lands a rover on the moon.
The deepest benefit of the Ansari X Prize was to dramatically accelerate non-governmental work on space transport. In 2012, one of the ventures formed amidst the excitement over the Ansari X Prize—the SpaceX organization funded by entrepreneur and philanthropist Elon Musk—became the first private entity to deliver a cargo payload to the International Space Station. With NASA experiencing serious design failures, cost overruns, and bureaucratic sclerosis, the SpaceX Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule have become crucial elements in U.S. plans for spaceflight over the next generation. And many other individuals, like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and entrepreneur Richard Branson, are also using personal wealth to subsidize creation of spacecraft that may become important in the future.
- Ansari X Prize, space.xprize.org/ansari-x-prize
- SpaceX, spacex.com/about