Let's hear it for the X Prize. The $10-million award could do what billions of government dollars have so far failed to accomplish -- open the way to civil space flight.
The initial goal is modest. The winner has only to reach a point at least 100 miles out from Earth in suborbital flight. He or she doesn't even have to go into orbit. Nevertheless, the challenge is big. Contestants have to design, build, and fly their craft entirely with private funding. No government money allowed.
Moreover, the ambition behind this "modest" goal is truly cosmic. Members of the X Prize Foundation, which is based in St. Louis, expect the winner's suborbital hop to be the first of many private initiatives leading ultimately to a full-fledged civil space flight capability. They expect that to be comparable to the general civil and commercial aviation capability that grew out of comparable private initiatives early in this century.
As foundation chairman Peter Diamandis likes to point out, it's no coincidence that the foundation is starting out in St. Louis. When Charles Lindbergh flew the original Spirit of St. Louis nonstop from New York to Paris in May 1927, he was after the $25,000 prize that New York hotel businessman Raymond Orteig put up in 1919. Appropriately, a New Spirit of St. Louis committee has put up the first $1 million of the $10-million prize money the foundation is raising. Equally appropriately, prize competitors will display a New Spirit of St. Louis logo on their aerospace craft.
Cruising at ease at 35,000 feet or grumbling about flight delays, it may be hard for modern travelers to appreciate how remarkable aviation was 70 years ago. Aircraft were crude, flights often dangerous. Government-sponsored research and industrial subsidies helped aviation advance. But Dr. Diamandis and his associates are probably right in saying that civil aviation would not have matured as quickly as it did without the efforts of dedicated private individuals and groups.