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X Prize Aims to Boost Civilian Spaceflight

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.

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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.

Prizes helped spur those initiatives. Diamandis has noted that various groups and individuals won something like $100 million in 1996 dollars between 1909 and 1927. Their efforts produced workable aircraft designs that individual civilians and start-up companies could afford. Likewise today, X Prize Foundation members expect their contestants to come up with early spacecraft designs that could lead to craft suitable for relatively low-cost civilian use. Although the prize-winning craft would start out in suborbital flight, the expectation is that full-fledged orbiting spacecraft would follow.

To win, an X Prize craft must have a three-person capacity, although only the operator need be aboard for the actual flight. It must make two flights within a fortnight to show the craft is safe and reusable. The Federation Aeronautique Internationale, which certifies world records, will judge the attempts. To be official, contestants must notify the X Prize Foundation of their intended take-off and landing locations three months before their flight.

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration is applauding the X Prize. It fits NASA administrator Daniel Goldin's desire to see what private efforts, unencumbered by government bureaucracy and contractor regulations, can do in space. At the official announcement of the X Prize a few weeks ago in St. Louis, Mr. Goldin said that while NASA can't show any favoritism for one entrant over another, as the contest unfolds the space agency can help with non-monetary technical aid and advice.

X Prize winners may wind up spending more than the prize is worth. That wouldn't be much different from the way sailing syndicates spend money to win the Americas Cup. Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif., who designed the Voyager aircraft that flew nonstop around the world, says he already has come up with a design concept for the X Prize competition.

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Diamandis has said that foundation members are trying to foster a shift in thinking about space flight, which now is seen as intrinsically a big government game. Let's join NASA in cheering them on.