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Race to Space

The space race is in full-throttle. Again it's Russians versus Americans, but with added competition from Britain, Germany, and Argentina. And some philanthropists are raising a big cash prize for the first team to build a rocketplane that makes space accessible to the average traveler. The competition is reminiscent of prize contests from the early days of aviation. This one even involves a man named Lindbergh. The Savvy Traveler's Tom Banse takes us there.

The Race to Space
by Tom Banse

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Ten million dollars could be yours if you can organize the following tasks: design and build a re-usable rocketplane, launch at least three people to the edge of space, enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness if you want, return safely and repeat the feat within two weeks, all without government support. Erik Lindbergh says doing that will win you the "X-prize." Lindbergh is a director of the X-prize Foundation and a grandson of the early aviator, Charles Lindbergh.

Lindbergh: "My grandfather flew across the Atlantic in 1927 to win a prize. In fact, prizes drove the development of aviation. We find ourselves in a very similar time with space travel."


The X-prize was established by a St. Louis businessman, Peter Diamandis. Diamandis says the idea came to him while reading Charles Lindbergh's book "The Spirit of St. Louis." It describes how in 1919, New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig posted a $25,000 prize for the first pilot to fly non-stop between New York and Paris. Six men would perish in various attempts before airmail pilot Lindbergh succeeded. His accomplishment somehow captured the popular imagination like never before.

Radio announcer: "Lindbergh! Lindbergh is coming down the gangplank, walking slowly, hat in his hand. Dignified. A darn nice boy."

Within a matter of years, Trans-continental and then Trans-oceanic airline travel literally took off. Aviation evolved from the province of flying aces and barnstormers into a means of transportation for the masses. This now is what Lindbergh's descendants and some visionary business types want to repeat, on a cosmic scale. Erik Lindbergh is a wood sculptor by trade. His shop sits in a clearing on the western shore of Puget Sound in Washington State. Lately his work has been infused with images of fantastic rockets and space planes.

Lindbergh: "This is NASA's ship after it's been through the worm hole to the Gamma Quadrant."

From conversations with astronauts, Lindbergh believes flying to space would be a transformative experience for tourists and a handy, if expensive, way to travel long distances. His friend, the St. Louis businessman, is also frustrated by the slow development of commercial space travel. Peter Diamandis couldn't be more pleased, it seems, with the space race his prize has spawned.

Diamandes: "We have one team that takes off out of the water and flies into space. Another one that uses rotary rocket engines to go up and uses helicopter blades to come back down and land. Another approach is a team that is towed behind a 747 and then goes and ignites its engines up into space."

Bristol Spaceplanes video: "The Ascender takes off like an ordinary airplane, on an ordinary airfield using its two jet engines..."


The "Ascender" space cruiser looks like a cross between a Lear jet and a fighter in this video simulation from Bristol Spaceplanes. The British company is one of 17 entrants from four continents registered for the X-prize. However, all of the competitors are having problems raising the necessary venture capital. Winning the X-prize would reap a bonanza of publicity, but the $10 million payoff is small compared to the estimated hundreds of millions of dollars it'll take to complete design, construction, and launch. But Bristol Spaceplanes president David Ashford remains optimistic.

Ashford: "Technology has got to the stage now where a small, start-up company can make a useful spaceplane. Once that's been done and we've demonstrated the opportunities, then the big companies, big business will follow very rapidly."

A Virginia tour operator is already taking reservations to go into space with whichever company succeeds first. The trip will cost you $90,000. Erik Lindbergh is content to let another family pioneer this flight, although he's as eager as anyone to blast off when the technology is proven.

Lindbergh: "As far as a timeframe for someone to win the prize, we think that will be won around 2002, 2003. So, within a couple of years. And hopefully within a few years after that, we will have the start of a thriving space tourism business."

In Seattle, I'm Tom Banse for The Savvy Traveler.


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