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Space Race II: A 'private' astronaut

By IRENE MONA KLOTZ, United Press International   |   June 18, 2004 at 10:35 AM   |   Comments

A series by United Press International exploring the people, passions and business of sub-orbital manned spaceflight.

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., June 18 (UPI) -- Like many kids growing up in the 1960s and early '70s, Peter Diamandis dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Actually, he did more than dream.

At the soulful age of 9, with the Apollo 13 drama unfolding on national television, shy little Peter sat in his fourth-grade science class in Mount Vernon, N.Y, listening to a classmate present a report about planets.

"In that moment I felt like there was nothing more important in the world than exploring space," said Diamandis, now 43. Everything in my life became about space. Every school book I owned I littered with doodles of rockets and far-away planets."

So he followed the path of all ambitious, bright students who wanted to fly in space and got himself accepted at a prestigious university -- the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then Diamandis topped his undergraduate and master's degrees with a medical degree from Harvard. He confesses the med school bit was his parents' idea, but once he realized becoming a doctor would help his chances of being accepted into the astronaut corps, he went along with their wishes.

Then something very sobering happened: an astronaut told him the straight scoop about life at NASA.

"First off, he told me your chances of getting in to the astronaut corps are maybe one in 1,000, and even if you are accepted your chances of flying are 50-50. To get to fly you have to be very well-behaved, you have to do and say everything you are told, and you have to follow the rules. Then, if you're lucky, you might get two flights during your career," Diamandis told United Press International.

"That's not me. I wanted to be able to fly when I wanted to, just like going scuba diving," he said. "Clearly, I wouldn't make a good government astronaut. I decided I would work on opening the space frontier through my own means."

Diamandis's passion and commitment gave birth to a string of space advocacy groups and commercial space ventures, including the International Space University, the Space Adventures travel agency and a nervy, nerdy race to send privately built, piloted rocketships into space.

Ten years in the making, the Ansari X Prize -- which promises $10 million to the first team to fly a three-passenger ship to sub-orbital altitude twice within two weeks -- is in the home stretch, with the first test-flight of a homegrown rocket ready to reach space on Monday.

Though Diamandis takes no pains to hide his desire to fly in space, he says that is the second-most important reason why he created the competition. "My mission in life has been to open the space frontier and to help guide humanity out into the stars," he said. "All the projects I've been involved with are headed in that direction."

That is not to say if Diamandis had a spare $20 million or so, he would not have followed along -- or even preceded -- Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth into space. After all, those self-made millionaires were able to work out a deal with the Russians to fly aboard Soyuz rockets to the International Space Station, thanks to one of Diamandis's entrepreneurial offspring -- Space Adventures of Arlington, Va.

"Tito and Shuttleworth's flights were a beginning. I don't view them as negative, but I am personally focused on creating a generation of spaceships designed to open the frontier for everyone," Diamandis said.

The reasons for traveling in space are as varied as dinner menus. The presidential commission that delivered its report on Wednesday about how to transform NASA to carry out exploration missions to the moon, Mars and elsewhere said the program would be a powerful magnet to attract sharp, young minds to complex technological and engineering problems, developing in the process, skills for creating new industries.

Addressing the X Prize itself, the commission wrote, "It is estimated that over $400 million has been invested in developing technology by the X-Prize competitors that will vie for a $10 million prize -- a 40-to-1 payoff for technology."

Mars settlement advocate Robert Zubrin says humans have run out of new places on Earth to develop new styles of government or new ways of living. Without a frontier, stagnation -- and ultimately decay -- settle in.

Some of the X Prize contenders do not even care that much about space travel. They are developing vehicles for the engineering challenge as well as for the potential financial windfall.

For Diamandis, space tourism is the first step to developing new markets. After all, the raw materials of Earth are limited and diminishing. So though it was politics that staged the opening salvo of humanity's steps into space -- the Apollo moon program 35 years ago was the country's response to a weapons showdown with the former Soviet Union -- it will be economics that drive mankind's future in space.

"I remember thinking in the '70s and '80s that private spaceflight was just around the corner, to be followed rapidly by orbital hotels, moon bases and Mars colonies," Diamandis said. "It took the last 20 years of inaction to convince me that this wasn't going to happen through the government -- that this could only be achieved through an entrepreneurial mindset and the economic engine of the commercial industry."

Hopes now ride on a small, winged rocket and its jet carrier launcher, the first ship out of the gate to showcase private spaceflight. Though SpaceShipOne will sail where many ships have gone before, this will be the first time a government's role in space is reduced solely to oversee public safety.

"The government today is focused on creating jobs," Diamandis said. "And the way to bring down the cost of getting into space includes reducing the amount of labor and creating more efficient vehicles. In the same fashion that private industry -- not governments -- gave us the personal computer, companies -- not federal agencies -- will need to give us efficient space travel."

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Irene Klotz covers space and aviation for UPI Science News. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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