Looking up into the bright Mojave sky in 2004, I strained to keep my eyes on the tiny spaceship 50,000 feet up. “Three, two, one… release, release, release!” came the call over the loudspeakers.
I held my breath as I watched the rocket motor ignite and the spaceship ascend on a plume of fire with Mike Melvill at the controls. The contrail started to corkscrew and my heart dropped to my stomach in terror. A few seconds later we got the “all clear” signal that Mike had make it to space and was okay thanks to some cool nerves and some excellent piloting. Mike reminded us that day that there is a reason we call this “rocket science”.
Five days later on October 4, 2004, SpaceShipOne flew to space again, this time with Brian Binnie at the controls. With the craft’s successful return to Earth, Scaled Composites, its manufacturer, and its funder, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, won the $10 million Ansari X Prize.
Looking back on that historic moment 10 years ago, it’s clear that the Ansari X Prize was a huge victory for the winners, but it is also the success story of X Prize Foundation chairman Peter Diamandis and the power of his Steve Jobs-like ability to bend reality to his will.
People told him, “It’s not possible,” and gave him polite attention while silently thinking that his idea would never work. But sometimes with enough audacity, the extraordinary really is possible. And if anyone has proven that again and again it is Peter.
In May 1996 he boldly announced that the X Prize Foundation would award $10 million to the first team that could build a privately funded spaceship capable of carrying three people on a sub-orbital spaceflight twice within two weeks.
When he made the announcement, X Prize did not have enough money to cover the purse. This is not a strategy for the faint of heart to emulate. It took a relentless, protracted experience of pounding the pavement to fully fund the prize.
Finally in 2002, Anousheh Ansari, a newly minted tech millionaire who dreamed of going into space since she was a young girl in Iran, and her brother-in-law Amir agreed to put up the funds needed to fully fund the prize, which became known as the Ansari X Prize. Anousheh and Peter were birds of a feather; she had also learned the power of believing in her tech company even when no investors would!
Together they would alter the history books and swing the door for commercial human spaceflight wide open.
When I asked Anousheh what she was most proud of about the Ansari X Prize she said, “It is my pride and joy and the best investment our family has ever made. The Ansari X Prize has changed the trajectory of human access to space and kick started a whole new industry for private space companies, accelerating the pace at which we explore our universe.”
A year after the Ansari X Prize was won, Eric Anderson of Space Adventures asked Anousheh if she would want to come to Russia for six months to train as a backup for their next customer, Daisuke Enomoto. Feeling one step closer to her childhood dream, she agreed.
Enomoto was medically disqualified on August 21, 2006 and Anousheh was suddenly moved up to prime crew with less than a month’s notice for their September 18 Soyuz launch and 10-day space mission, which included a stay on the International Space Station. Even so, she was able to create a website and blog to chronicle her experience that was read by millions around the world, including many young girls in the Middle East.
When asked about her flight Anousheh said, “My flight to space has impacted me on a very deep level and has made me look at life in a whole new light. I hope as people now get a chance to experience this for themselves there will be a whole new generation of space explorers who will become the stewards of our world and make a positive impact on how we live our lives on Earth as well as the way we will extend our species into other parts of this vast and beautiful universe.”
Part of the Ansari X Prize legacy is also that it inspired Richard Branson to take action on his dreams of spaceflight as well. At the 2004 Ansari X Prize flights he announced a deal to commercialize the new technology and create the world’s first spaceline, Virgin Galactic (Disclosure: My husband, George T. Whitesides is the CEO and President of Virgin Galactic).
Anousheh’s sentiments about her time on orbit are exactly what motivated me and my now husband, George, to buy our Virgin Galactic tickets to space in 2005.
In the ensuing years, Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic took SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightOne (SS1's mother ship) designs and created much larger versions of them. So large that Virgin Galactic had to build a bigger hangar just to fit them.
SpaceShipTwo (aka VSS Enterprise) took her first powered test flight in April 2013 and Virgin is now getting ready for her next few powered test flights this fall.
This is an exciting moment in history, the moment just before Virgin Galactic begins commercial service. It is a good time to pause on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of SpaceShipOne’s Ansari X Prize-winning flights and reflect on how far we have come and what an extraordinary endeavor we are embarking on. There is the potential for hundreds of Galactic astronauts to make a real difference as space ambassadors, sharing their experiences in countries around the world, in different languages and with a wide diversity of cultures, religions, professions, orientations and styles, just as Anousheh has.
The Apollo astronauts used to say, “We should have sent a poet…” Well, now we are about to.
(If you would like to apply to get Land Rover to fly you and three of your friends on a Virgin Galactic spaceflight, you have till October 31 to upload your 30-second video explaining why.)
This summer I had the pleasure of leading a workshop for the Virgin Galactic interns. I opened by asking them to share how they came to be interested in spaceflight. MIT senior Barbara Schloss said that she had been inspired by seeing the Ansari X Prize flights as a kid.
“Being in Mojave at 11 years old to watch this historic launch definitely influenced me,” she said. “I was so excited about it that I had SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightOne painted on my closet doors at home. I knew that it was a smaller company without much space background that had pulled off such an incredible feat, so I figured if they could do it, why not me? I determined that I wanted to be an aerospace engineer and now I am a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying Aerospace Engineering.”
I really look forward to the impact that we can have on millions of kids around the planet when SpaceShipTwo starts flying to space. I can't wait to inspire them to dream big, to not be daunted by “no’s” and hopefully also to do the work required to never give up, until they too have done the impossible. Hopefully we will inspire the next Peter Diamandis, Anousheh Ansari or Barbara Schloss. If so, I can’t wait to meet them in ten years when they start their first space internship.