Launching Commercial Space Flight: Part One - Finding the New Spirit of St. Louis

Since the age of 6, I've always wanted to go to space. So, I studied medicine -- thinking that was my path to orbit, but alas, NASA didn't agree, so I had to find another plan -- a plan that led to the founding of the first X PRIZE.
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Many people look at the X PRIZE Foundation and say, "WOW" - what a great idea." What they may not know is how one person's initial concept evolves to that "WOW" stage of achievement. Here's my journey.

I am a space cadet.

Since the age of 6, I've always wanted to go to space. So, I studied medicine - thinking that was my path to orbit, but alas, NASA didn't agree, so I had to find another plan - a plan that led to the founding of the first X PRIZE.

In 1994, to motivate me to complete my pilot's license, my good friend, Gregg Maryniak, gave me Charles Lindbergh's autobiography of his solo flight across the Atlantic. The Spirit of St. Louis told the tale of Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize. I had no idea his motivation was a prize - and suddenly, my path was clear. If it worked for Lindbergh, it would work to incentivize private spaceflight and in the course, my trip to space. My first hurdle was to find the seed money to get the idea off the ground. The active space communities seemed a natural fit, but my friend, Doug King, the newly installed President of the St. Louis Science Center, proposed that St. Louis would be the ideal place to launch the X PRIZE. The synergies were obvious: it was where Charles Lindbergh raised the seed money to build his prize-winning aircraft nearly 75 years earlier; it was home of the McDonnell Douglas Corporation which had built the Mercury and Gemini Capsules; and St. Louis is historically known as the Gateway for early exploration of the West.

I had my first meeting with Al Kerth, head of the St. Louis community's Civic Progress Organization, the man whom I was told was "the guy you have to convince in St. Louis." I will never forget the moment, when halfway through my impassioned pitch about my X PRIZE vision, Al got up out of his chair and said "I get it! I get it! This is huge! We need to do this in St. Louis!"

Over scotch that evening, Al told me about his own vision for the X PRIZE - to find 100 St. Louisans to each pledge $25,000 (the size of the Orteig Prize that Lindbergh won) to form the NEW Spirit of St. Louis. Together, Al and I met one-on-one with incredible people ... folks like spirited explorers Lotsie Holton and Doug King; civic leaders such as Dick Fleming, Walter Metcalfe and Hugh Scott; corporate giants like John McDonnell and Andy Taylor; and entrepreneurs like Bill Maritz and Marc Arnold. Through their generous contributions, the X PRIZE now had the opportunity to revive the pioneering legacy of Lindbergh and the original Spirit of St. Louis and to find the Lindbergh of our generation.

On May 18, 1996, underneath the St. Louis Gateway Arch, and on stage with NASA Administrators, FAA Associate Administrators, Buzz Aldrin, Byron Lichtenberg, Owen Garriott and 17 other astronauts, along with members of the Lindbergh family (including X PRIZE Trustee Erik Lindbergh), we announced the $10 Million X PRIZE for the first private team to fly two consecutive flights to the edge of space within two weeks. With more than 50 media outlets recording this incredible event, I was convinced that the hardest part was behind me and that we would rapidly find a purse sponsor. With the support of NASA, the FAA and some of the biggest names in the Space industry, who wouldn't want to get involved? Especially since they would only have to pay if the prize was won! The harsh reality, though, was that every CEO said the same three things: "Can anyone really do this?" "Isn't someone going to die trying?" and "Why isn't NASA doing this?" It was a long struggle with a few high points, like when Tom Clancy spontaneously donated $100,000 during our 1997 gala. But the $10 Million title sponsor, our holy grail, still evaded us.

That was, of course, until a magical moment in 2001 when I met the Ansari family, who immediately saw the vision and signed on as the title sponsor of what we would historically rename the "Ansari X PRIZE." Five years after we announced the competition, I could finally take a deep breath and enjoy the fact that the purse money was secured. But then the real challenge began - making sure there would be a winner...

Please tune in next week and every Friday through October 2, to read the inspirational stories of the visionaries and heroes who turned my "crazy idea" into a reality. Next week we will hear from the Romanian team who overcame significant hurdles to compete for the Ansari X PRIZE, and is now set on winning the Google Lunar X PRIZE. Other guest bloggers in this series include Anousheh Ansari, Ansari X PRIZE title sponsor; Brian Binnie, the astronaut who flew in the Ansari X PRIZE winning flight; Lori Garver, NASA Deputy Administrator; and Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic, the personal space tourism company now licensing the Ansari X PRIZE winning SpaceShipOne design and technology.

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