Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Heinlein Centennial - Peter Diamandis Afternoon Talk

Peter Diamandis had two talks (that I saw) at the Heinlein Centennial. This summary from handwritten notes is for the first one, which was an hour lecture in the afternoon. The other talk was during the "Big Saturday Night" festivities. In both cases the crowd really seemed to be impressed and on Peter's side.

The talk was on "A Tribute to Robert Heinlein ... Dealing with this Version of Reality". He was inspired by Heinlein. Heinlein's stories formed the basis for Diamandis's business plans. After all of these years we're still stuck on Earth. Don't get discouraged. From 1961 to 1969 Apollo was made up from scratch. There was noone to tell them what can't be done during Apollo. Now risk adversity is holding us back. "The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself".

Peter then talked about the Spirit of St. Louis. This was based on the Orteig Prize. Peter read the book and got his prize idea. In 1919 there was a $25,000 prize. Nine teams registered, and collectively spent $400,000 in airplane development to win the prize. Lindbergh got his plane built in 60 days. He got funding from a St. Louis group, and named the plane after the group. Within 18 months of the winning flight passenger traffic was up 30 times and the number of planes was up 4 times. Aviation stocks were way up.

Now, too much money and energy for space activities is spent on contract negotiations, beaurocracy, and similar non-productive activity, and not enough on hardware. To address this, Peter made the X PRIZE following the model of the Orteig Prize. There had been other similar efforts earlier, but they ran out of money. The X PRIZE idea was a $10 million prize, privately funded teams, and a 3-person reusable ship that would go up to 100 km. Two flights would be needed in two weeks. The "X" in the name was for the anticipated sponsor (ie "X" was a variable), but it was around for so long that it stuck. They wanted entrepreneurs, not big companies, so they didn't want to offer too much money. They were thinking of a 100 mile prize rather than 100 km, but they figured that heating issues on the vehicle would be too much with that profile. Repeatability was essential. The expected the ride price to go down to the price of an automobile after the developers recoup their development costs.

They got the teams to do a lot of experimentation with different designs without paying with the prize mechanism. The most important thing is what happens after the prize is won. For example, Richard Branson funded Virgin Galactic for the Scaled Composites vehicle.

The most difficult issue was raising the money for the prize. They had to present a line of credibility. They were trying to announce the prize as if it had already worked (what Peter calls "Super-credibility"). However, actually they didn't have the money for the prize at first. When they tried to raise the funds, people asked "Why isn't NASA doing it?" (audience laughs). "Will someone die?" "Can anyone do it?" People will lose their lives in this kind of venture. "Failure is not an option?" is an attitude that holds us back. It prevents progress. You can't fail if you don't do anything.

Peter was reading about Ansari in Forbes magazine. She was saying "My dream is to fly in *suborbital* space". This was someone with knowledge who had also given it some real consideration - she didn't just say "fly in space". As a result Peter made it his mission to track her down to see if she could fund the X PRIZE.

They used a hole in 1 insurance policy. This is like the funding for a basketball free throw contest. They built the X PRIZE this way. They also got other sponsors. The insurance company tried to re-negotiate right before the win. (laughter). Peter had good words for the insurance company because it otherwise wouldn't have happened.

Now SpaceShip1 is next to the Spirit of St. Louis in the Smithsonian Air and Space museum. (He showed a picture of it on a slide presentation - I may stick a photo of it here later ... after some image editing to remove backs of audience members). They got 5.5 billion media impressions during the prize.

Growth of X PRIZE Foundation: Google put up a Google doodle for the X PRIZE on the day of the win.

The foundation has set up a mission goal of $250 - $500 million in prizes in the next 5 years. One third of this is in space prizes, and the other two thirds are (obviously) in other areas, such as energy and the environment. (Space Prize blog comment: I actually wasn't sure if they planned any more space prizes beyond NASA-funded ones like the Lunar Lander Centennial Challenge. I was wondering if the X PRIZE Cup was about all they could handle in the space area - a pretty big activity already. It would be interesting to know what they have in mind, at least for the next space prize. Personally I would get some space prize out the door even if it isn't a huge X PRIZE-sized challenge just to keep the momentum going ... but maybe that's why I'm just writing about it. We will of course have to wait and see if they really can pull off anything like what they hope to.)

He showed a slide titled "X PRIZES" FOR THE "Grand Challenges". (I may stick a photo of this here later). The "Grand Challenges" on the slide, arranged in a 3x3 tic-tac-toe matrix pattern, are SPACE (picture of SpaceShip1), ENERGY (picture of windmills), ENVIRONMENT (picture of iceberg), NANO TECHNOLOGY (picture of the pins on a computer chip), GENETICS (picture of a DNA helix), MEDICINE (picture of a doctor), EDUCATION (picture of a kid at a computer), OTHER (picture of ... I don't know, is that a treasure chest with treasure pouring out?), and POVERTY (picture of poverty-stricken kids). He briefly mentioned the Archon Genomics X PRIZE and the Automotive X PRIZE.

Next he discussed the X PRIZE Cup. This is round 2 of the Northrup Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. He showed John Carmack's talk (I believe the one we saw Space Access '07) and the Pixel X PRIZE Flight that damaged her leg. Peter hopes to see the X Racer there.

He then covered the Zero-G Corporation. At the beginning the FAA said "Sounds good, talk to our lawyers". "It was an overnight success 11 years later ..." (laughter). The FAA is better now. They have flown for the Matrix 2 and 3, Trump/the Apprentice, and NASA work. They have had thousands of flights.

... Due to time (work, painting, etc) I'll stop here for now with this post ... more to come later on this talk, which continued with Zero-G and then the Rocket Racing League ...

Update (July 11): continuing the Zero-G discussion ... You can play catch on the Zero-G flights ... as long as someone volunteers to be the ball. (laughter) Burt Rutan and Brian Binnie also flew on Zero-G. Ansari, Simonyi, Hawking, and 40 or 50 Virgin Galactic Founders also flew on it. The experience isn't like that of neutral buoyancy in the water. Peter wants to be like Jacques Cousteau for space, making the experience personal for the public. They expect 4,000 people to ride this year, and want to give 10,000 rides per year. They are flying teachers and students. Northrop Grumman is funding this program a lot.

Peter met Stephen Hawking through the Archon Genomics X PRIZE. They plan to sequence Hawking's genomes first to allow investigation of his rare variant of ALS. They had to change the specifications of the Zero-G flight profile to get disabled person flight approval. They set up an emergency room on his flight. To Peter this flight is the kind of thing he did Zero-G for in the first place - to make dreams come true. Hawking wants commercial space business to succeed. They are trying for what Peter calls an "exothermic economic reaction" so their space ventures are independent of the stop and start whims of Congress.

Next Peter discussed the Rocket Racing League. He went to the Indy 500, and got the idea of a rocket racing league. He also imagines rocket racing as being similar to pod racers in Star Wars Episode 1. The races will be from 60 to 90 minutes. There would be 4 to 6 pit stops per race. There would be a "touch and go" each lap with full rocket thrust in front of the crowds. There would be 10 X Racers. The racers would have a 4 minute burn time and a 10 minute glide time with an impressive smoke trailer. XCOR built the proof of concept vehicle. The only problem was the flame, which was too blue. They wanted to have a really visible flame. They hope to have flight tests this fall. People in the stands would see 2 Jumbotrons with the course displayed. The planes would use differential GPS which could transfer flight location data to laptops. This would allow a kid playing a video game to compete with the real racers. They plan to have a "virtual racer" on the ground. They plan to eventually have the finals at the X PRIZE Cup, and other races in other venues.

... And the crowd went wild!

See the "Heinlein Centennial" tag below for more posts on this conference and celebration.