By S. Clayton Moore
It’s a real quandary coming up with a title for space industry leader Dr. Peter H. Diamandis. What do you call one of the most visionary innovators in the space sciences field? This is a man who has devoted his life not just to reaching the limits of Earth’s atmosphere himself, but also making sure the rest of us do, too.
He has often been described as an “astropreneur,” a designation Diamandis confers to other farsighted visionaries like himself. Among his peers are legends such as Paul Allen and Burt Rutan, who captured the world’s attention less than a year ago when they won the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE founded by Diamandis.
“Those characteristics of space that many find foreboding—its vastness and emptiness—a breed of astropreneurs will find irresistible,” Diamandis affirmed. “Those with vision and courage will reap the rewards of the far frontier.”
Although the X PRIZE, awarded to Rutan’s SpaceShipOne for being the first privately financed human suborbital launch into space, is certainly the most lauded of Diamandis’ many accomplishments, it’s not his sole contribution. He has founded more than a dozen for-profit and nonprofit ventures to extend the reach of human beings into space, including the International Space University, Space Adventures Ltd., and his latest space-related blast, Zero-Gravity Corporation, a space entertainment company providing weightless experiences aboard a modified Boeing 727.
Perhaps the legendary author Sir Arthur C. Clarke, author of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” described Diamandis in the most compelling manner. From 1983 to 1987, Peter Diamandis was director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award Committee, created in recognition of outstanding contributions in education towards the peaceful uses of outer space.
He first met the author, who would become a good friend and lifelong supporter, in his junior year of college at a United Nations Conference on Space in Vienna, Austria. At that meeting, Clarke said of the young entrepreneur, “You are the reincarnation of Werner Von Braun,” comparing him to the famous German rocket scientist who created the V-2 rocket and whose concepts ultimately led to the Apollo space program.
As dramatic as his efforts sound—and there are ideas bubbling around in Diamandis’ head that lead all the way to Mars—the ultimate goal is not to make astronauts famous, but to turn ordinary men and women into astronauts in a safe and affordable manner.
“My idea is to do for space what Jacques Cousteau did for underwater exploration,” Diamandis said, with the enormous enthusiasm with which he approaches all his struggles. “By creating scuba diving through the use of self-contained underwater breathing apparatus and popularizing it, he brought about an industry for underwater exploration by private adventurers.”
“Everything I’ve been working on all my life through the Zero Gravity Corporation and the X PRIZE and Space Adventures today are about allowing the public to go on these adventures and to build up a robust marketplace that is able to bring the price of space travel down and its reliability up through the same market forces that have been brought about in aviation and the computer world,” he continued. “Mass markets are great for reducing prices and increasing reliability.”
A life’s mission
Born on May 20, 1961, in the Bronx, to doctors Harry and Tula Diamandis, Peter was expected to follow his parents into medicine. Indeed, he does carry a medical degree from Harvard University that complements his degree in aeronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, Diamandis had dreams from childhood of going into space.
“I remember very clearly being about nine years old and talking about the Apollo missions and realizing that this was my mission in life,” Diamandis said. “In fact, my mission was not only to go into space myself, but also to take humanity with me.”
He threw himself into education, satisfying not only his parents’ wishes, but also his own through incredible effort.
“I came from a medical family,” he said. “They wanted me to be a doctor and I basically ended up doing both. I rationalized medicine as a career and an education basically as a great set of credentials for becoming an astronaut, but while I love medicine, it wasn’t really what my heart was about. My passion was space and I absolutely had to pursue that on its own, so I took a leave of absence from Harvard to pursue aerospace engineering at MIT and then went back finally to finish my medical degree.”
It was at MIT that Diamandis’ ideas about what space travel could become really got cooking. On a cold October evening in 1980, he brought together about 40 people who shared his passion for space travel to form his first nonprofit organization. Those lucky few formed the first meeting of Students for the Exploration & Development of Space, an organization that still exists today.
“While I was at MIT, I got to know a lot of astronauts while doing research in space medicine,” Diamandis remembered. “I realized that the probability of my being selected as an astronaut was one in a thousand. Fifty percent of the astronauts had never flown and those who did only got to fly maybe two missions during a decade. I felt strongly that two missions over a decade was not my vision of space travel. It was right then that I made a promise to myself that I would fly into space, but I would do it privately.”
He kept up with SEDS during medical school and even ran a nationwide conference called Spacefair ’85 that raised $50,000. That effort led to the Space Generation Foundation, another nonprofit established to give all people a sense of identity as members of a space-faring race. One of his crowning achievements came in 1987 as he and two colleagues from SpaceGen founded the International Space University, a completely unique educational institution that is today the world’s leading graduate program for the multidisciplinary study of space.
“The birth of ISU was difficult,” Diamandis admitted. “Everyone constantly told us it couldn’t be done but our vision was clear. We wanted a university where we could meet all the future leaders of the space programs and forge a common vision of space. The ISU was our ‘benign conspiracy’ to bring together the best and brightest from around the world, create longstanding friendships and come to a common shared vision of the future of space.”
Today, the ISU has graduated 1,500 students from over 60 countries and has a $30 million campus in Strasbourg, France. Faculty members include former astronauts and cosmonauts, spacecraft engineers, scientists, managers, scientists and experts in space law and policy; its first chancellor was Arthur C. Clarke himself.
It’s incredible that the university became such a success when its primary founder was running himself ragged.
“I was basically running all the time,” Diamandis remembered. “I was organizing this university and going through medical school. It was a crazy period and unfortunately sleep gets thrown out the window first. I was living two lives but it was an amazingly fun experience.”
Diamandis’ “can-do” attitude towards his many projects may be best demonstrated by his most popular writing. Towards the end of his college years, he started doodling a personal set of rules to keep him going through the tough days.
“I was sick and tired of hearing Murphy’s Law, that ‘If anything can go wrong, it will,’ so I wrote my own set of rules,” Diamandis said.
The funny and inspiring list, called by its author a “Creed of the Sociopathic Obsessive Compulsive,” includes such gems as “If anything can go wrong, fix it! (To hell with Murphy!)” and “Start at the top then work your way up.” The list is still reproduced on inspirational posters today.
“I’ve lived far too long by that second one,” Diamandis laughed. “When given a choice, take both. Given a choice, I usually take all three.”
By 1989, he was in Houston running his first rocket company, International MicroSpace, Inc., a company founded to focus on the provision of low-cost launch services that eventually won a $100 million contract from the Department of Defense. The company was sold in 1992.
Eyes on the prize
In 1994, Diamandis was trying to finally finish earning his pilot’s license, a goal that had been put off by his many entrepreneurial efforts. His good friend Greg Maryniak gave him a copy of “The Spirit of St. Louis” by Charles Lindbergh to inspire him.
“He had no idea the effect it would have on me,” Diamandis said. “At that time, I was very frustrated at how slow the space program was going and I was convinced that it was stalled. The rate of flying into space was going up and it wasn’t as reliable as it should have been. As I read ‘The Spirit of St. Louis,’ it was an amazing insight into the fact that prizes could really motivate the birth of this personal space flight revolution. By helping to bring a new generation of privately-owned spaceships, we would fulfill the preexisting marketplace.”
The rest, as they say, really is history. Diamandis founded the X PRIZE Foundation in 1995 with a $10 million prize for the first privately-funded spacecraft to make two consecutive flights up to the 100 kilometer mark. In October 2004, Mojave Aerospace, led by legendary designer Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, earned the prize when SpaceShipOne made its second flight into space. The prize was awarded on Nov. 6, 2004.
The organization’s efforts are by no means over. The foundation plans to leverage its accomplishments by creating the X PRIZE CUP, a two-week event scheduled to begin in 2007. The prize will allow X PRIZE-class vehicles to compete for prizes in a series of race categories including fastest turn around time, maximum altitude and fastest flight time.
“The X PRIZE is one of the first stepping-stones in the direction of private human spaceflight and the X PRIZE CUP is next,” Diamandis affirmed. “The X PRIZE CUP has the potential to become the largest space-related event on the planet, attracting hundreds of thousands to millions of people from around the world to witness the next step in the evolution of public spaceflight. My goal is to use the X PRIZE Foundation to keep pushing the boundaries of human exploration.”
The X PRIZE CUP will be kicked off this month (Oct. 6-9) in Las Cruces, N.M., showcasing dozens of other space contenders as well as educational events for students and the public.
Diamandis continues to stay involved in space-related ventures that he’s started. He co-founded Space Adventures, Ltd., in 1998, which helped broker Dennis Tito’s flight to the International Space Station in 2001. Other companies he’s been involved in include BlastOff! (a privately funded effort that designed a prospective mission to land three robotic explorers on the moon) and Starport.com, a premier Internet channel later sold to Space.com.
The gravity of the X PRIZE Foundation’s accomplishments doesn’t mean there isn’t still time for fun in Diamandis’ world. His latest venture is quite possibly the most fun you can have with your feet firmly off the ground.
Zero Gravity Corporation, based in Dania Beach, Fla., and operating flights out of Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, is equally committed to making the excitement of space travel accessible to the public in a safe, fun and cost-effective fashion through the marvelous experience of weightless flight.
Weightless experiences are nothing new to the aviation field as astronauts and even movie stars like Tom Hanks (“Apollo 13”) have gone weightless aboard NASA’s KC-135, known as the “Vomit Comet.” However, no agency has ever offered such a wild ride for as little money as ZERO-G. For about $3,750, anybody can take a ride on G-Force-One, the company’s specially modified Boeing 727-200 aircraft.
The company has worked diligently over the past five years to complete all the engineering modifications necessary not only to allow the aircraft to achieve zero gravity but also to ensure the highest level of safety, in cooperation with the Federal Aviation Administration. The major modification enabling the Boeing 727 to conduct weightless flight involves an upgrade to the aircraft’s hydraulic system. The modification allows for continuous hydraulic pressure during the performance of parabolic—or weightless—flight.
The maneuver is often likened to a roller coaster ride during which the plane is initially pulled up to approximately 45 degrees “nose high.” Next the plane is “pushed over” the top to reach the zero-gravity segment of the parabolas. For the next 25 to 30 seconds everything in the plane is weightless. At approximately 30 degrees “nose low” a gentle pull-out is started that allows the flyers to stabilize on the aircraft floor. Finally, the G-force is increased smoothly to about 1.8 G’s until the aircraft reaches a flight altitude of 24,000 feet. The maneuver is then repeated approximately 15 times during the flight.
More than just the ride, the ZERO-G Experience is a full-day program in which a flyer experiences Martian (1/3 G), lunar (1/6 G) and zero gravity conditions following a training brief at the new Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Fla.
The attraction has counted some of the most famous names in the business, including NASA astronauts, among its customers. Dr. Buzz Aldrin made his first zero-gravity flight since going to the moon in 1969 and SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan raves about the experience.
“The ZERO-G Experience was ten times better than I expected,” said Rutan. “I highly recommend it for those who want to experience a suborbital flight. It was really amazing, unbelievably cool!”
The company also incorporates its educational mission through the Zero-G Learning Lab, launched in July. Fifteen lucky Florida science teachers were selected to receive a free ride on G-Force-One where they conducted experiments and took video that they can take back to their classrooms.
Although the ZERO-G experience is a tremendous amount of fun, Diamandis points out that it is still one more step on the road to private spaceflight.
“I differentiate between entertainment and spaceflight,” he explained. “Entertainment may include such things as sending private missions to the moon and/or Mars, sponsored by television companies who seek to generate adventure-related stories for the public. The market for public space flight is more significant, in which individuals train to learn how to fly a spaceship and then become a private astronaut, similar to getting a scuba license or parachute training.”
Diamandis estimates the market for private space flight to be up to $5 billion dollars and hopes ZERO-G is just the beginning of more dramatic flights, not only for his customers but also for himself.
“I hope to be on one of the first commercial flights that go into space,” Diamandis said. “I’ve already traveled on a Russian MiG-25 to 85,000 feet at Mach 2.5 and have had many zero-gravity flights. I can’t wait to have my first flight into space as an explorer and industrialist.”
Diamandis can say that he was the first to become engaged while enjoying zero gravity. On a ZERO-G flight on Oct. 31, 2004, Diamandis proposed to girlfriend Kristen Hladecek.
“Throughout this amazing adventure, she has been incredibly encouraging and supportive,” he said.
Diamandis believes the suborbital market will truly begin to grow and mature over the next decade. Ultimately, he envisions a new race for space in which private lunar missions are being conducted by 2015 and can even see adventurers on privately-funded journeys to asteroids by 2020.
There are deeper motives here than simply putting people at the edge of the atmosphere. Inspired by visionaries like Clarke and the many scientists and entrepreneurs he counts as friends, Diamandis gives a lot of thought to the repercussions of space travel on the human race.
“The fact is that an investment in reducing the cost of space travel is probably one of the most important investments the human race could do over the next few years,” Diamandis explained. “Today we fight wars over the limited resources of this planet while we’re sitting in a solar system filled with nearly infinite resources accessible for humanity over the centuries ahead. In addition, we’re now at a time where humanity’s chance of being destroyed in a world-cataclysmic event is increasing. We have all of humanity’s eggs sitting in one basket.
“Space offers humanity the opportunity to develop a sort of planetary redundancy, a chance to ‘back up the biosphere,’ placing a portion of humanity with all our knowledge and records on a separate planet or colony. While this may sound far out today, it’s no stranger than the idea of flying nonstop from Athens to New York would have sounded to our grandparents 100 years ago.”
He also rails against the idea that spaceflight isn’t safe. The slow pace of NASA’s space program following the Challenger disaster partially inspired Diamandis to found the X PRIZE and he’s just as enthusiastic about inspiring other space ventures today. He spoke this July at both EAA AirVenture Oshkosh and at the Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference in Oxford, England, continuing to uphold his own personal vision for the future of space.
“True breakthroughs require risk,” he told the audience in England. “The X PRIZE showed that risk was OK. We should be allowed to take risk, and anyone who says we shouldn’t should be put aside.”
Although he admits space flight is still at a primitive stage compared with standard aviation, he says the way to solve the situation is to increase the frequency of flying.
“The biggest problem with spaceflight is that there isn’t enough of it!” he said.
Ongoing information about Peter Diamandis is available online at[http://www.diamandis.com] and [http://www.xprize.org]. The ZERO-G Experience can be found at [http://www.zerogcorp.com]. For more information about the X PRIZE CUP, visit [http://www.xpcup.com].