Space Pioneer: Humans Could Leave Earth ‘Irreversibly’ in Coming Decades

X-PRIZE founder Peter Diamandis talks about the future of space travel.

By SHARE

In the early 1990s, Peter Diamandis decided he wanted to experience weightlessness—unfortunately, the only zero gravity flights at the time were with NASA. He decided to create his own.

"I spent many weeks and months trying to get on a zero-G airplane," he says. "Finally, I said, 'Forget it. I'm going to start it myself.'"

Since then, Zero Gravity Corp., one of his (many) companies, has helped more than 12,000 people experience weightlessness. Another company he founded, Space Adventures, has flown eight private citizens to the International Space Station, and his X PRIZE Foundation has been lauded by many for pushing forward personal space travel and other scientific innovation.

In 2004, aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen won the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE foundation for creating a spacecraft that flew into outer space twice within two weeks. Subsequent contests focused on designing efficient automobiles and cleaning up oil spills, and an ongoing contest launched with Google will award $20 million to a team that can land and operate a rover on the moon.

http://www.usnews.com/dbimages/master/24316/FE_PR_111116.stem.diamandis.jpg

Diamandis in 2009.

Diamandis is serving as a judge for the YouTube Space Lab contest, which will perform an experiment designed by a 14- to 18-year-old aboard the International Space Station next year. I spoke with him about the future of space travel and the role competitions can play in innovation. 

You're a proponent of competitions—with the X-Prize and now the YouTube Space Lab—what is it about competitions that is compelling?

People do their best work when they compete; we are genetically bred as humans to compete. We do it in sports, business, in finding a mate. Ultimately, when people compete on the basis of their ideas, everyone wins because if it's on the basis of your idea, it doesn't matter how old you are, where you went to school, or anything else—all that matters is your idea.

Space is a scarce resource, there's an age-bias. If you think about the average age for an astronaut, it's probably topped 50 at this point. If you go back to beginning of space age, during the Apollo era, when no one told us what could be done, the average age of the engineers who invented everything were in their mid to late 20s.

Traditionally, the most innovative work is done by young people. James Watson was 25 when he submitted his paper on DNA, Einstein was 26 when he developed his special theory of relativity. The problem is today, our ability to really allow people who are young who have unrestricted ideas that are on the edge of "Are they brilliant or are they crazy?" is difficult with regulation.

The day before something is a breakthrough, it's a crazy idea. If it were not a crazy idea, it would already be invented. A true breakthrough comes from a type of thinking that does not come from the expert; it comes from the person who has a very fresh point of view.

What do you make of the decision by NASA to end the shuttle program? Is the future of space travel in private companies? 

I am a proponent of the decision made by the administration to end the shuttle. It's one of the smartest decisions they've ever made. Historically, the shuttle was sold on a very different set of expectations. The expectation that there would be 50 flights at minimum per year. Ultimately, it did one tenth the number of flights. A great year was five flights.

Do you have any idea the amount of money that's spent on fuel for a shuttle flight? The percentage?

I have no idea—50 percent? 

Less than 1 percent is spent on fuel. Labor is the main cost. When you have 20,000 people supporting the shuttle program at a cost of $4 or $5 billion dollars a year—if you launch one shuttle a year, the cost is $4 or $5 billion dollars a flight.

We need to reinvent how we get to space. It's way too expensive and it will continue to be prohibitive and a scarce resource if we keep doing it the old way.

We're going to be moving from a government owned and operated shuttle which was unsafe and extraordinarily expensive to incentivizing private industry to build safe, low-cost vehicles. It's the American, capitalist way.

More than $100 million was invested by teams trying to win the $10 million Ansari X-PRIZE. What is it about competitions that drives that sort of capital investment?

Incentive competitions have a long history that, if properly designed, they'll drive between 10 and 50 times the amount of the prize in total money put up by the teams who try to win it. What happens is you get people who enter these competitions who are optimists. You wouldn't do this unless you were an optimist.

To have a shot at [winning a competition], they're going to have to do things differently. They'll invest far more than the purse amount developing that solution. We're trying to have this competition become a tipping point and an inflection point for the birth of a new industry.

Paul Allen and Burt Rutan spent $20 million dollars to ultimately win the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE. Since that evening on October 4, 2004, there has been on the order of a billion dollars invested in the personal space flight industry.

When you create a competition that is clear, measurable, and objective, people dream about it and will go to all ends—a higher level of risk, a higher level of capital—to achieve that vision and to motivate others to play with them.

You're a judge in the YouTube Space Lab challenge—something that is obviously for a different crowd. Students aren't going to be investing a lot of money in their projects, but clearly you see the value of such competitions—so what is the value?

The YouTube Space Lab / Lenovo approach is an ideas competition, whereas with the X PRIZE, entrants had to actually build and demonstrate the hardware. It's age appropriate. The single most important thing Lenovo and YouTube are doing is giving people permission to dream and giving them access to a scarce resource. It's the idea that "You can do this." You can have an idea materialized and flown into space. It's the notion that ideas have power and that's extraordinarily important. It's teaching people to not be afraid to dream, to not be afraid to have an idea.

I learned that idea early on and it allows me to be bold in my thinking. Others might say, "You have chutzpah," or whatever, but I've seen how ideas can materialize and change the world, and that's addicting.

There's this idea that America isn't creating enough scientists—that we're lagging behind all these other countries in STEM subjects. Do you see the problem? What can we do?

The problem is you get what you incentivize and you get what you celebrate. In the United States today, we celebrate rock stars, movie stars, and, until recently, investment bankers. Our job should be to make the scientists and engineers into heroes.

Our goal at X PRIZE is that when Burt Rutan and Paul Allen win the prize, we're going to literally put them on a pedestal. Yes, they won 10 million dollars, but the story of these underdogs winning has driven on the order of 15 billion media impressions around the X PRIZE.

People love a story where there is an underdog winning against the odds and they're doing something that people thought was impossible.

We're starting to move that way. You get people like [Google founders] Larry Page and Sergei Brin to become heroes, these young high-tech heroes, but we need more of that. That's ultimately the single most important thing, to give kids a role model they want to invest in or give them an experience that gives them tremendous positive feedback.

One program that does reasonably well giving them that positive feedback is FIRST Robotics.

So things are different now—when astronauts came back from the first Apollo mission, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were heroes.

They were… I blame NASA for making a lot of space boring. It's in the language and every part of the culture. When the space mission is going well they call it nominal, instead of phenomenal. We need to find out how we can build in the adventure and excitement into this.

This moment in time—these coming decades, when we go forward hundreds, thousands of years, people will look back on these as the decades that humans moved irreversibly out of the planet.

So you think we'll be able to move off the planet over the next hundred, two hundred years?

I'm on a very different timeline. With the technologies under development, the artificial intelligence, robotics, all of these different exponentially growing technologies will allow us to bring the price down of going to space by an order or two of magnitude very quickly.

If SpaceX is successful with their next use of the [reusable launch vehicle] Falcon, the price per seat to go to space won't be $20 or 30 million, it'll be a million. We have the ability to leave this planet irreversibly, driven by entrepreneurship, not in 100 or 200 years, but in the next 20 or 30 years.

It's a function of willingness to try new things and take new risks that is no longer a part of the government's approach to things. There is a new generation of entrepreneurs—your Jeff Bezos's, Larry Page's, who grew up on Apollo and have now created sufficient wealth that if they want to, they can afford to do it themselves.

Have something to share? Send news and submissions to stem@usnews.com.