Peter Diamandis Launches Son of Ansari X Prize

Editor’s Note: This video had my head spinning last night. Think of Chuck Yeager’s Mach 2.3 flight in the X-1A. So, heres’ my take on it.

The last time Peter was on camera making an announcement like this (Ansari X Prize) was in 1996 — 22 years ago. And we still don’t have suborbital space tourism.

SpaceShipOne never carried three people to space. It was too dangerous. The test pilot chosen for the second prize winning flight pulled out because he was too afraid to fly the damn thing. It would have been crazy to put passengers aboard. Paul Allen knew it. That’s why right after the prize was won, SpaceShipOne was shipped to Air & Space.

Twenty-six teams didn’t build spaceships; I think two did. Paul Allen spent $28 million to win. Where did the other $78 million in spending come from that Peter is talking about?

The prize didn’t launch an industry. Scaled Composites was the only real serious competitor. Virtually every other team folded. The only one still in existence is ARCA Space. And they’ve never launched anything.

The technology the Ansari X Prize produced was immature and deeply flawed. The attempt to commercialize it by Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic has taken 14 years and four lives while landing four other people in the hospital. SpaceShipTwo still hasn’t flown to any definition of space.

As an inspiration to people, the Ansari X Prize was fantastic. It was a touchstone for a generation of engineers, entrepreneurs and space enthusiasts. In that way, the prize was a huge success.

In terms of tech….it fell short. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And you don’t see anyone adopting SpaceShipOne’s technology. The prize had little direct impact on the two NewSpace companies now flying rockets, SpaceX and Blue Origin, which were already in existence when the competition was won.

As Peter notes, the XPRIZE is now repeating itself. The competition could be very inspirational and great for STEM education. If it achieves those goals, great.

But, I don’t know what’s going to be produced in terms of new technology by the end of 2021. A better sounding rocket? Maybe. But, is that really important right now with Blue Origin and other systems coming online? Is there a market for it?

Perhaps it will form the basis for a startup focused on launching small satellites into orbit. But, there are already dozens of companies pursuing that market, and most of those will fail.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe something really spectacular and — I hate this phrase more than anything — game changing will come out of the prize.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, he wants to see his name in the media again as a “futurist” and space “visionary”.

    It sounds a lot like the CATS Prize, which wasn’t won although one group did get a rocket into space after the deadline, a solid fuel one if I recall, which is probably the reason for the liquid fuel requirement.

  • Ignacio Rockwill

    “Liquid fuel of course is a lot more dangerous to use”

    Why?

  • ThomasLMatula

    Because there are more ways for it to fail in home built rockets. By contrast you could just buy the solid fuel cores. Or are you expecting them to mix their own?

    I wonder if the rules allow hybrids.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I don’t think this does any harm. Unlike the Ansari X prize this directs people to a small scale. It will have the effect of spawning small shops to tool up and develop systems. When the program ends those small shops will have their tools and their talent and break out on their own. In that sense, I think it will do net good.

    As for the need for innovative rockets, look at the Falcon. Innovative as hell, defines its own era, has years of innovative use ahead of it, and we’re not really taking advantage of those innovations to do new things. After 9 years of flying Falcons we’re still at the stage of doing what we’ve done before but cheaper. The marketplace can’t absorb the change that fast.

  • duheagle

    Based on things you’ve written here in the past, you are a small shop already – no spawning required. Do you have any intention of entering this new competition?

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I work with a group of colleges so I’m not totally independent. I just might. It’s within our capabilities. We have access to the students to meet the rules of the contest. Interfacing our private machine tools to students operating under the vanguard of the university is nightmare. We’d have to do a review of rules, timeline, and figure out how the insurance would work. It would be great if the teams can be led by a group of students under guidance but not associated directly with their host university. If the students wanted or had to operate under the vanguard of their host institution, they’d be better off operating under the guidance of their engineering dept and likely would be best off going out on their own. But we’ll see.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The other team that was able to build some hardware was the Canadian De Vinci Team. They raise about $ 2-3 million if I recall for their balloon launched system. The Ballloon would lift their hybrid powered rocket to the edge of the atmosphere and launch it. A real Rube Goldberg system. The rest of the teams raised some seed money, but I don’t think it was more that a million or so between them.

    So that accounts for around $30-32 million or so. But remember Paul Allen, according to his bio, had already given Burt Rutan $9 million to build a smaller version of SpaceshipOne before the Ansari X-Prize. He had to add the other $19 million to make it big enough to meet the Ansari Prize requirements since Burt Rutan really wanted to try for it.

    In his biography it appears Paul Allen was basically indifferent to the prize and had decided to hire Burt Rutan to try doing something in space privately before it was announced, so in theory the prize only motivated the $3-4 million the other teams raised since Paul Allen was already committed before the prize to building a suborbital HSF system.

    Similarly, Sir Richard Branson had founded VG in 1995 before the Ansari X-Prize announcement and was quietly looking for a contractor to build a suborbital tourist system before he fell under the spell of the X-Prize and decided to place his efforts on hold to see the outcome of it.

  • Michael Halpern

    More dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing, (of course assuming that the simplest liquid fueled rockets are out of the question due to the nature of their propellants, Ignition should be required reading material). However once past that curve and provided sensible testing practices they are safer

  • Michael Halpern

    There’s little point to hybrids anymore, when production of small cryogenic and semi-cryogenic rocket engines wasn’t feasible due to labor involved and all the hand work, that was one thing, but with metal 3D printing, and a very convenient commercially available printable super alloy family uniquely suited for rocket engines (iconnel) the advantage of no turbomachinery isn’t that significant, besides the skills in designing and manufacturing liquid engines are more applicable beyond space industry and are more likely to find new homes after the expected small launch consolidation. Much rather have them working on liquid engines on the basis of the skills being less niche.

  • Michael Halpern

    Even with the expected small launch consolidation, this is not a bad thing, the skills involved in designing and manufacturing liquid rocket engines are very applicable in other industries, as are skills related to the rest of the rocket. Aviation for example, outside of wartime production, its a very low production industry and it’s hard to make a profit on many aircraft, 3d printed engines fit right in,

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Each approach has its advantage and disadvantage. With a solid or hybrid, your combustion chamber is a major portion of the rockets structure. You have to engineer that to survive the pressure and high temperature. While solids and hybrids offer great propellants in terms of density, insulation eats away at that and even when you’re ‘only’ going for the Von Karmen line it still turns into a fight with vehicle weight vs going with two stages. Solids don’t fail safe, they’re dangerous by the time the oxidizer is mixed in with the fuel in the mixer. They’re not safe. Liquids on the other hand can be you simply have to choose your fuels well. For a shot to the Von Karmen line you could go with LOX/CH4, LOX/Propylene (my fav), or LOX/E-85. All those fuels are highway transportable at low industrial-commercial prices have known handling procedures, and LOX can be gotten on a same day basis by the truckload anywhere there’s oil refineries. By the time you’re done with the pumping problem (blowdown or pump) you’ve learned how to handle the propellants safely. Liquids become a real problem when they meet in the combustion chamber. Proper handling procedures will keep a team safe right up to the point of filling it in the vehicle.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    DId the Da Vinci team do anything meaningful with the money they raised? Is there any functioning hardware (besides a balloon envelope that’s now degrading) gathering dust in some warehouse in Toronto?

  • Jacob Samorodin

    Take those necessary WHMIS courses. Keep the MSDS handy. And have all your required PPE’s…And don’t stand too close, even for static-fire tests of the engines. .And if you are resorting to liquids for propellant, may I suggest using a rather
    inexpensive freeze-distillation method to enrich to and extract H2OH at 80% + concentration.
    Forget using jet-fuel for use with that oxidizer, try using a mix of toluene and gasoline to boost the Isp.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    Beg to differ with you, Doug, but I can assure you no one is going to die from developing and testing sounding rockets, unless they are real morons who ignore the info contained in the MSDS and warnings from the WHMIS labels, etc…Sounding rockets are not cutting-edge technology, agreed, but so what? What’s wrong with doing something for FUN, and a shot at some financial reward?…If you don’t have FUN doing something, it’s not worth it in the long run.

  • Michael Halpern

    sounds like something out of ignition, probably one of the tamer things but still

  • Ignacio Rockwill

    Liquid fueled rockets are no more dangerous than solids. I’m inclined to call them safer since they keep their fuel and oxidizer separate until commanded to mix them. Among other things, the NGLLC showed that it is possible for modestly funded groups (or individuals! Shoutout to Paul Breed!) to safely field liquid fueled rockets.

  • Douglas Messier

    I didn’t say people were going to die in this competition, although it is certainly possible.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, but the key is following procedures and knowing what there are. Hopefully the X-Prize Foundation will be proactive in helping to ensure the teams are doing so.

  • ThomasLMatula

    No idea. But suspending a fully fueled rocket the size of a V2 under a balloon was not the smartest thing to do. Forunately they never got enough money to endanger anyone😊

  • Kenneth_Brown

    Several Scaled deaths were due to a nitrous tank exploding during ground testing, not flight operations. Working with energetic materials is risky all by itself.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    The Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge was similar to the Ansari
    X-prize. Only 3 teams that I know of competed with official flight
    attempts; Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space Systems and Unreasonable
    Rocket. Only Masten is still an operating entity.

    Prizes can be a great way to push technology, but the prize needs to be sufficient enough to at least allow for a breakeven financial situation or even winners may have a hard time surviving past the win. If it costs $60m to win $10m, somehow a team has to raise the $60m in the first place and that can often only happen by giving away all of the IP to some VC firm or investor leaving the competitor with nothing but a shiny trophy and a board room full of techno-illiterate MBA’s telling them how to run their company. No thanks.

  • Henry Vanderbilt

    Armadillo led directly to Exos Aerospace, currently preparing to fly their reusable sounding rocket, and Paul Breed (Unreasonable, c’est lui) is still around and considering another rocket project.

    Not to mention the various additional lander activity inspired by LLC’s making it clear landers are now fairly routine to implement, technically speaking. Not least this recent NASA commercial lander initiative.

    I’d have to say the Lunar Lander Challenge was a considerable success as a prize.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Really? It’s not like no one landed on the Moon before. And exactly how many of the new designs are able to twice their heritage to the lander challenge, the only real measure of success for a prize.

  • ThomasLMatula

    And that is the real risk of mixing liquid fuel rockets and students. Unless they are trained to handle it properly, or have good supervision, there is a high risk of accidents. That is basically what happened at Scaled Composites, they failed to treat the chemicals they were using with respect and they paid dearly for it.

    Indeed, that is why the hobby of model rockets went to prepackaged solid fuel engines in the early 1960’s, to keep it from being banned by the accidents that were happening by kids making their own engines or fooling with liquid fuel.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Sadly, I predict that this prize will last until the first student gets hurt, then the lawyers will descend like vultures on the X-Prize Foundation for offering it.

    I could think of a dozen better and safer prizes for students to do that would inspire interest in space, but Peter diamandis seems to be stuck on rockets.

  • Tony_Morales

    That idea would be from the Canadian da Vinci Project team. The V2 replica idea was by the Canadian Arrow team (also a competitor in the X-Prize), and their idea wasn’t to balloon-launch a V2 rocket, but a vertical take-off 2-stage suborbital V2 rocket. They had a full scale mock-up of the rocket completed, and completed short duration test fires of a 254 kN alcohol-LOx engine before SpaceShipOne ultimately won the competition.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_Arrow

  • Kenneth_Brown

    Exos has a few people from Armadillo, but I don’t see it as a continuation of the company. They’re direction is a bit different than when John was the head of the company.

    I see Paul Breed from time to time when I got out to FAR. He always has projects brewing, but more as a side thing to his other company.