Eyes On The X PRIZE.10 Sep 2000, Posted by Article Sampler in
GQ, September 2000
This business of pipe dreaming is tiring. Damn tiring. And nobody knows this more than Mike Kelly, sitting at his desk, feet up, chair tipped back, his hands barely holding up his head, his eyes closed. There’s a sheet of paper in his left hand—some tensile strength of metals breakdown and another that he just set down listing possible fuel additives, and something else that he should be looking for or looking up and already lost among the other papers, among the two different computers performing two different tasks, and the book he’s flipping through and the question he’s answering and the question he just answered and the interminable phone pressed to his ear and always an oversized coffee mug just at the edge of his reach—the only thing keeping sleep at bay. Suddenly he’s up and on his feet and the phone’s gone, the papers are gone, the sleeplessness nights and the years of struggle and every other damn thing—gone too.
“Come on, I want to show you something.”
Then we’re leaving the building and running across a parking lot and there’s rain falling and puddles deep enough for fish and Kelly’s splashing through, pushing on, water streaming both down from the sky and up from the earth.
Because I’m trying to avoid this business of puddle wading and because he doesn’t have the time to stay dry. Then we’re inside another building and thumping past offices and closing in on a big room at the end of a big corridor and the doors are flung open and inside is something that looks like an explosion at the Home Depot.
“This is it,” Kelly points his proud hand at the mess.
“This is what?” Because all I see is giant block and tackle system slung out across the floor. Long metal pips and wooden blocks slung from them and more blocks stacked in a corner and more pipes rolled into a pile and tangles or wiring and tatters of unidentifiable bits.
“This,” he says with his eyes locked on, with his eyes hungry and greedy—greedy for that one thing that money can’t buy. “This is the engine that’s going to fly me into outer space.”
Take a look at these names: Michael Kelly, Burt Ratan, Mitchell Clap, Dr. Rick Fleeter, John Bloomer, James Akkerman, Micky L. Badgero, William Good, David Ashford, Pablo De Leon, Dr. Norman J. LaFave, Len Cormier, Steven M. Bennett, Dr. Graham Dorrington, Michael Kelly, Dale Harris, Patrick Bahn. Take a good look. Which one has that right ring, the correct syllable structure to become household? Which one makes history? Study them. It’s only a matter of time now, measurable time, familiar time, less than a lifetime, less than a decade, maybe less than a year, until one of them becomes as familiar as a name like Henry Ford. Familiar as the person who make the sojourn to outer space as common as the commute to work. Familiar as freaking frequent flier miles.
These names belong to the seventeen entrants in the X Prize Competition and the X Prize Competition is going to do for space travel what Charles Lindbergh did for plane travel. It is a $10,000,000 dollar prize to the first privately funded person or team to travel to and from the edge of space. The rules are simple. The spaceship must be flown twice in two weeks; each flight must carry one person to a minimum altitude of 100 km (62 miles); the crew must return from each flight in good health ; the vehicle must return substantially intact such that it is reusable; entrants must pre-specify take-off and landing sites. Get up, get down, don’t get dead—now how hard could that be?
The Lindbergh comparison isn’t just plucked from a hat you know. Neither is the fact that the X Prize Foundation is centered in St. Louis and Lindbergh’s plane was called The Spirit of St. Louis and one of the other X Prize rules is that every eligible spaceship prominently displays on its frame the words: “The New Spirit of St. Louis” like it was a billboard advertising the next Tom Hanks flick. See Lindbergh didn’t just decide to cross the ocean in that little plane for the sheer hell of it, he was going for the green. By 1929 there were more than 50 major aeronautical prizes out there and among them was the 25,000 dollars put up by hotel owner Raymond Orteig for the first person to fly New York to Paris non-stop. Orteig knew a pubescent industry when he saw one, knew there’d be off-shoots and that anybody with interests in the proper place—say a hotel chain owner—would benefit greatly from some transatlantic traffic. And sure enough less than five years after Lindbergh won the prize commercial air service was up and running and so was the $250 billion dollar behemoth that would become the aviation industry. So you see the X prize isn’t all that fancy after all, sure it’s rocket science, but it’s not like were defending the free world against the red menace, it’s not like we had to coat check our morality and hire Nazi king pin scientists to advance the cause, not this time. This time the motivation is greed.
“Outer space is going to create the world’s first trillionaire, “says X Prize founding father Dr. Peter Diamandis, “I mean right now if you want to go into space you really have to have the right stuff. Right now you either have to be one of the very lucky few who are shuttle astronauts or you have to have 20 million bucks to buy a ticket on the Russian Space Program and in the ten years since they made that available and only two people have taken advantage of it. Think about it this way—in the 1850’s Alaska was Seward’s folly, it’s worth measured in seal pelts. Now we’ve discovered fish, oil, timber, transportation and real estate. It’s a tourist haven. It’s economics. Space is the same way.”
Greed it is—but not in the traditional sense, not only measured in hard dollars, but greed for new frontiers, for new territories and Diamandis’ life is a history of just such—um—spatial desire. “Ever since I was a kid I wanted to mine asteroids. I spent 10 years at MIT/Harvard getting an masters in Aerospace engineering and Ph.D. in medicine. In college I started Students for the Exploration and Development of Space and took a lot of shit from his frat brothers for being a space cadet. I took a lot of shit up to the day when Arthur C. Clarke interrupted dinner by calling me from Sri Lanka.”
He is a good looking man, Diamandis, sharp and well-kept, but sharp and well-kept in the way of a news anchor or a car salesman who has moved up in the world, who has graduated from the Toyota grind to Lexus elegance and now to something else entirely, to a man who sells Ferraris part time, maybe two days a week, just because he loves the machines. His manner has served him well. After college he went on to found The International Space University in Strasbourg, France and to build it into respectability, into a 30 million dollar institution. After that he started International Microspace—a satellite launch company that got a big share of Reagan’s Star Wars contract and then lost that contract when the program vanished.
“That was a turning point, that was when I learned about the unreliability of the government. See, I desperately wanted to be an astronaut and then I met some—don’t get me wrong, they’re great people, visionaries and pioneers—but ultimately they’re government employees. They have the most exciting job in the world once, maybe twice, in a twenty year period. I want to explore space when I want to explore it, on my terms, that’s when I dreamed up the X Prize.”
Which is not to say greed is bad or good or anything, because when it comes to outer space, well, outer space is just that: outer space. It’s that which is outside our purview, it’s that which is beyond. So if you start talking to people who want outer space to be a little closer to home, people like X Prize entrant and front runner Michael Kelly, well if you ask him he’ll tell you.
“I think that space colonization is the ultimate survival trait of the species. We only have one planet now and we don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket. It’s why people move around so much, it mitigates the risk of genetic wipeout.”
Which is what we’re really talking about here, the notion that the greed for outer space is fundamentally the greed for more life.
Michael Kelly and I are discussing the speed of culture and its effects on society, sitting there beside a big blackboard in a big office in a big building in the middle of a big airfield. The blackboard is full of arrows and equations and representations of the sheer fucking outlandish difficulty of sending a space ship into equatorial orbit which is another topic all together and one we’ve already left behind. Right now we’re talking about how Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) might be a by-product of the speed of technology and the speed of life and how they might be out of sink with each other. The idea that a kid raised on MTV and SEGA might be training the brain to cope and calculate at a lightning pace and that the speed of say second grade geography that might be too slow. The kid gets bored and labeled and told he’s slow and can’t learn and what’s really going on is he’s fast, too fast, that the lessons can’t keep up. This is interesting to Mike Kelly because as a kid they told him he was ADD and now he’s got two kids and one of them is supposed to have ADD. It’s also interesting to Kelly because it’s about the effects of culture on technology and the effects of technology on culture and right now Mike Kelly is planning to have a future in which he will forever change the way we think of both culture and technology.
So we’re going back and forth with ideas and tangents and stream-of-consciousness right turns so sharp they produce a g-force all their own and it gets tiring, damn it, all this data. So tiring that halfway through my first day with Kelly, I had to sneak out to my car and take a nap, but that was three thousand topics ago and right now Kelly has another thought in mind. I can tell this because he’s looking at me and leaning forward and putting a crease in his trousers.
“You know my oldest boy got in trouble at school once. He was telling people that his dad was a rocket scientist and the teacher told him to shut up and stop lying. That was until she found out that his dad is a rocket scientist.”
And Mike Kelly most certainly is a rocket scientist. He’s a rocket scientist 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year and he has been so for the past forty years. He wears NASA sunglasses and a NASA watch and a right stuff leather jacket when he’s not wearing a right stuff suit. He drives like he’s got that right stuff and talks like he’s got that right stuff and when he laughs he looks like a man who wasn’t supposed to enjoy his life and through the sheer force of renegade good luck has—and that’s definitely the right stuff.
When he speaks of his childhood he says, “I grew up in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo era” and that’s how he really thinks of it. He will tell you that the Apollo program is the hardest thing mankind ever did, harder than fire or steel or wheel, harder than a tax break, damn it, even harder than making Bay Watch seem like acceptable entertainment.
He, of course, never missed a launch on television.
Kelly started building rockets as a kid, by age eight, about the time most of us had figured out that fire was hot and ice was cold, Kelly knew how to make gunpowder. He didn’t stop there. Back then, before the student bombings in the seventies, potassium nitrate was solid as a diuretic in any drugstore in America and Kelly learned about potassium nitrate, that it could be easily converted into an explosive, that any explosive can be harnessed, used to propel objects toward the wide sky. By high school, Kelly knew about internal guidance systems and the various pitch and yaw laws and how you would go about designing for a space mission. On his teenage off days, when he had enough of things that go boom, when he wanted some spice and variety, he built lasers and holograms. Holograms? Christ, this was the early sixties, most people hadn’t even seen a hologram.
But back in those early sixties what everyone had seen was the Apollo program. Hell you’d have to be blind, deaf, dumb and living in a sub-basement of some bumba shack in the outer ring of an untrammeled archipelago to have missed that show. Half of the world watched those launches on television. Half. Which is the thing about Apollo, isn’t it, some sheer human drama, some sheer greed for some control of the future.
They’d like that, these X prize folks, half the world tuned in and turned on to their drama, because after all that’s part of this space game, publicity, just like these words, part of the way a greedy notion becomes a commodity. And here’s the kicker, the real punch in the gut. There’s no drama inherent in the X Prize, or at least, there shouldn’t be.
See, we were already there. Outer space. The real secret to this prize is that if it wasn’t for the cold war all of us morons out here in commuter land would have been trekking into space thirty years ago. By the late fifties, America already had the X-15 plane capable of flying 65 miles above the earth and landing safely and doing it again and again and again. That’s it, X Prize, done and gone. If that little plane had been privately owned or funded or capable of carrying a few passengers there’d be no contest. Nevermind that the X-15 was scrapped, right along with every other reusable space vehicle dreamed up by the wonderkind of NASA, as of 4 October 1957, when the red menace fired off Sputnik 1 the whole idea factory got shut down by John Kennedy’s desire to beat the Russians to the moon. They called space the “higher ground,” like it was a question of morality. Of course we put Werhner Von Braun in charge of our moonshot. Werhner—the man who built the V2 rocket for Hitler and then got lured away from the war crime tribunal and brought to America to build our entire ballistic missile future. When Kennedy decided it was lunar landing or bust he gave the job to Werhner and Werhner knew that if we wanted the moon there were only two possible choices: scale up airplanes or scale up rockets. History had already shown us that the scaling up of airplanes was a very slow process and the scaling up of rockets was a fast one. So that, as they say, was that.
In 1962 we were told to get to the moon before the end of the decade and at that time the biggest rocket we had was capable of lifting 2000 lbs into orbit. Apollo 11—the ship that carried John Glen and company to the moon—weighed 90,000 lbs. In 8 years we scaled things up by more than a factor of 100. We could do that because rocket engines for their sheer volume, size and weight are the most powerful machines in existence. We could do that because we had every last smarty pants in the country working non-stop shifts. So you’d think that we, after all this time, might put a little of that innovative elbow grease behind reusable launch vehicles. You’d think that maybe we would like to find a way around spending 750 million dollars every time we light up the space shuttle. You’d think so. That is, unless, you’ve thought about how much the huge defense contractors like Boeing and Lockheed had put into nonreusable launch vehicles.
The building that houses Kelly Space and Technology (KST) used to house the inner workings of Norton Airforce Base until Norton fell to the chopping block of early 90’s defense cuts and now is supposed to house The San Bernadino Airport which has exactly zero planes to its name and only actually manifests itself as a charter hub every six months or so to fly those well-heeled and horny enough to hire a jet to take them to some Nevada bordello. There’s no feeling quite like an abandoned airforce base and definitely not Norton. This was the base that we launched Vietnam and every attack after Vietnam. This one story brick ensemble was the last thing those boys saw before they saw the shit. This was a place of scary aeronautical innovation. There are still plenty of people around who will tell you they saw some amazing things here, otherworldly things, things built out of Roswell technology—but that’s a whole other story in itself.
Kelly moved into these offices after getting fed up with other offices, which is to say that his trajectory is rather similar to that of many of the other X Prize competitors. He came out of college and went to work for TRW because that was where all the hot shot rocket engineers went to work. They were hiring them in droves. They had the MX missile and the MX missile was the bomb. TRW was partnered with the Airforce Ballistic Missile Organization and together they built everything from the Atlas through the Peacekeeper and Kelly worked on all of them and then he tried to convince TRW of the necessity for a resuable launch vehicle and they said sure, absolutely, do it, build it—and then they fought him every last inch of the way. “We had twelve briefings in just over a year, do you know what that means? That means enough bullshit paperwork to fill an airplane hanger. I got so sick of being a government contractor. I don’t think I’ve accomplished a hell of a lot in my lifetime—I haven’t made a big contribution.”
He got frustrated and went into business for himself. In early 1992 the commercial launch business was the place to be—Motorola was planning the Iridium project—the low level telecommunications satellite blanket that would provide cellular connectivity to every point on earth and Motorola wasn’t alone in the idea. Telecommunication networks and data networks and corporate communciations networks and none of them are worth a damn. “Currently it costs about 20,000 dollars per pound to put a satellite into orbit with the average telecommunications satellite weighing around 5000 lbs. So far Iridium has spent just spent billions of dollars and the job just isn’t getting done. It’s all about affordable reusable launch vehicles, what’s going on is that a new space race is developing and this time it isn’t country versus country it’s company versus company.”
Which is to say that in the history of mankind there are 260 people who have ever flown into space. 260 people. In the few years since the X prize had been announced a travel agency called Space Adventures has nearly that many reservations for rides on the winning vehicle. Not bad considering the cost of the trip is 99,000 dollars. And that’s only the beginning. They say competition will drive the price down and competition is what this deal is about. There’s Bristol Spaceplanes Limited building a reusable space faring aeroplane that’s not much more than a gussied up version of the old X-15. Light aircraft pioneer Burt Ratan is working on the Proteus, an aircraft capable of carrying a miniature rocketship on its belly up to the upper atmosphere where the rocket detach itself and fire its engine and boom: 100 km of altitude and four minutes of weightlessness. There’s a company called Rotary Rocket building a conventional rocket that’s going to go up the old fashioned way and come down with the aid of helicopter blades that will extend out of the nosecone and land the thing whirly-bird style anywhere a helicopter can land. The Pioneer Pathfinder will fly their spaceplane shuttle 747 style to the upper atmosphere and once there will meet up with a flying gas station to load up on rocket propellant . Then they disconnect from the tanker and fire their rocket engines and passengers get to go Mach 15 all the way to 110 km altitude before gliding back down to earth. There are flying saucers and rockets that become parasails and water launched rockets and water recovery rockets and every last possible combination.
“The only ground rules for entry,” says Diamandis, “is that the spacecrafts have to be physically possible, the concepts have to make sense according to the laws of physics. You’ve got to remember that Lindbergh was considered crazy. The whole one pilot, one engine thing, everyone else was working on multiple pilots and multiple engines and he just went the simplest route. We don’t want to turn anyone away just because we think it’s a lunatic approach, that lunatic approach might end up being the one that works.”
Mike Kelly’s office is a square room in the middle of a long corridor, a couple of tables wedged together and flourescent lights overhead. The tables are piled high: books on gas dynamics; on electrical circuit analysis; engine design manuals; chemistry textbooks; physics titles so arcane they might as well be magi handbooks; heaps of intellectual property agreements; structural blueprints; and models—everywhere in this building are models. Airplanes and spaceships and things purchased at toy stores and one of these models is of The Eclipse Astroliner, the very spaceship Kelly’s building to haul his plebicite ass into space.
KST is building the “astroliner” out of old ideas. The plan is take the “astroliner spacecraft” —which is an euphemistic way of saying a “delta-winged lifting body ” which is just a fancy way of saying a giant triangle whose hull is aerodynamically designed to give the ship maximum stability and handling control when it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere—and tow it behind a cargo jet up to about 40,000 feet. The whole towing idea isn’t new, it’s been around since WWII when we towed long range bombers into flight in order to save on gas. In fact, KST has already done two separate rounds of tow testing and both rounds came off without a hitch. The delta winged lifting body they’re using is the M-2 which has also been around since the sixties and if you remember the opening sequence to The Six Million Dollar Man—when this giant hurtling triangle crashes into the tarmac and mangles Steve Austin—well that’s an M-2 lifting body and that crash was the only time in the craft’s history that it ever crashed. At 40,000 feet the tow line will be cut and the astroliner will fire up it’s rocket engines and soar up to 65 miles or so and then return back to the atmosphere where some conventional jet engines will kick in and the whole wild beast will land airplane style on any runway in any airport anywhere.
There’s also Kelly’s patented super cheap nontoxic rocket fuel that has so impressed the NASA boys that they’ve begun redesigning the Shuttle to incorporate it into their future. They’re using a standard issue police tazer as an ignitor and that old wooden block engine, which I learn is based on technology the Chinese developed 20 years ago when they were designing oak heat shields.
“I know a wooden engine sounds pretty insane, but it’s not that radical of an idea. You just got to think it through, all a rocket engine does is provide a place for a tremendous amount of fuel to burn at a controlled volume. Mankind has been burning wood for thousands of years, we know all about its properties, there’s definitely not anything extraordinary about it. It also doesn’t hurt that we can build one for around 12,000 dollars as compared to 1.5 million it would cost to build a metal one.”
There’s a small bar in the corner of the living room of Mike Kelly’s house. The bar has three stools and a selection of hand picked wines and wine knowledge seems to be yet another thing Mike Kelly knows about, but like the rest of his knowledge, it’s not something he brags and boasts about, just a thing he has picked up along the way, the way some of us have figured out that adding a cup of bleach to the wash when cleaning whites seems to make them cleaner. Kelly himself can’t drink any more, a medical condition, pills that don’t mix with alcohol, but he misses wine, lets his nose linger over the aroma when pouring a glass.
Tonight he’s throwing a small dinner party. Most of KST’s upper management are there, all dressed up, and there’s talk about how rarely they get together and how hard everyone is working and how they should do this—have fun perhaps—more often. After a little wine has been drunk they’re some more of that rocket science humor, Mike Kelly leaning across the table to say “We’re Kelly Space and Technology—if we can’t get it up, nobody can.”
And there are also long pauses in dinner conversation when people glance my way if to remind me that I’m neither service man nor rocket scientist and that though I have never held a security clearance in my life and I should consider myself lucky to be regaled with tales of the right stuff. And they’re right, I do feel lucky. I do feel that suddenly, through something as simple as proximity, I’m a little closer to that greedy future, to the place where outer space is no longer an abstract.
The whole point finally comes home a few days later when Peter Diamandis says, “You know if you were to walk into a classroom in the middle of the sixties, during the Apollo program and ask those kids if they thought they’d get a chance to go into space everyone would have said yes.”
And then he pauses to take a sip of coffee and glance around the room, “And if you walk into a classroom today and ask kids the same question they’d say no.”
“You know I never thought of it that way.”
But of course I have. It’s outer space and it’s right there. It’s everybody’s pipe dream. Who hasn’t just strolled outside and glanced up and thought ‘Yup, there it is, and I want a piece of it.”