Providing an Incentive for Space Travel

Arthur C. Clarke is an author and scientist, recognized as the father of the geostationary communications satellite. He is a founding member of the nonprofit X Prize Foundation and chancellor of the International Space University. He resides in Sri Lanka

Now that Sen. John Glenn has flown again at age 77, perhaps others in their late youth like me (81 next birthday) may have a chance of going into space.

Certainly I’d love to--but, more important, I’d like everyone to have the opportunity. Nearly 30 years ago, when I wrote “2001: A Space Odyssey,” I thought that by 2001 we’d have space tourism to the moon. In fact, Pan Am Airlines actually accepted reservations on a future flight to the moon. More than 90,000 people responded and made their reservations.

There is no doubt that the demand for space tourism exists. Where else could you get to see a sunrise and sunset every 90 minutes? In fact, recent surveys in the U.S. and Japan indicate that more than 60% of the U.S. and Japanese population would love a chance to travel to space. The problem is that the spaceships required to take us there safely and cheaply don’t yet exist.

Today if you want to travel into space, you have one of three choices: You can become a U.S. government employee--either astronaut or congressman or senator; you can join the Russian space program, or you can probably negotiate a ride with the capitalistic Russian Space Agency for somewhere around $15 million (it’s been done three times already).


However, there is another way. When I was growing up in England in the 1920s and ‘30s, the golden age of aviation was just getting started. The aviation industry we now enjoy, now valued at $250 billion, was created because of a series of aviation prizes sponsored during my youth. Hundreds of prizes around the world motivated innovative entrepreneurs and aviators to set new records and dare to dream. Perhaps the best known competition was the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 award offered by Raymond Orteig for the first person to fly nonstop between New York and Paris. When I was 10, that prize was won by Charles A. Lindbergh, who received his backing ($25,000) from a group of St. Louis businessmen called the Spirit of St. Louis organization. Without a doubt, Lindbergh became the most famous human on the planet.

Today a similar type of competition is underway, hoping to create the Golden Age of Space Travel. Called the X Prize, this competition is a $10 million incentive prize for the first person or team to build a reusable commercial rocket capable of carrying tourists to the edge of space. Based in St. Louis, it is the only current competition or incentive prize to encourage the development of space tourism.

When I first heard about the X Prize two years ago, I realized that you could have no better launch pad than the home of the famous “Spirit of St. Louis,” which inaugurated the present age of civil aviation. In 1987, the 60th anniversary of the Lindbergh flight, I was the proud recipient of the Lindbergh medal. It’s perhaps sufficient to say that a $25,000 investment made by St. Louis 71 years ago had a financial and publicity payoff far beyond anything those 10 original backers could possibly have imagined.

It has always been our nature as humans to explore our surroundings, to push the limits of our understanding and to turn frontiers into future homes. Now, space beckons. During the birth of the space age, it was the powerful force of competition between the Soviet Union and the United States that drove us so far so fast. It’s hard to realize that from Yuri Gagarin’s flight in 1961 to landing on the moon was only eight years. The X Prize will reintroduce, in a constructive fashion, this element of competition and for this reason, I’m happy to support it. It’s perhaps the first small but crucial step toward the opening up of space.

To quote Lindbergh, “The important thing is to start: to lay a plan, and then follow it step by step no matter how small or large each one by itself may seem.” The X Prize is a plan, and the first step toward giving all of us a chance to follow in Glenn’s footsteps, or should I say rocket exhaust, into space.