The X-Prize

One small step for man, one giant leap for free enterprise.

To boldly go as far as money can take you.

Choose your cliche, because very soon, a private organization will send private citizens into space for the first time. And the first group to accomplish the feat twice within 14 days will receive a place in the history books, $10 million, and the X Prize.

Established in 1996, the X Prize competition hopes to encourage the development of a private space tourism industry. (What will most likely happen is that competitors will end up spending many times the value of the prize in the race to be first, and thereby generate substantially greater advances in the field than might have been gained from a simple $10 million research grant.) There are more than 20 syndicates chasing the reward, and the X Prize website explains the competition itself, and provides details about the teams, the proposed spaceships, and the latest developments in private enterprise's race to space.

The X Prize home page is a busy one, and with a design that includes JavaScript crawls, lots of images, and multiple layers of backgrounds. The download can be a bit of a mess until everything's done. (Fast scrolling will also make various elements of the site momentarily disappear.)

That said, the layout presents a considerable variety of information without confusion. The center of the page is dominated by the latest competition news update, and is flanked by celebrity endorsements of the X Prize concept, commercial tie-ins, and a link to a detailed explanation of the contest rules. (Both flights must reach a minimum altitude of 100 kilometers, and return with their crews, "in good health as reasonably defined and judged by the X Prize Review Board." One hopes the Review Board will be fairly stringent on this latter requirement.)

The rest of the site is explored via a navigation bar at the top of each page (which changes to a clean and simple two-tiered arrangement within each of the main sections of the site) allowing surfers to move within a section or to any other section of the site with a single click.

The first category, Press and Background, includes media releases and resources, mission statements, and references - though not links - to mainstream press coverage dating back to 1996. More background can be found at Who's Involved, while other sections invite visitors to support the project by becoming a member of the X Prize Foundation, or by purchasing some official X Prize merchandise.

Things get much more interesting in Teams and Rules, which lists 23 competing projects. Each team is given its own home page with photos, periodic updates, vehicle specifications, and when available, links to the project's own web site. Extras you'll find at some projects' official sites include animations, a chance for a free ride into space, and a proposal to use private space flights to inaugurate the new extreme sport of spacediving.

The variety of approaches here is impressive, and ranges from the fairly conventional, two-stage Canadian Arrow (which may be ready to launch as soon as September) to Russia's Suborbital Corporation (using what resembles a mini-shuttle, piggybacked to altitude on a conventional aircraft) to Bert Rutan's elegant two-piece design for Scaled Composites. Rutan, who's Voyager aircraft flew around the world without refuelling in 1986, revealed SpaceShipOne in mid-April, seemingly from thin air - thereby demonstrating that he had already mastered privatizing the government concept of the 'skunk works.' Other examples include what looks like a three-man, suborbital bobsled, a rocket launched from a high-altitude helium balloon, a ship towed to altitude - glider style - behind a 747, and an honest-to-goodness flying saucer. If you'd like to take your own shot at the $10 million, Teams and Rules also has complete information on the registration process.

Images and FAQs provides more downloadable photographs, recommended links and an X Prize song. Yes, a song. Education has a large collection of projects for space cadets of all ages, and an invitation to enter the competition for the Eggs Prize. Open to middle-school students, the Eggs Prize challenges classroom designers to launch a self-built water rocket 30 meters into the air twice in two days - and have a raw egg survive both flights intact. (In lieu of a $10 million prize, successful Eggs Prize competitors will receive a firm handshake and a pat on the back.)

So will it all be worth (according to an estimate for the Rutan system) $50,000 for five minutes of microgravity? For some, perhaps. For the rest of us, there will be the promise of far distant super savers. In the meantime, we can track all the competitors' progress online for free.

The X Prize can be found at http://www.xprize.org/

Jim Regan is a graphics artist and writer who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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