- The Washington Times - Monday, November 1, 2004

Peter Diamandis wasn’t thinking about history as he stood in the Mojave Desert and watched a small, shuttlecock-shaped craft glide back to Earth after having nudged the edge of space.

He just thought it looked beautiful.

It was only the following day, as Mr. Diamandis was driving his father back to Los Angeles, that euphoria — and relief — swept over him.

So many people had trusted him, backed him, bailed him out even when others had ridiculed his notion of jump-starting space tourism by offering a $10 million prize for the first privately financed passenger craft to soar 62 miles through the atmosphere and return safely to earth.

At last, he told his father, “The fuse has been lit.” His father reminded him that he was the one who ignited it.

The headlines from the Oct. 4 flight, and the congratulatory call from President Bush, went to aviator Burt Rutan, who designed SpaceShipOne; to pilots Michael Melvill and Brian Binnie, who flew it in two separate suborbital flights a week apart; and to billionaire Paul Allen who financed it.

But the vision behind the voyage, the brains behind the $10 million purse that spurred it, belong to a small, intense, impeccably dressed son of Greek immigrants, a man so obsessed by space that even his mother jokingly wonders whether her son carries an extraterrestrial gene.

Mr. Diamandis, 43, is deadly serious about his dreams. They go far beyond the commercial space travel that many believe was initiated in October.

Mr. Diamandis has visions of living in space, of exploring the stars and of eventually — though perhaps not in his lifetime — colonizing other planets. As his friends and even skeptics point out, he has a habit of turning dreams into reality.

He gave up on the idea of government-sponsored spaceflight after the 1986 Challenger disaster derailed NASA’s space shuttle program. The quickest route to space, he decided, would be through privately funded missions.

So Mr. Diamandis set out to make it possible.

In 1980, as a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he founded Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, which now has chapters all over the world.

Mr. Diamandis organized space conferences and Web sites. He started foundations to promote space travel. He founded the International Space University, which started as a summer school and now has permanent campus and staff in Strasbourg, France.

He started his own rocket company. He co-founded the Zero Gravity Corp., which just this summer got approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct weightless flights for the public aboard a modified Boeing jet.

Remarkably, he always found backers and believers. Although occasionally his schemes sputtered, more often they thrived.

After reading a biography of Charles Lindbergh — and of the prize that encouraged the American’s pioneering trans-Atlantic flight — Mr. Diamandis in 1994 began pitching his plan to create a space prize. He would call it the X Prize — X for mystery, X for experimental, X for the Roman numeral 10, representing the $10 million that would go to the winner.

He found supporters, people such as Doug King, president of the St. Louis Science Center, who urged Mr. Diamandis to capitalize on the Lindbergh-St. Louis connection and base his organization in that city. In March 1996, a group of seven businessmen pledged $25,000. On May 18, under the Arch, surrounded by more than a dozen astronauts, including Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, Mr. Diamandis announced the creation of the X Prize.

Still there were more skeptics than believers.

From the start, the hardest part for Mr. Diamandis was raising the prize money. In September 2001, he read a Fortune magazine article about two wealthy Texans who longed to “see the stars.” He flew to Dallas, met Anousheh Ansari and her brother-in-law, Amir, and flew back to St. Louis with a commitment of more than $1 million. The competition was renamed the Ansari X Prize. The infusion of money attracted more investors and the race was on.

Last month, SpaceShipOne soared into a cloudless sky, and the race was won.

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