On day two of the 2007 X Prize Cup, between dealing with Armadillo Aerospace’s faltering attempts to win the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge and serving as master of ceremonies for the day’s events, X Prize founder Peter Diamandis took a few minutes to talk to PopSci about the future of his organization’s marquee event. Read the interview after the jump.—Seth Fletcher
Image Courtesy Zero-Gravity Corp
Why did the X Prize Cup move this year from Las Cruces to Holloman Air Force base [some 50 miles outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico, on the edge of White Sands Missile Range]?
We did the transition for a number of reasons. One, to add the air show, which was critical because rocket operations are still touch and go. They’re infrequent. There are large periods when nothing is happening. It’s exciting—people go to a shuttle mission just to watch one launch and they’ll spend the entire day—but we felt that being able to have an air and space show would really liven things up. Number two: Holloman has helped reduce the cost of our operations substantially. General [David] Goldfein [commander of the 49th Fighter Wing, based at Holloman] and his entire team here have been incredible. The facilities they have here in terms of security, in terms of construction, are first class and allow us—instead of spending our money building landing pads and porta potties, we can spend that money bringing in more hardware and giving away more prizes. It’s been a great marriage between the two and I hope that as we look at the success this year we’ll be able to consider doing it again next year.
PS But the Holloman show is biannual, right?
PD It’s biannual. And it hasn’t been decided yet, but our hope is we’ll do the combined air and space show on an annual basis. Or it could be that we do this two years from now. We’ll have to find out.
PS So if Armadillo wins the Lunar Lander Challenge today, what will be the centerpiece challenge next year? [Editor’s note: Armadillo didn’t win, so the Lunar Lander Challenge is still up for grabs. Still, something has to come after the Lunar Lander Challenge is finally claimed.]
PD That’s a good question. We don’t know yet. We have ideas. We’ll be talking to NASA, we’ll be talking to the Air Force about other prize purses. There will be prizes that move technology forward, that are valuable to the team, valuable to the sponsors, and make great theater. We’re thinking about, say, Lunar Lander Level Three. We’ve talked about the idea of what we call a Rock and Rove—a small rocket that might go up to 5 or 10,000 feet and then land a robotic rover out in the distance that has to then rove back to the starting line.
PS What about the role of the Rocket Racing League?
PD Next year I now feel extremely confident we will have a number of the rocket racing vehicles here. One of the agreements I negotiated between the X Prize and the Rocket Racing League is that the finals would be held at the X Prize Cup every year. So hopefully next year we’ll have a number of vehicles flying.
PS So recent developments make you feel confident? They had a test on Mojave, they had...
PD We had five engine firings—two static, three flight tests. They went exceptionally well. We’ll be expanding the envelope privately, and we hope to do a public demonstration flight before the end of the year.
PS I’ve heard rumors that the league could release a schedule within 30-45 days. Does that sound reasonable?
PD For the first public flight?
PS No, for 2008.
PD I can’t comment on that. I have no idea what the schedule is.
PS Do you see other big air and space shows such as NASA’s expo as competition to the cup?
PD No. I mean, my goal here is to provide something that is valuable to the companies, that is valuable to the NASA and the Air Force. If someone else does it better than us, great. We think there’s something very special here. We’ve done it for three years, and we’ve learned a lot every year. I think there is a market for one or two of these [events] every year. Maybe there’s a market for more, I don’t know. We’ve made a commitment to New Mexico, which has put up a large amount of money to hold ours here. If Florida gets one going, if someone else gets one going, great. But we’ll take that one step at a time.