Who Are the Space Renegades That Paved the Way for Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos?

Are you a maverick or are you a mouse? Author Julian Guthrie brings us one of the great entrepreneurial adventure stories of our time in 'How to Make a Spaceship'.

Julian Guthrie: I came to the story, this book, originally through an interview that I did with Peter Diamandis for the San Francisco Chronicle. And I asked him this seemingly simple question of how did this whole XPrize thing start. And he said, "Well, how much do you know about the private space flight prize?" And I said, "Not so much." So he started telling me and I'm like oh my god that is an amazing story.

So Peter, when he was reading The Spirit of St. Louis in late 1993, he's reading this book and he lands on this passage where he realizes that Lindbergh didn't fly as a stunt in 1927 but he indeed flew to win this $25,000 prize. And it was an ah-ha moment for him or for sure to take a page from the golden age of aviation when after Lindbergh flew it really sparked this commercial airline industry. All of a sudden every day folks thought that commercial air travel was safe so Peter thought he could use that model, that incentive prize model to spur innovation and spur breakthroughs in spaceflight. So that was really it. And the incentive prize model also has a habit of attracting kind of these off the grid think different types who wouldn't necessarily do anything that is affiliated with the government, who work in small teams, who like to innovate or tinker or they're kind of the hackers or the makers or the tinkers of today. So it seems to attract those types and it has throughout history. People didn't think Lindbergh, who was 25 years old when he made this flight, and no one thought that he would be able to make that momentous flight, which after he landed in Paris made him the most famous man on earth.

Throughout history there have been the greatest innovations, which did not involve the government. Whether it's the railroads, whether it's the personal computer, and whether it's with this space milestone that was made, you know, the government actually set Peter on this quest of his to create a private path to space because it was the magic of NASA in the 1960s that first captivated his attention and the attention of so many people, including many of the folks who I interviewed for my book. That Apollo 11 landing in July 1969 it transfixed them and it set people on this path of the desire to get to space. It was a moment in history when technological breakthroughs were really at their peak. I mean what was achieved in eight years from the time this moon mission was announced by President Kennedy to the time man first set foot on another celestial body it was an incredible show of ingenuity and determination and bravery really.

So that was the government at its best. And then private industry, Peter's idea, going back to this particular space prize, was that where NASA had a left off NASA had gotten very big. NASA had gotten very – programs had gotten very, very costly. The space shuttle mission was exorbitantly expensive. It was not as safe as everyone would have wished. The belief was that these small teams, these kind of maverick individuals could then step in. And now it's interesting because NASA is Elon Musk's biggest provider, contractor. But I think that once SpaceX, once Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin, once Virgin Galactic, once these flights become much more routine then you're going to see it moving back away from the government and more toward the private citizen so the Peter Diamandis' of the world are actually going to get to fly.

It seems ‘a-ha!’ moments might be contagious. Journalist Julian Guthrie’s latest book, How to Make a Spaceship, sprang from an interview she did with Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, which designs and launches large incentive prizes to drive radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.


In this interview, Diamandis told her of an a-ha moment he had back in 1993: he was reading The Spirit of St. Louis and realized that 25-year-old American aviator Charles Lindbergh didn't make his historic 1927 non-stop flight from Long Island, New York to Paris, France as a publicity stunt; he did it to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize. A light-bulb switched on, and the X PRIZE foundation was born out of Diamandis’ desire to adopt the incentive model that kick-started the golden age of aviation, and apply it to the space age.

This recount by Diamandis spurred on a surge of creativity that resulted in Guthrie’s new book, where she asks the question: what fuels great leaps of invention? The answer it seems is renegades, mavericks, competition, and both inspiration and detachment from the government.

The magic of NASA in the 1960s was an example of the government at its best. The space program ignited imagination and curiosity in the public, and in just eight years it successfully launched man to the moon. But as all things do, NASA’s missions got more complicated and costly. By the late 1980s, the Challenger space shuttle had been destroyed in flight and killed all seven crew members, and Mars was being described as "a trillion dollars away". Space exploration seemed unsafe, which disenfranchised the public, and absurdly expensive, which disenfranchised independent inventors.

Then came the Ansari X PRIZE for private spaceflight, which was opened in 1996, where X PRIZE offered a $10 million incentive to the first non-government organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space – but here was the catch: they had to do it twice, safely, within two weeks. Guthrie’s book tells the story of the 26 teams that participated, from all over the world, ranging from amateur hobbyists, to a toothpaste factory worker, to corporate-sponsored super teams and how, after eight years (the magic number), a winner crossed the finish line with a comparatively low-cost solution to space flight.

What was the genius of this incentive model? Guthrie explains several factors: small teams often have more ingenuity and freedom than large bureaucratic institutions; some of the most brilliant minds want nothing to do with the government; unconventional resumes like former hackers and off-the-grid inventors bring unexpected ideas from all disciplines (Lindberg himself was a total nobody until he won the Orteig Prize), and lastly: money and ego are powerful motivators.

Some of humanity’s greatest innovations – such as railroads and personal computers – did not involve the government. Sometimes it’s faster for a free-agent maverick to make innovative leaps than a weighty industry giant. Guthrie’s How To Make a Spaceship is a compelling, adventurous tale – which is the only way you get Richard Branson to write the preface and Stephen Hawking to pen the afterword.

Julian Guthrie’s book is How to Make a Spaceship: A Band Of Renegades, An Epic Race, And The Birth Of Private Spaceflight.

Deep learning nails correlation. Causation is another matter.

Why do people with bigger hands have a better vocabulary? That's one question deep learning can't answer.

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Is NASA ignoring proof of Martian life from the 1970s?

One of the scientists with the Viking missions says yes.

Image source: David Williams/NASA
Surprising Science
  • A former NASA consultant believe his experiments on the Viking 1 and 2 landers proved the existence of living microorganisms on Mars
  • Because of other conflicting data, his experiments' results have been largely discarded.
  • Though other subsequent evidence supports their findings, he says NASA has been frustratingly disinterested in following up.

Gilbert V. Levin is clearly aggravated with NASA, frustrated by the agency's apparent unwillingness to acknowledge what he considers a fact: That NASA has had dispositive proof of living microorganisms on Mars since 1976, and a great deal of additional evidence since then. Levin is no conspiracy theorist, either. He's an engineer, a respected inventor, founder of scientific-research company Spherix, and a participant in that 1976 NASA mission. He's written an opinion piece in Scientific American that asks why NASA won't follow up on what he believes they should already know.

In 1976

Image source: NASA/JPL

Sunset at the Viking 1 site

As the developer of methods for rapidly detecting and identifying microorganisms, Levin took part in the Labeled Release (LR) experiment landed on Mars by NASA's Viking 1 and 2.

At both landing sites, the Vikings picked up samples of Mars soil, treating each with a drop of a dilute nutrient solution. This solution was tagged with radioactive carbon-14, and so if there were any microorganisms in the samples, they would metabolize it. This would lead to the production of radioactive carbon or radioactive methane. Sensors were positioned above the soil samples to detect the presence of either as signifiers of life.

At both landing sites, four positive indications of life were recorded, backed up by five controls. As a guarantee, the samples were then heated to 160°, hot enough to kill any living organisms in the soil, and then tested again. No further indicators of life were detected.

According to many, including Levin, had this test been performed on Earth, there would have been no doubt that life had been found. In fact, parallel control tests were performed on Earth on two samples known to be lifeless, one from the Moon and one from Iceland's volcanic Surtsey island, and no life was indicated.

However, on Mars, another experiment, a search for organic molecules, had been performed prior to the LR test and found nothing, leaving NASA in doubt regarding the results of the LR experiment, and concluding, according to Levin, that they'd found something imitating life, but not life itself. From there, notes Levin, "Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA's subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results."

Subsequent evidence

Image source: NASA

A thin coating of water ice on the rocks and soil photographed by Viking 2

Levin presents in his opinion piece 17 discoveries by subsequent Mars landers that support the results of the LR experiment. Among these:

  • Surface water sufficient to sustain microorganisms has been found on the red planet by Viking, Pathfinder, Phoenix and Curiosity.
  • The excess of carbon-13 over carbon-12 in the Martian atmosphere indicates biological activity since organisms prefer ingesting carbon-12.
  • Mars' CO2should long ago have been converted to CO by the sun's UV light, but CO2 is being regenerated, possibly by microorganisms as happens on Earth.
  • Ghost-like moving lights, resembling Earth's will-O'-the-wisps produced by spontaneous ignition of methane, have been seen and recorded on the Martian surface.
  • "No factor inimical to life has been found on Mars." This is a direct rebuttal of NASA's claim cited above.

Frustration

Image source: NASA

A technician checks the soil sampler of a Viking lander.

By 1997, Levin was convinced that NASA was wrong and set out to publish followup research supporting his conclusion. It took nearly 20 years to find a venue, he believes due to his controversial certainty that the LR experiment did indeed find life on Mars.

Levin tells phys.org, "Since I first concluded that the LR had detected life (in 1997), major juried journals had refused our publications. I and my co-Experimenter, Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, then published mainly in the astrobiology section of the SPIE Proceedings, after presenting the papers at the annual SPIE conventions. Though these were invited papers, they were largely ignored by the bulk of astrobiologists in their publications." (Staat is the author of To Mars with Love, about her experience as co-experimenter with Levin for the LR experiments.)

Finally, he and Straat decided to craft a paper that answers every objection anyone ever had to their earlier versions, finally publishing it in Astrobiology's October 2016 issue. "You may not agree with the conclusion," he says, "but you cannot disparage the steps leading there. You can say only that the steps are insufficient. But, to us, that seems a tenuous defense, since no one would refute these results had they been obtained on Earth."

Nonetheless, NASA's seeming reluctance to address the LR experiment's finding remains an issue for Levin. He and Straat have petitioned NASA to send a new LR test to the red planets, but, alas, Levin reports that "NASA has already announced that its 2020 Mars lander will not contain a life-detection test."

Physicists solve a 140-year-old mystery

Scientists discover the inner workings of an effect that will lead to a new generation of devices.

Credit: IBM
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