The “NewSpace” Country Club

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Today I’m writing about a member of what we’ll call, for now, the “NewSpace Country Club” – XPRIZE, formerly known as the X Prize Foundation, founded by Peter Diamandis, now head of Planetary Resources and no doubt stirring other commercial-space-exploitation pots as well.

Let’s pretend that this sort-of-imaginary NewSpace Country Club is located in sunny southern California, where millionaires and billionaires own huge chunks of gated real estate. (Check out, for example, Larry Ellison’s “estate” outside Palm Springs – and this is just one of many – golly, he must have a huge family….)

And now let’s go over some “background” before I get to the meat of today’s post.

On October 4, 2004, Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne, financed by the ultra-rich Paul Allen (net worth: $15 billion) won a $10 million “X Prize” for designing the first privately funded piloted spacecraft to exceed an altitude of 328,000 feet twice in two weeks. (Though I don’t know what the project actually cost, I do know the consensus is that it was way more than $10 million.)

On July 25, 2005, Scaled Composites’ then-president Burt Rutan and Virgin Galactic chief Richard Branson announced they were partnering to form a new Spaceship Company “to jointly manufacture and market spaceships for the new suborbital personal spaceflight industry.”

In 2011 Paul Allen (the same) announced he was partnering with Burt Rutan (the same) to form Stratolaunch Systems – “a Paul G. Allen Project.” In June 2013, the established aerospace corporation Orbital Sciences (2012 revenues, $1.4 billion; 2012 net income, $61 million) joined the Stratolaunch team “to design, build, and operate Stratolaunch’s redesigned air launch rocket system….”

In February 2012, Forbes magazine staff writer Brian Caulfield reported on Peter Diamandis and XPRIZE. “His grandest scheme by far: mining precious and rare earth metals on asteroids, where trillions of dollars are just waiting to be made…. Some asteroids might be slowed and eased into orbit near Earth, perhaps with giant harpoons or rotating screws that burrow into the surface. Once secure, machines might conduct surface mining, cut, crush or vaporize rock.”

Diamandis “isn’t talking specifics yet,” Caulfield noted. “And heaven knows how it would be financed. It’s clear he’s not in it for the money. Between what the foundation pays him and fees from a handful of boards he sits on and speaking engagements, he pulls in maybe $350,000 a year. (His various equity stakes are worth $9 million-plus.) For him the motivation is similar to those competing for an X Prize: dreams of the future.”

I just have to say that, in my middle-class circles, $350,00 a year and $9 million-plus in equity stakes does not equal “regular guy.”

“The X Prize Foundation,” Caulfield reported, “is a mini-industry, with 50 employees. It is holding competitions in education, global development, energy and the environment, life sciences and space and undersea exploration…. Its board of trustees crackles with ­celebrities: director James Cameron; Huffington Post cofounder Arianna Huffington; inventors Dean Kamen and [Ray] Kurzweil; Craig Venter, the entrepreneur and biologist who raced the U.S. government to decode the human genome; Indian billionaire Ratan Tata, who presides over the world’s fifth-largest steel empire; [Google’s] Larry Page; Tesla Auto’s Elon Musk.”

…Which brings us to the present, and the bothersome article that prompted me to write this post in the first place.

“For XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandis,” that first X Prize, doled out to SpaceshipOne, “demonstrated the power of competition,” Engadget editor-in-chief Tim Stevens reported last month. (If you’re not familiar with Engadget, it’s an online news and opinion outlet that prides itself on its “obsessive coverage of cutting edge gadgets, consumer electronics and the science and technology they’re built upon.”)

Stephens was invited to, and reported on, the XPRIZE annual “visioneering” event in California – held at “the overwhelmingly posh” – according to Stevens – Pelican Hill Resort in Newport Beach, California, this May. (In case you’re wondering, accommodations at Pelican Hill start at $400 a night for a garden-view double and range up to $2,000+ per night for a four-bedroom “villa.”) I guess XPRIZE liked Stevens’ gushing account of the event, as the piece is featured on its home page.

Each year, Stevens tells us, XPRIZE “asks for help from some of the world’s greatest thinkers, tasking them to decide which of the world’s many and myriad problems are ready for solutions.” Voila! – the “visioneering” event. Why? “Says Diamandis: ‘Once a year we get together in some location … We bring together people from around the world, top benefactors, CEOs, heads of industry, heads of government … and we debate and discuss what the problems should be that we could solve’,” Stevens reports. “With a world full of problems in need of attention, the decision of which to throw the foundation’s collective might behind is of vital importance,” he dutifully notes.

My take is a bit less starry-eyed: while these events may be all that, they are a great excuse for bringing together a bunch of rich and famous people who all know other rich and famous people and doing some exploring of the heights of their connections and the depths of their pockets.

Back to the breathless Stevens: Who did XPRIZE invite to “visioneer” this year? Among others, he says, “Paul Allen and Quincy Jones and James Cameron, and so it was apparent this was going to be a very important weekend full of important people.” At a party before the “event,” Stevens says he had “a dizzying evening of shaking hands with powerful people.”

Of the 14 people in a photo placed in Stevens’ piece, captioned “The winning teams of XPRIZE Visioneering,” four are female and none are identified (we know, however, that it’s Peter Diamandis out front and smack-dab in the middle). While NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver apparently attended the visioneering event and appeared (and was identified – !) in another photo in Stevens’ story, she receives no mention in the text – nor does any other female person. I guess that none of the women at the event were “important” or “powerful” enough for Stevens to quote.

Jeeze. It is the 21st century, yes?

And yet one of eight “discussion points” on the table at this “visioneering” event was “women and girls.” And one of two “winning” proposals coming out of this visioneering event was: “X^2 the Mother of All Prizes: Rather than tackling a specific global ill, this contest would change the demographics of XPRIZE competitions and, ultimately, the industries they foster” by offering “a bonus…to any winning XPRIZE team comprised of at least 50 percent women.”

And then would the “industries they foster” pay women equal wages for equal work?

I wondered about the equal-pay thing, too, when I checked out the staff of XPRIZE. Of 57, 33 – 58 percent – are female. Hmmm….

While in our culture we give lip service to justice and fairness, our culture – to be precise, the dominant culture – continues to worship money and power – more so every day, as the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer, a direct result of the power bestowed by money. It’s disturbing to consider that, for all its talk of humanitarianism, XPRIZE seem to believe the “greatest minds” belong only to the rich and famous.

The TED phenomenon is worth considering, too. Technology Entertainment and Design conferences began, in California of course, as events where wealthy people could gather, hobnob, and feel smarter and hipper than thou. TED is more democratic than XPRIZE about choosing who gets to get up on stage and talk (you don’t have to be rich or famous). Nonetheless, the cost of entry to a TED conference these days ranges from $3,750 to $7,500 per person (not including travel and per diem expenses). The original TED conferences have morphed into a multitude of TED events all over the world. NASA has jumped on the TED bandwagon with “TEDX NASA” events (which do not, thank goodness, cost thousands to enter). National Public Radio now features “The TED Radio Hour,” recycling content from TED conferences. Yes, yes, TED posts conference lectures online for the Average People who can’t afford to be there in person – but, take it from me, it’s not the same as being there.

While I’m concerned about the continuing concentration of wealth and power within a tiny fraction of the world’s population, I’m also reminded every morning when I tune in to the world’s news that “people power” is still a force to be reckoned with.

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