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Downlinks with Miles O'Brien

Prize money propels record-quests

Jones and Piccard
Jones, left, and Piccard are the first men to cirlce the globe in a balloon   


March 23, 1999
Web posted at: 9:54 a.m. EST (1454 GMT)

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Really, not much about it was old fashioned. The craft was state-of-the art; brimming with the latest in navigation, communication and survival technology. But when I read about the success I couldn't help but feel I had awakened to a simpler time.

I am, of course, talking about Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones' amazing circumnavigation of the globe by hot air and helium balloon. The Breitling-Orbiter 3 is a so-called Rozier balloon -- named after the man who was in the basket at the very dawn of aviation. It was 1783 when Pilatre de Rozier and Arquis D'Arlandes made the first untethered manned flight of any kind.

About 120 years later, aviation entered its most romantic -- if not exciting -- period. Almost from the moment Orville and Wilbur Wright rose above the dunes of Kitty Hawk in 1903, wealthy people and publicity-savvy companies were offering big purses for the Next Big Thing in the sky.

In 1906, Alberto Santos Dumont won 3,000 for flying all of 80 feet. Three years later, Louis Bleriot banked 1000 offered by the Daily Mail of London after he sputtered across the English Channel -- the first aviator to complete that trip. In 1919, Capt. John Alcock and Lt. Arthur Whitten Brown flew the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic (England to America) -- pocketing 10,000 in prize money -- also from the Daily Mail.

And of course, there is that little New York to Paris contest. Not many people remember that Charles Lindbergh was in a heated competition with nine other teams to be the first to link that city-pair. The prize: $25,000 -- offered by wealthy New York hotelier and plane-buff Raymond Orteig.

Would the taciturn, humble mail pilot friends called "Slim" have flown his "Spirit of St. Louis" into immortality without that prize money? Not a chance.

Don't get me wrong: Lindbergh wasn't in it for the money -- or the attention. But his well-heeled sponsors from St. Louis were -- and would not have bankrolled his $10,000 Ryan monoplane without a dangling prize.

And so it probably is for the folks at Breitling. You see, when the Breitling balloon floated past 9 degrees, 27 minutes west in longitude over Mauritania, the team earned a cool $1 million -- from American brewmeister Anheuser-Busch. And while they won the Budweiser Cup for being the first -- there was nary a Bud Light in sight at mission control in Geneva. They celebrated with champagne -- naturalment.

So what's left to conquer? What records remain unbroken? Not many that I can think of -- on this side of the troposphere.

That's why I am fascinated by the X-Prize competition. A private foundation (also in St. Louis) is offering a $10 million cash prize to the first private team which safely launches and lands a vehicle capable of transporting three people on two suborbital flights to 62 miles altitude in a 14 day period. More than a dozen teams are currently working on ways to get there from here.

Burt Rutan (his brother Dick was pilot-in-command on the first non-stop, non-refueled, round-the-world airplane flight in 1986) has designed a composite plane that will fly to 36,000 feet. Then the pilot will pull back on the stick and light the attached rocket (some afterburner, eh?). One team wants to launch and (er) "land" its rocket in the sea. Another is planning a plain ol' rocket with a capsule and parachute for re-entry. Yet another will launch vertically, aloft by another plane. You get the idea(s).

Will any of these schemes succeed? Who knows. But it occurs to me that the Final Frontier may be ripe for this kind of competition. Had World and Cold Wars not gotten in the way, aviation probably would have continued to progress more in the private sector. But from Pearl Harbor through Apollo and on into the Shuttle era, governments remained in the pilot's seat - pushing the envelope -- more to win geopolitical trophies than aeronautical ones.

But those days now seem like yesterday's news. Perhaps we've gone back to the future, with private money and hungry adventurers back in vogue. And that might very well make a new kind of space race The Next Big Thing.

Miles O'Brien's column appears on Tuesday.

Downlinks with Miles O'Brien

Balloonists head home after triumphant global flight
March 21, 1999
Balloonists: '20 days of beautiful moments'
March 22, 1999
Deflated attempts of past balloonists
March 21, 1999
'The eagle has landed': Round-the-world balloonists touch down in Egypt
March 21, 1999
An idea that helped spin us into the space age
March 15, 1999
Space entrepreneur may inspire 'rocket boys' for a new millennium
March 1, 1999
Linenger's post-Mir perspective
February 22, 1999

Breitling Orbiter
Wilbur and Orville Wright
Lindbergh Foundation
X PRIZE Foundation
Burt Rutan
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