[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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[CBC Radio One]

Science FACTion

The X Prize

Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer writes and presents a weekly science column for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's CBC Radio One.

The columns, which have the umbrella title Science FACTION: Commentaries from the Cutting Edge of Science, are produced by Barbara Saxberg in Toronto, and syndicated to local CBC Radio stations across Canada.

Recorded 23 June 2003

Host: There's not much of a space program these days, is there? The shuttles aren't flying, and the International Space Station is an overpriced, underperforming embarrassment. Science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer thinks the answer to renewing the human presence in space rests with the private sector.

Voice Clip: Space Shuttle being grounded

Robert J. Sawyer: With the U.S. space shuttle grounded indefinitely, you might think no Canadians will be going into space anytime soon. After all, every Canadian astronaut who's ever gone up has done so aboard an American shuttle.

But, in fact, there may well be Canadians in space before the shuttle starts up service again. The reason? The Arrow.

No, I'm not talking about the Avrow Arrow, the cutting-edge Canadian jet canceled by the Diefenbaker administration. Rather, I'm referring to its 21st century namesake. The Canadian Arrow is a rocket, looking a lot like V-2 rocket from the Second World War. It's being built in London, Ontario, in hopes of snagging the X Prize.

What's the X Prize, you ask? It's a cool ten million American dollars, being offered to the first private-sector concern that builds and launches a spaceship carrying three people up to a height of 100 kilometres; brings them back safely to the earth; and then repeats the launch with the same ship within two weeks. The prize is designed to kick-start the space tourism industry —

There's a second Canadian competitor for the X Prize, and it's got an excellent shot at winning, too. The space ship Wild Fire, being built by a group called "The Da Vinci Project" intends to launch its rocket in Kindersley, Saskatchewan — although there won't be a traditional blastoff. Rather, the Wild Fire will be lifted to 80,000 feet by the world's largest reusable helium balloon, and then fire its engines from there.

Either Canadian choice is an excellent bet to win. But why have a contest in the first place? Peter Diamandis — who is a Harvard-trained medical doctor and also has engineering degrees from M.I.T — came up with the idea for the X Prize after reading about how the $25,000 Orteig prize had inspired Charles Lindbergh to make the world's first solo transatlantic flight in 1927.

Diamandis says, "Between 1905 and 1935, hundreds of aviation prizes stimulated the creation of very different aircraft designs, each of which explored different regions of flight and different mechanisms for optimizing speed, safety and low cost travel. Today the X Prize is doing the same."

Music: O Canada

There's no doubt that someone is going to win the X prize, and there are many expecting it'll happen prior to December 17, 2003 — the hundredth anniversary of the first powered flight by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. What a great way to celebrate that centennial — and wouldn't it be great if Canadians brought home the prize!

I'm Robert J. Sawyer.

More Good Reading

Other "Science FACTion" commentaries for CBC Radio
"2020 Vision" scenarios for Discovery Channel Canada
Media backgrounder on Rob Sawyer

Rob's novels Golden Fleece and Starplex, which deal with space travel

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