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Escape From Gravity™ II

Episode II: From Disability to Spaceflight

In 1995, I met a guy at a party who sold knees and hips. My knees were toast, so I asked who he would recommend for a replacement job. Six months later, using tools that looked astonishingly similar to the tools in my work shop, Dr. Bill took a drill to my femur. Using clamps, guides, jig saws and slide hammers he sculpted a niche and glued a titanium post into my leg. At the end of that post, a teflon pad would cushion the space between the metal inserts and serve as fresh cartilage for my bionic knees. Woohoo – maybe I can walk again!

My 21+ year old knee replacement X-Ray.

Two months prior to the knee carpentry job, I struggled with my cane up onto the stage at the St. Louis Science Center. Wobbling and wincing with each step to the podium to help launch a crazy thing called the XPRIZE. The bold idea was to offer a huge cash prize to the first team that could build and launch a manned rocket ship into space - twice! An audacious goal, but accomplish that feat and you win the largest cash prize in history – the $10 million dollar XPRIZE. Ten million dollars that we didn't have.

The announcement party, stuffed with rocket scientists, celebrities, philanthropists, astronauts, and the NASA Administrator, had the desired effect: super-credibility. Twenty-six teams registered to compete and started building hardware. We were confident that we could raise the prize money before anyone launched a rocket. But the pressure was intense and maintaining the relentless fundraising over time nearly killed the dream.

Erik Lindbergh XPRIZE speaking at the National Press Club

Rockin a fuzzy mustache at an early xprize event in WA DC.

The first several years went really well - people were wild about the vision. The few naysayers who threw up all the reasons why it couldn’t be done, failed to dampen our enthusiasm. We built out an impressive ecosystem of private and public partnerships invested in our idea to create the future of spaceflight.

But after 5 years, we were still struggling to raise the prize purse. Many bleeding edge corporate CEO's were all in favor, but legal would step in and say “You want me to pay $10,000,000.00 to put my corporate logo on an untested experimental rocketship - with a person in it?"

Over the years, we slowly trickled down to half of a person working in the office with the rest of us off working other jobs to make ends meet.

All the talk of zero gravity inspired me to look closer at my own life. Could I do flips again if gravity wasn’t smashing my joints together? I began to imagine and carve "rustic rocket ships" in the odd but compelling bits of wood that I had stashed around my work shop. The sky was no longer the limit.

Escape From Grey Matter wood sculpture by Erik Lindbergh

Escape From Grey Matter. Photo by Jim Fagiolo.

My family has an unwritten rule that I call "Lindbergh-o-phobia". The negative effects of my Grandfather's extreme fame trickled down the generations causing a general aversion for anything to do with the media or that would put you in the public eye.

I got over that.

Losing my mobility, then getting another chance at a physical life allowed me to push into this new and really uncomfortable territory.

I started by reluctantly agreeing to carve a sculpture of the Spirit of St. Louis for a client. He and his brother had been inspired to become pilots after reading The Spirit of St. Louis. Shaping and then “flying” that sculpture in my hand throughout my wood shop sparked my imagination further. In my minds-eye, I imagined what it must have been like to fly from New York to Paris in 1927. That flight changed my grandfather's life - indeed it changed the world. I began to wonder, could I could fly solo across the Atlantic?

Evolution of Spirit wood sculpture by Erik Lindbergh

Evolution of Spirit. Photo by Jim Fagiolo.

I was lucky enough to have gotten a second chance at life - I might not get a third chance. Could I leverage the past to help create the future? My new knees enabled me to walk, travel and work again - and I was back flying. What if I retraced Grandfather’s New York to Paris flight in a small plane on the 75th anniversary? Could I use such an adventure to raise money for the future of flight - XPRIZE?

Photo of Erik Lindbergh departing NY in Lancair aircraft

Departing New York for Paris May 20, 2002 Photo by Kristina Lindbergh.

After asking a thousand questions, overcoming all kinds of resistance and spending countless hours training for all contingencies – I took the leap across the pond. In May of 2002 I flew a Lancair Columbia 300 solo for 17 hours and 7 minutes across the Atlantic from New York to Paris. The media coverage re-energized the XPRIZE Foundation - we raised more than a million dollars and got on the cover of newspapers and TV news all around the world. I even got a call from President George Bush for inspiring the world with positive news after 9/11.

My first trip to France is a 17 hour solo flight to Le Bourget airport. Photo by Enrico Evers.

Two years later in 2004, we awarded the ten million dollar Ansari XPRIZE, for the daring flights of SpaceShipOne.

We never did raise the full Ten Million, but if want to find out the innovative way we managed to pay the winning check, read the NY Times bestselling book: How To Make A SpaceShip - A band of renegades, an epic race and the birth of private spaceflight .

In a classic “10 year overnight-success story” we went from crazy rocket geeks to global changemakers. Our primary goal of creating a private Spaceflight industry succeeded. This spark of innovation drew the focus and resources of some of the world’s leading entrepreneurs.

Sir Richard Branson bought the rights to develop SpaceShipOne for Virgin Galactic. Elon Musk joined our board of trustees and Larry Page challenged us to think beyond spaceflight to use prize philanthropy to help solve the worlds greatest challenges. Now, the XPRIZE Foundation has eight active prizes and several more in the works.

Spirit of St. Louis and SpaceShipOne on display at National Air and Space Museum

SpaceShipOne at the National Air and Space Museum. Photo by Erik Lindbergh.

Being a part of a small group of people who shifted the world’s perspective on spaceflight and seeing SpaceShipOne hanging in the Air and Space Museum next to Grandfather’s Spirit of St. Louis was incredibly empowering. We launched the private Spaceflight industry and changed the world!

“How do we do that again?”

Being a pilot, I set my sights back toward the aviation industry. What are the problems facing aviation? How could I affect positive change and help create a new clean, quiet “golden era” of aviation?

Photo of electric eSpirit of St. Louis aircraft at Oshkosh Airventure with FAA administrator sitting in it

The student built, all-electric eSpirit of St. Louis at Oshkosh with FAA Administrator Michael Huerta "flying it". Photo by Erik Lindbergh.

In 2008 I realized that electric propulsion represented a clean, quiet future for flight. If it could scale, it would radically change how we move around the planet and allow us soar above immobilizing traffic jams. Hmmm...

Coming soon: Escape From Gravity episode III: Return of the "Flying Car". Big grin!

eVTOL Personal Air Taxi vertical flight mode

eVTOL Personal Air Taxi 200 vertical flight mode. Photo by VerdeGo Aero LLC.

eVTOL Personal Air Taxi horizontal flight mode

eVTOL Personal Air Taxi 200 horizontal flight mode. Photo by VerdeGo Aero LLC.

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