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Last Updated: Monday, 18 July, 2005, 09:10 GMT 10:10 UK
Pushing for the next giant leap
By Jo Twist
BBC News science and technology reporter

Time-lapse exposure of stars in night sky, Eyewire
Space exploration could secure mankind's future
Humans have a "moral imperative" to open up space as a "new frontier", says X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis.

He also believes that within the next decade humans will find ubiquitous life on Mars and, in our lifetime, millions of people will be going into space.

Mr Diamandis addressed last week's Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference in Oxford, held in Europe for the first time.

TED Global brings together scientists, designers and big thinkers to discuss how to make a better future for all.

High ambition

"If you think about space, everything we hold of value on this planet is in infinite supply there," Mr Diamandis explains.

"Earth is a crumb in a supermarket full of resources."

Inspired by the Apollo mission, it has been his ambition since childhood to take people into space, he says.

Mr Diamandis raised cash with help from the Ansari Foundation and others to create the Ansari X-Prize.

The prize rewarded the first non-government funded manned craft to reach the official 100km boundary of space twice in two weeks.

The $10m jackpot was won by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites team in 2004.

Its SpaceShipOne craft was the first vehicle to achieve the feat, and a modified version will now form the fleet for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space tourist service.

Both Mr Rutan and Mr Diamandis are passionate believers that humanity's future in space should be led by non-governmental missions.

Risk and reward

Only those missions can afford the great risks that are inherent in such early exploration.

"True breakthroughs require risks," thinks Mr Diamandis.

The cost of getting into orbit is the key to human survival, wealth and prosperity
Peter Diamandis
"The X-Prize showed that risk was OK. We should be allowed to take risk, and anyone who says we shouldn't should be put aside," he explains.

Those breakthroughs could happen in space; some could even provide world changing solutions for Earth, he believes.

Such risks, as evidenced by the recent false starts for the space shuttle, are proving increasingly difficult to justify for government-supported organisations, such as Nasa.

English Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, told the BBC News website that non-government missions were the only real option.

"My feeling is that with every advance in the miniaturisation of robotics, the practical case for sending humans into space is weakened," he said.

"Nasa-type projects are vastly expensive, partly because they are risk averse.

"So I think that any future for manned space exploration should be private sponsorship by people who are prepared to take the risk and cut corners," he argued.

He foresees many more probes doing the exploring for us, as satellite technology advances. This will help us understand our origins.

New frontiers

Indeed, one of the main themes at TED last week was that humanity has barely touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of its own evolution.

That goes for our knowledge of life outside of our "middle world" existence, as biologist Professor Richard Dawkins phrased it at the conference.

"We are young as a species," says Mr Diamandis. In terms of what our future in space would look like, he says: "We cannot conceive it".

"It is like asking the Europeans in the 1400s to think of life today. We will make decisions to change the very fabric of society.

"We may even reinvent society and the human form," he says.

If it sounds reminiscent of Christopher Columbus' colonialist ambitions, Mr Diamandis talks the talk that suggests it is.

Martian surface, AP
Life on Mars could be waiting for us, says Mr Diamandis
"We are on the verge of the greatest exploration the human race has ever known," he says.

Frontiers are among our planets' scarcest resources, according to Mr Diamandis.

At frontiers, new decisions are made. People can rise to their full potential there because they are unhindered by social structure, he argues.

Of course, one motivation for claiming new frontiers and colonising them is power and wealth, which Mr Diamandis says drives the human desire for exploration.

"The cost of getting into orbit is the key to human survival, wealth and prosperity," he says.

The infinite resources that Mr Diamandis talks of include nickel-iron asteroids worth $20 trillion on the open Earth market.

But for now, Mr Diamandis is busy organising other X-Prizes to push humanity into taking risks, pushing scientific, medical, and technological advances.

X-Prizes for energy, genetic, environmental and medical development are all under development.

Geneticist Craig Venter has just joined the X-Prize board for a rapid genome prize.

His motivation here sounds altruistic.

"The most critical tool for solving humanity's challenges is a committed passionate human mind," says Mr Diamandis.

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