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St. Louis Inspires Aviation Innovation

  • Shelley Schlender

For nearly a century, entrepreneurs in the midwestern U.S. city of St. Louis, Missouri, have reached for the sky, backing two of the world’s most famous flying contests. First, Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in the 1920s. Then, in 1996, the XPRIZE, which led to the world’s first private reusable manned spacecraft.

Making dreams fly

St. Louis entrepreneur Gregg Maryniak enjoys spending time at a mid-size airport watching single engine planes rumble into the sky. He says similar airplanes, and a book about them, ignited his passion for making dreams fly.

"I read 'The Spirit of St. Louis,' and within a year, I was taking flying lessons," Maryniak said. "I was one of those kids that would spend all the money I would make pushing lawnmowers and doing various other odd jobs to pay for an hour of dual instruction in a plane."

The book that supercharged Maryniak’s ambition is about Charles Lindbergh. In 1927, the lanky young pilot entered a contest that promised $25,000 to the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris.

Many pilots had died attempting the 5,800-kilometer flight. Lindbergh’s lack of connection with prestigious aviation efforts led journalists to call him "the flying fool."

But financial backers from St. Louis believed in him. In their honor, Lindbergh named his plane “The Spirit of St. Louis” and won the prize.

Modern aviation

Maryniak says Lindbergh’s success opened the door for modern aviation.

"Within a year, the number of pilots in America triples, the number of airplanes quadruples," he said. "And the number of people buying tickets to go on commercial flights goes up 30 fold."

That $25,000 prize was a surprisingly small investment to spawn today's $500 billion aviation industry. And Maryniak plays a big part in a futuristic wing of that industry.

In the early 1990s, he and his friend, entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, proposed a new contest, to inspire private companies to develop better planes - for space.

"Everybody knew, quote unquote - that only NASA and the Russians, at the time we announced the prize, could send people to space," Maryniak said. "We knew that wasn’t true. In fact, we’d been stymied by people’s beliefs that only governments could do this. We really wanted to change that."

For start-up funds, Maryniak headed to where Lindbergh had gone 70 years earlier - St. Louis.

"I think in most cities, we would have been launched into space by the toe of people’s boots, but not here in St. Louis," said Maryniak. "We got the initial seed money that allowed us to start the foundation."

Benefiting mankind

The XPRIZE Foundation’s mission is to create public competitions, designed to kickstart technologies that benefit mankind.

In 1996, the head of NASA and 20 astronauts joined Diamandis as he stood beside St. Louis’s landmark of soaring ambition - the 200 meter high Gateway Arch - and issued a challenge.

"This $10 million award will be going to the winner, which is the first team to do the following - to privately build a spaceship. Privately finance that ship. Carry three individuals, and do that twice inside of two weeks," Diamandis said.

More than two dozen national and international teams entered that first XPRIZE competition. In 2004, the Scaled Composites company won with a plane named SpaceShipOne.

Since then, many companies have designed better ways to fly people and cargo into space. Other XPRIZES have spurred innovations ranging from more fuel efficient cars to oil spill cleanups. A current prize challenges entrepreneurs to put robots on the moon.

These days, the XPRIZE headquarters are in California, but Maryniak continues to live in the city that first believed in Lindbergh, and in the XPRIZE.

"There’s nothing special in the water in places like Silicon Valley or even St. Louis that makes entrepreneurship possible," he said. "I think it has to do with the spirit of the community."

Maryniak travels frequently, looking for other communities ready to tackle possibilities just out of view, with an XPRIZE.