News / Science & Technology

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.

You May Like

Photogallery Brussels Schools, Metro Reopen Under Heavy Guard

City remains under the highest threat alert level due to what authorities have described as a 'serious and imminent' threat of attack

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

UN Warns Air Pollution in Asia Pacific Has Rising Cost

Globally some seven million people a year die prematurely due to indoor and outdoor pollution with about 70 per cent of those deaths in region

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs