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

Syrian Rebels Poised for Anti-Russia Collaboration

Forty-one insurgent groups issue joint statement vowing retaliation for Russian air offensives More

Political Maneuver Revives Export-Import Bank's Chances

Parliamentary tactic gets bill out of committee, but it faces opposition in the Senate More

Beijing Warns US on S. China Sea Patrols

Warning follows news reports Thursday that US military is planning to sail warships close to artificial islands Beijing has been aggressively building More

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.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs