Many people know about the X Prize, the $10 million bounty that spurred the development of SpaceShipOne, the world’s first private spaceship. But few people know about all the behind-the-scenes drama that plagued the prize from beginning to end. That’ll change this month with the publication of Julian Guthrie’s new book How to Make a Spaceship.

Writing the book required Guthrie, an award-winning journalist, to immerse herself in the world of aeronautics.

“It was a very steep learning curve for me,” Guthrie says in Episode 221 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Literally it’s rocket science.”

The book focuses on Peter Diamandis, who was so driven to get to space that he announced the $10 million X Prize without having any idea where the money was going to come from. The decade-long fundraising crusade that ensued was so full of twists, turns, and nail-biters that Guthrie found it harrowing just to write about.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, isn’t someone ever going to say yes to this guy?’” she says. “It was very stressful.”

The climax of the book includes enough death-defying stunts, madcap schemes, wild coincidences, and rousing redemptive moments to fuel a dozen Hollywood blockbusters, a fact that hasn’t been lost on film producers.

“We have strong film interest from several different parties, and we’re exploring those,” Guthrie says. “I should have more news on that in the next few weeks.”

And while a movie about the X Prize is sure to thrill audiences, Guthrie says the real goal is for everyone to be able to actually go to space themselves.

“It’s closer than it ever has been and it’s going in the right direction, for all the space lovers, geeks, and adventurers out there,” she says. “It feels imminent.”

Listen to our complete interview with Julian Guthrie in Episode 221 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Julian Guthrie on Peter Diamandis:

“This is just classic Peter Diamandis. He announces this $10 million prize, he’s got 20 astronauts on stage with him. This is May 1996, he’s in St. Louis, in front of the arch—St. Louis, which is where Charles Lindbergh found his backers in the 1920s. And it’s grand, and it’s a great ceremony, and Buzz Aldrin is there, and the head of NASA, Dan Golden, and all these people, and he announces the prize. And yet he didn’t have the teams, and more importantly he didn’t have the $10 million. But he believed that he would get the money and that he would attract the teams. So then he starts out on this entrepreneurial adventure story, which plays out in the book.”

Julian Guthrie on Dumitru Popescu:

“Here’s a kid who was in engineering school in Bucharest, and he’s in an Internet cafe, and he reads about the X Prize, and he calls his wife and says, ‘Oh my god. You’ve got to come here. We have to enter this.’ And she looks at him like he’s completely nuts—which was the same expression everyone had when he told them he was entering the X Prize. And then he and his wife convince her father to allow them to set up their rocket shop in his backyard, on the outskirts of Bucharest. So they start making these rockets, and test firing rockets. … Very risky stuff. At one point the police come because there’s this explosion that shatters windows for miles around.”

Julian Guthrie on John Carmack:

“[He] formed this hobby team, and they had a very, very reputable contender for the X Prize. … I think he expected it to be less bureaucratic, because he had worked in these small teams in his programming life at id. When it was at its best he and Romero were like these great, well-intentioned hackers who were just staying up all night, fueled by pizza and Coca-Cola or whatever, programming away, and it was something that was relatively immediate and bureaucracy-free. And then he gets to rocketry, and there are launch permits, and regulations around insurance, and regulations around propellants, and all of these things which he didn’t quite anticipate.”

Julian Guthrie on SpaceShipOne:

“You need to have some heat protection on different parts of the space vehicle, and they tried all sorts of fancy things that had been used by NASA, and they kept sending their research scientist back to the lab to concoct the next solution. So then this young engineer, Matt Steinmetz, he was talking with Burt Rutan about it, and Matt was saying, ‘Nothing’s working. It’s all peeling off, it looks awful, it’s not providing heat protection.’ And Burt said, ‘Just try some body putty.’ And Matt’s like, ‘What? Body putty?’ Like you use to smooth a dent in your car, except it’s made for airplanes. And Burt’s like, ‘Yep, try it out.’ And so Matt tried it on test models, and he’s like, ‘Oh my god. This actually works.’”


Come on Hollywood, Give Us an X Prize Movie Already