For UMR grad, private funding is the X factor in space exploration

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On May 28, 2005

University of Missouri-Rolla graduate Ed Tuck watched Space Ship One’s $10 million flight from his patio in California. As a business partner and advisor to some of the competitors for the Ansari X Prize, a challenge involving privately funded suborbital flight, Tuck had more than a passing interest.

Space Ship One riding beneath the White Knight.Photo by Richard Seaman (

A few weeks earlier, he was in the Mojave Desert to get a good look at Space Ship One’s first suborbital flight. The X Prize rules required two trips to near space.

“The amount of money I contributed to the project was very insignificant compared to the total raised, but I suppose it came at a good time,” says Tuck, principal of Falcon Fund, a private investment fund. “At the Mojave airport for the first attempt, I was treated like visiting royalty.”

Tuck, who graduated from UMR in 1953 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, has started or participated in starting several companies, including Teledesic Corp., Magellan Corp., Applied Digital Access and Endgate Corp. Among other ventures, he is currently a director of TriQuint Semiconductor Corp.

Some of Tuck’s favorite ventures involve ideas that stretch the boundaries of conventional thinking. In a quest to build a new kind of aircraft, he worked with Peter Diamandis, who eventually co-founded the X Prize, and Burt Rutan, a designer of flight vehicles. Initially, they weren’t thinking about space flight or the X Prize; they just wanted to try a new business idea.

“Burt designed an airplane that would carry a communications payload, circling around a metropolitan area, providing cellular service, Internet service, and whatever else people wanted to do,” Tuck explains.

While that idea didn’t exactly fly, another plan for the plane emerged. “The third version of the design was the White Knight, beneath which Space Ship One rode to its launch altitude,” Tuck says.

The rest is now history.

“Somewhere along the line, probably around 1996, Peter (Diamandis) came up with the X Prize,” Tuck says. “He immediately beat me up and made me contribute a little seed money. He collected similar amounts from nine or 10 other people, and then went out and did his thing.”

The Ansari family got involved by paying an insurance premium, which protected them in case the X Prize was actually won.

Space Ship One technology is currently owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and a company called Mojave Aerospace Ventures, but a lot of people, including Tuck, had a hand in helping Allen and his company collect the $10 million.

As for the future, Tuck is sure more private forays into space will succeed.

“There will be a lot of space flight in the future,” he says, “because people who have money will want an adventure. For example, Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic is nobody’s fool; he’s in the business of hauling people around for money.”

Meanwhile, Tuck says he’s content to push conventional limits in his own plane – “I fly a pressurized Baron, and the higher I fly, the more squirrely it gets” – until the next private space adventure becomes reality.

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On May 28, 2005. Posted in News