Rocket Man


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In May 1996, under the St. Louis Arch, with the NASA administrator and 20 astronauts in attendance, the $10 million X Prize was announced. Teams were challenged to build a privately financed spaceship capable of carrying a crew of three people into space twice within two weeks.

Also present that day, as a representative of the Lindbergh family, was Erik Lindbergh. When Diamandis and astronaut Byron Lichtenberg initially pitched him the idea of the X Prize, he had been skeptical. “I thought, why spend $10 million on space when we have so many problems here on earth?” he said. “Byron and Peter helped me understand that looking at our planet from space will help us understand that Earth is the only self-contained and sustainable spaceship that we have and that we need to protect it.”

As the X Prize Foundation embarked on its quest to lift humans into space, Lindbergh was battling gravity here on earth. At age 21, while descending Mt. Rainier after a climb with his brother Leif, he had suddenly struggled to lift his backpack and his knees inexplicably began to ache. Over the ensuing months, excruciating joint pain came and went for no apparent reason. Finally, he received the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.

By the time of the X Prize launch, after a decade of relentless decline, the athlete who had once water-skied the circumference of Bainbridge Island could barely walk and was living in a yurt on a friend’s farm, trying to make ends meet by selling furniture and sculptures he made from driftwood at the Bainbridge Island Farmers’ Market.

After treatment for rheumatoid arthritis that included surgeries and medication, Lindbergh was able to resume his active lifestyle.

Just as he reached his physical nadir, however, something surprising happened. It started with replacement of his knees, then placement of screws in his hip and foot. A few years later, he was placed on a new cutting-edge drug, with dramatic improvement. “I got my life back. I wasn’t in pain all the time,” he said. “And I was able to fly again.”

As the 75th anniversary of his grandfather’s flight approached, Lindbergh began considering a previously taboo idea—to duplicate the transatlantic crossing himself. “Family members got really upset that I would think about retracing my grandfather’s flight,” he said. “Exposing myself and the family name to the public again was really scary.”

By then, X Prize, always a long-haul proposition, was experiencing severe financial headwinds and appeared as if it might not survive. Lindbergh believed his flight could both help revive X Prize and send a message of hope to fellow arthritis sufferers. He also saw it as a way to finally break free of a smothering family legacy. “Being destroyed physically then gaining another shot at life allowed me to push into the most difficult thing I could do as a Lindbergh. I was able to step into my grandfather’s footsteps, realizing I didn’t need to fill his shoes.”

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