Peter Diamandis wasn't thinking about history as he stood in the Mojave desert and watched a small, shuttlecock-shaped craft glide back to Earth after nudging the edge of space.
He just thought it looked beautiful.
It was only the following day, after the thousands of cheering spectators had disappeared, after the jubilant speeches had dried up along with the champagne, as Diamandis was driving his father back to Los Angeles, that euphoria -- and relief -- swept over him.
So many people had trusted him, backed him, bailed him out even when others had ridiculed his notion of jump-starting space tourism by offering a $10-million prize for the first privately financed passenger craft to soar 62 miles through the atmosphere and return safely to earth.
At last, he told his father, "the fuse has been lit."
Gently his father reminded him that he was the one who ignited it.
The headlines from the Oct. 4 flight (and the congratulatory call from President Bush) went to aviator Burt Rutan, who designed SpaceShipOne; to pilots Michael Melvill and Brian Binnie, who flew it in two separate suborbital flights a week apart; and to billionaire Paul Allen, who financed it.
But the vision behind the voyage, the brains behind the $10-million purse that spurred it, belong to a small, intense, impeccably dressed son of Greek immigrants, a man so obsessed by space that even his mother jokingly wonders if her son carries an extraterrestrial gene.
Diamandis, 43, is deadly serious about his dreams. And they go far beyond the commercial space travel that many believe was initiated this month.
Diamandis has visions of living in space, of exploring the stars, and of eventually -- though perhaps not in his lifetime -- colonizing them.
And, as his friends and even his skeptics point out, Peter Diamandis has a habit of turning dreams into reality.
"Peter is truly the Raymond Orteig of our time," says his longtime friend and partner, Gregg Maryniak.
Orteig was the immigrant French hotelier who, in 1919, offered a prize of $25,000 for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris -- a prize that was captured by Charles Lindbergh when he landed his "Spirit of St. Louis" in Paris on May 21, 1927 -- 33 1/2 hours after setting off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island. Lindbergh's flight forever changed the way people viewed air travel, and within years trans-Atlantic passenger flights had become a fact of life.
Diamandis predicts his X Prize will do the same for space.
Unlike Orteig, however, Diamandis is far more than just the moneyman.
From the time he was a child in Long Island, smitten by images of the Apollo moon landings, Diamandis has poured his heart and soul into researching space and trying to speed up his chances of getting there. He gave up on the idea of government-sponsored space flight after the 1986 Challenger disaster derailed NASA's space shuttle program. The quickest route to space, he decided, would be through privately funded missions.
So Diamandis set out to make it possible.
In 1980, as a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he founded Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, which now has chapters all over the world. He hosted conferences, gave speeches, wrote papers and became the natural leader of a like-minded band of brothers who followed the teaching of futurist and Princeton University physicist Gerard O'Neill.
"The meek shall inherit the earth. The rest of us are going to the stars." It became Diamandis' mantra.
Diamandis moved on to Harvard Medical School largely to please his parents, who were more than a little baffled by their only son's obsession.
"I understood his passion," said Tula Diamandis, who urged her son to become a doctor like his father. "It was just hard for me to embrace it."
Even over the phone, Diamandis seems to find it a little disquieting, how his dreams have defined his life. Eventually he would like a home and family, he says. But first he wants to get to space.
"I feed on it intellectually. I believe in it," Diamandis says. "I just don't feel right doing anything else."
And so, over the years, Diamandis has done little else. He organized space conferences and websites. He started foundations to promote space travel. He founded the International Space University, which started as a summer school and now has permanent campus and staff in Strasbourg, France.
He got a medical degree from Harvard and an aerospace engineering degree from MIT. He started his own rocket company. He co-founded the Zero Gravity Corp., which just this summer got approval from the FAA to conduct weightless flights for the public aboard a specially modified Boeing 727-200.
Remarkably, he always found backers and believers. And though occasionally his schemes sputtered, more often they thrived.