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SpaceShipOne Wins Ten-Million-Dollar X Prize

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
October 4, 2004
 
SpaceShipOne scored a ten-million-dollar (U.S.) hat trick this morning. The world's first privately built manned spacecraft completed its third round-trip journey to space. In the process, it laid claim to ten million dollars (U.S.) in prize money and further bolstered dreams of private space exploration.

The craft, tucked under the belly of the carrier airplane White Knight, lifted off from California's Mojave Airport, now technically a spaceport, around 6:45 Pacific time. Ninety minutes and a 62-mile-high (100-kilometer-high) space shot later, the vehicle was safely back on the ground. The record-breaking flight appeared to go off without a hitch.


Brian Binnie, a veteran U.S. Navy aviator and one of four pilots trained to fly SpaceShipOne, piloted the spacecraft. "Flying this vehicle is literally a rush," he said after the historic flight.

The astronaut snapped some pictures while aloft. "The view to the human eye exceeds anything that you could ever capture in a picture," Binnie noted afterwards. "It's something everyone should see once in a lifetime."

As he was freefalling back to Earth, Binnie unveiled a small model of SpaceShipOne, which floated in the weightless atmosphere of the cockpit.

He was the first pilot to push SpaceShipOne past the sound barrier back in December 2003. That flight ended in the brush edging the Mojave Airport's landing strip, where a hard touchdown damaged the spaceship's landing gear.

But today no such problem dogged pilot or spacecraft, which completed the second of two flights within a 14-day window required to capture the ten-million-dollar (U.S.) Ansari X Prize.

The St. Louis, Missouri-based X Prize Foundation created the X Prize to spur commercial space travel. The prize awaited the first privately constructed manned spacecraft to twice travel 62 miles/100 kilometers above Earth's surface (what many consider the edge of space) and back within two weeks.

Nervous Moments

SpaceShipOne had completed the first of its two X Prize missions last Wednesday. The triumphant flight was spiked with drama. The craft had made 29 unscripted rolls as it roared out of Earth's atmosphere, prompting concern from observers on the ground.

After touchdown, pilot Mike Melvill had reported that the craft was never out of his control. "The plane flies like a dream," he had said.

Subsequent safety checks showed the craft was shipshape for today's attempt. Melvill speculated that he may have initiated the roll by stepping too hard on one of the ship's controls. The craft's designer, Burt Rutan, said the roll was caused by a known control problem.

Today's prize-clinching flight coincided with the anniversary of another historic spaceflight. One this day in 1957, the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik I satellite. The first unmanned spaceflight, it triggered the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

SpaceShipOne was built by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, an enterprise backed by aircraft designer Burt Rutan and billionaire Paul Allen. Rutan designed Voyager, the first plane to complete a nonstop, around-the-world flight without refueling. Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, provided key funding for the SpaceShipOne effort.

The spacecraft became the first private, manned vehicle to venture beyond Earth's atmosphere during a test flight on June 21.

Pilot Mike Melvill reached the record-breaking altitude of 328,491 feet (62 miles/100 kilometers), becoming the first astronaut to reach space via a private ship.

"Our success proves without question that manned spaceflight does not require mammoth government expenditures," Rutan said at the time. "It can be done by a small company operating with limited resources and a few dozen dedicated employees."

At a news conference today, Rutan said his team faced significant technical difficulties but overcame them more easily than expected.

"If you'd have told me that we'd finish this program flying only six powered flights, three of them being spaceflights, I'd have said nah," Rutan said after it was confirmed his team had indeed won the X Prize. "The ship really worked a lot better than we'd hoped."

Airplane Assist

The main body of SpaceShipOne is about 30 feet (9 meters) long. The craft is launched from a piloted turbojet aircraft called the White Knight.

The freighter aircraft first climbs to 50,000 feet (15,240 meters), an altitude above nearly 85 percent of Earth's atmosphere. There, SpaceShipOne fires its rockets, climbing higher, at speeds reaching 2,500 miles an hour (4,000 kilometers an hour).

After reaching an altitude of 62 miles/100 kilometers—the X Prize target altitude—SpaceShipOne coasts back down into Earth's atmosphere.

After reentry, the ship becomes a conventional glider with a 16-foot (5-meter) wingspan. The craft drifts for some 17 minutes as it descends from 80,000 feet (24,380 meters) to the runway at Mojave Airport.

Prior to today's prize-winning flight, SpaceShipOne had already inspired a high-flying commercial venture.

A week ago, British tycoon and adventurer Richard Branson announced the formation of Virgin Galactic. The enterprise will license technology from Mojave Aerospace Ventures, the creators of SpaceShipOne, to take tourists to space for a fee of $200,000 (U.S.).

Branson said Virgin Galactic will begin building its first spacecraft, the V.S.S. Enterprise, next year. Branson hopes his fledgling enterprise will take paying passengers to space as early as 2007.

Though the X Prize has been won, many competitors will continue to develop their own spacecraft and, in the process, push the boundaries of human spaceflight.

Diamandis, of the X Prize Foundation, today announced the inception of the X Prize Cup—an annual competition to begin in December 2006. The event aims to launch 50 spaceflights over a ten-day period, with categories such as speed, altitude, and passenger capacity.

"We have one winner here today, which is spectacular. But it's insufficient to have a [space travel] monopoly once again," Diamandis said. "We need to have a competitive market. We need to push the envelope to go higher, further, and faster."
 

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