SpaceShipOne Wins Ten-Million-Dollar X Prize

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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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