It took six years to develop, but for the second time in five days, a piloted reusable suborbital spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, flew into the fringes of space, nearly 70 miles (367,442 feet) above the earth, before gliding back to a safe landing in the Mojave Desert. In so doing it flew seven miles higher than the arbitrary line marking the beginning of space and won the $10-million Ansari X Prize and became the first privately developed plane to rocket into space.
The previous record for a space plane was held by the military developed X-15 that reached an altitude of 67 miles (354,200 feet) in 1963.
The X prize-winning flight on October 4, 1904 coincided with the 43rd-anniversary of the Soviet Union’s 184-pound Sputnik I that triggered the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Also sadly, it coincided with the death of astronaut Gordon Cooper, 77, who flew the last Mercury mission-Faith 7 on May 1963.
There was jubilation close to that of the Wright Brothers achievement when the spacecraft landed. Some people have called the achievement a new era in flight and have compared the feat to the Wright Brothers historic flight, calling the Mojave the new Kitty Hawk. One observer remarked, “It feels a little bit like Kitty Hawk must have.”
Unlike the Wright Brother’s flight nearly 101 years ago, which stirred little interest or press, the event was documented live on television and around the world, by many major news agencies, including CNN, ABC, Fox, Reuters, Associated Press, to name a few.
The X prize set requirements that included altitude (at least 100 kilometers), and vehicle reliability (the spacecraft flies twice within 2 weeks).
A piloted turbojet known as the White Knight carried SpaceShipOne to nearly 50,000 feet (above nearly 85% of the Earth’s atmosphere). There, SpaceShipOne fired its rocket for 84 seconds, climbing in a vertical trajectory at speeds of near three times the speed of sound. After reaching just under 70 miles above the Earth and experiencing several minutes of weightlessness, it coasted back into the Earth’s atmosphere where the pilot took over control and flew it as a glider to a landing at Mojave Airport.
It was a flawless flight in contrast to the two previous flights in which the pilot experienced control problems, but still completed the mission.
The X Prize foundation hopes to stimulate the same sort of proliferation of technologies and enterprise seen after the Wright brothers’ pioneering flight. Peter Diamandis, a businessman, established the X Prize eight years ago with the objective being to spur commercial space travel. He plans to present the $10 million dollar check to Mojave Aerospace Ventures in St. Louis on Nov. 6. Burt Rutan, the craft’s designer, and Paul Allen, Microsoft’s co-founder who provided some $20 million to support the project, founded the winning partnership known as Mojave Aerospace Ventures.
Anousheh Ansari, an Iran-born engineer who made a fortune in telecommunications provided most of the $10 million for the prize. The X Prize is modeled after the $25,000 Orteig Prize that was won by Charles Lindbergh in 1927 for flying nonstop over the Atlantic Ocean. Lindbergh’s grandson, Erik Lindbergh, is a trustee and vice-president of the X Prize Foundation.
Rutan says he will share the prize money with his employees at Scaled Composites, his company. The prize attracted more than two dozen teams from around the world.
The Wrights also privately financed their Flyer, although they weren’t millionaires.
Rutan has designed some of the oddest and innovative airplanes in the world over a career of 30 years. Like the Wright brothers, he is known for putting together known technologies into innovative ways to form new systems.
Rutan designed Voyager, a plane that flew nonstop around the world without refueling. He is considered by some as a national treasure.
The SpaceShipOne demonstrates two technological breakthroughs. One is a safer hybrid rocket engine, the first developed for human space flight since 1972. The second is the use of the ship’s movable tail section that folds up to serve as an airbrake as the plane descends.
After the prize-winning flight of SpaceShipOne, Rutan said: “Our success proves without question that manned space flight does not require mammoth government expenditures. It can be done by a small company with limited resources and a few dozen dedicated employees.”
In 1908, there were only 10 pilots in the world, including the Wright brothers. By 1912, after Wilbur flew in France in 1909, there were thousands of pilots. Many of the pilots must have said to themselves that if two bicycles makers can fly so can I.
Only 434 people have flown in space and they were trained and funded by governments. We now have two space pilots that have been awarded commercial astronaut wings by the FAA – Brian Binnie and Mike Melvill, the two pilots that flew the prize-winning flights. They are two of four pilots that have been trained to fly SpaceShipOne.
Binnie said after the second prize-winning flight, “flying this vehicle is literally a rush.”
Diamandis has announced the foundation of an annual X Prize cup to begin in December 2006 to maintain the momentum by sponsoring “space races.” The event aims to launch 50 space flights over a 10-day period with cash prizes given for such categories as altitude, speed and passenger capacity.
“We have to one winner here today, which is spectacular. But it’s insufficient to have a monopoly once again. We need to have a competitive market. We need to push the envelope to go higher, further and faster.”
The British billionaire tycoon and owner of Virgin Airlines, Richard Branson, has joined the effort by announcing that he plans to take tourists to space for a fee of around $200,000. He has formed a space tourism company named Virgin Galactic to license the technology from Rutan’s Mojave Aerospace Ventures and for Scaled Composites to build the first of five space-liners next year and fly paying passengers in suborbital flights as early as 2007. The first space-liner has already been named – V.S.S. Enterprise.
Branson plans to locate ships in several countries. He has already received 5,000 inquiries for tickets.
Profits generated will be used to develop a new generation of spacecraft capable of orbital flights capable of visits around the moon and space hotels.
Some critics have denigrated the use of SpaceShipOne as a vehicle for tourism. The Wrights, too, didn’t have a clear idea of how to use the airplane. The first uses were military. It took another 20 years for commercial travel by airplanes to become practical.
X Prize supporters hope to demonstrate that low-cost space travel is practical and profitable. Over time private ventures are expected to cut the cost of space travel through volume, innovation and attention to the bottom line. The first NASA space shuttle flew in 1981. It costs NASA over $1 billion for each launch of the shuttle.
Space flights are not without risk. FAA’s Blakey said, “There will be a bad day sooner or later. As long as potential passengers truly understand the risks, the government approach would be caveat aviator. This country was founded on people who are risk-takers.”
Rutan says he intends to build commercial craft that are at least 100 times safer than anything that has ever flown man to space.