SpaceShipOne, Ansari X Prize Winner

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

"The Age Of The Impossible"

Burning Nitrous Oxide and Rubber (and not rolling) to 367,442 MSL (according to the chief on-site X Prize judge), Mojave Aerospace Ventures led by Burt Rutan and funded by Paul Allen Monday earned the Ansari X Prize of $10 million. The October 4, 2004 flight of SpaceShipOne flown by Brian Binnie (a former Navy test-pilot) was the second of two successful launches within a two week span to an altitude greater than 320,000 feet. It was also flown on the anniversary of the Sputnik launch and eclipsed an altitude record (358,000 feet) until Monday held by the X-15. About The Roll: Still, perhaps more important to the immediate public perception of the program, the flight appeared to exhibit a higher degree of control than two previous flights -- during the previous flight, the aircraft rolled at least 29 times. The increased stability witnessed during the prize-winning flight (only the 15th for the vehicle and its 6th under power) may have been due to the "rescheduled stabilizer schedule" during climbout and training plotted by the team to counter the phenomenon and was clearly welcomed by the team.

What we have here is a 6,800-lb technology demonstration vehicle dropped from an altitude of 50,000 feet, igniting a rocket for less than a minute and a half, and rocketing to an altitude of greater than 60 miles above the earth ... while hauling a payload of 595.25 lbs. It then folds its wing in half, re-enters the atmosphere and glides back to a runway, where it safely lands. Yesterday may have been the first time the flight profile appeared to the casual observer as a relatively well-controlled adventure. And likely succeeded in providing ample inspiration to the more than 30 schoolbus-loads of children in attendance.

From X Prize To X Business

Mojave Aerospace Ventures prides itself as the furry little mammal on the back of the dinosaurs that once led the space race. "I think they're looking at each other and saying we're scr###d," opined Burt Rutan of his counterparts at NASA. "I have a [much] bigger goal. I have to make a commercial flight program that's 100 times safer than anything we have now." With the financial backing of Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic (and soon, Virgin Galactic), "we're putting about 100 million dollars into space," Rutan's charge is to provide five vehicles, each capable of lofting five individuals to similar heights three years from now. "I'll be on that first flight in three years time," said Branson. Those vehicles could likely become the world's initiation into space tourism. Branson said 5 million had expressed interest in the idea and at least 5,000 indicated they would spend the close to $200,000 for a ticket. And, "Any money we make from space travel we will reinvest in more space travel," Branson Said.

Rutan and Branson expect to be on that first flight and members of the Ansari family (X Prize' title sponsor) may be there as well. Computer Billionaire Paul Allen (listed among the top five most wealthy individuals in America) will recover roughly 40 percent of his roughly 25 million investment in SpaceShipOne when on November 6, in St. Louis, the X Prize check is awarded to his team. Monday appeared content to wait and see the technology convince him that it was bug free and fell short of saying he'd be holding hands with Branson and Rutan on that first flight of Virgin Galactic. For those a few tens of thousands of dollars short of a Virgin Galactic ticket (at least at its initial prices), X Prize sponsor 7Up stepped to the plate Monday to announce they will soon unveil the details of their first free ticket to space sometime next year.

The New Race To Space

One vehicle is not enough, "what we need is a fleet of space ships" said X Prize braintrust, Dr. Peter Diamandis. As AVweb told you Thursday, there's a new X Prize venture in the works, Diamandis' new baby is the X Prize Cup. "We need a sandbox to push the envelope to go higher faster farther," he said. Not unlike the golden age of air racing, Diamandis said the Cup aims to use competition to keep technology moving and stimulate a new era of public interest and involvement in aerospace development. It also intends to hone industrial competition for Rutan's team -- "A Dell and Gateway ... not just Apple." The X Prize Cup would pit teams and their vehicles against one another, seeking multi-million dollar prizes for "altitude records to 400,- 425,- 450,000 feet" and beyond, "time-to-climb" competitions, "turn-around" time, "how far they can go in a single flight?" and more.

New Mexico has already won the bidding war to host the X Prize Cup and $10 million in funding has already been secured, as has the first sponsor, International Fuel Technologies. But Dick Rutan wasn't so quick to concede the forum, "The sandbox for this isn't in New Mexico, it's in California. We're going to give you a run for your money," he said. Regardless, within the next two years, planners hope to invite spaceship-building teams to compete together during a 10-day event made for TV ... and made for the public. The event may even spawn a reality TV show, "instead of monster garage, monster hangar," people see these ships climb aboard and really be involved. Diamandis hopes to soon see 40 or 50 flights during the event. Seeking more investors, Diamandis offered his power of persuasion, "Where else can you be on the front page of every newspaper in the world over and over again?"