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A Space Age for the Rest of Us

Two historic flights by SpaceShipOne win the $10 million X Prize

by Michelle Evans


“Six flights in this vehicle, and three of them have been into space. That’s pretty amazing in anybody’s book.” These are the words of pilot Brian Binnie following his October 4 flight aboard SpaceShipOne. Brian’s flight not only changed his status from simply pilot to that of astronaut, but also meant that, coming just five days after the first qualifying flight on September 29, the coveted X Prize competition, with its $10 million prize for privately-funded commercial spaceflight, had been won. This all occurred exactly 47 years after the dawn of the Space Age, when the first human-made object, Sputnik 1, was rocketed into space on October 4, 1957.


“I’ve never seen anything like it.” Brian continued. “I’ve never been part of anything like it. I’ll tell you it is a thrill of a lifetime. Today is the culmination of a huge amount of hard work. The core team is about 20 people. To think that 20-30 people built two airplanes, tested a rocket motor, developed it, integrated it, put the avionics in, decided on the flight test program, executed it, and here we are today. Burt, your leadership has been outstanding.”


Brian summed up the goal of private spaceflight so perfectly. When Sputnik was launched, as with every other government-sponsored space shot since then, thousands of people and months, if not years, of hard work were required to make it happen. Now, for less than a quarter of the cost of a single satellite booster, Burt Rutan and his team from Mojave Aerospace Ventures (the company Rutan and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen formed to compete for the X Prize) had designed, built, and flown a suborbital passenger-carrying rocket system. It is reusable and can be flown again in days, not months.


Burt Rutan is an unconventional person when it comes to spacecraft design. He is not a classically trained aerospace engineer. He says this was deliberate, because he did not want to be trapped by the conventions of the industry. If you look back at the science fiction stories from the 1950s, it was usually some lone guy out in the desert that built this crazy rocket that took a bunch of his friends into space. Rutan has made that a reality with his small team of people that don’t take no for an answer.

With the backing of Paul Allen, Rutan has almost single-handedly started a new Space Age, one where the dream of many of us to be able to actually buy a ticket and fly into space will soon become reality.


Peter Diamandis is the man who dreamed up the X Prize competition after reading a book about Charles Lindbergh and how he was spurred to fly the Atlantic by the Orteig Prize. Peter told us that, “My passion as a child was to go into space. I learned that my chances of becoming a government astronaut were perhaps one in a thousand. Even if you did get selected, you’d be lucky to have two flights in a decade. This didn’t sit with me as my vision of space travel. You can dream, you can dare, you can take risks, you can make your dreams come true.”


X Prize rules state that to win, you have to build a spacecraft that can carry three people (a pilot with two passengers, or their equivalent mass) to an altitude of at least 100 kilometers (62 miles). After landing, the craft must be at least 90 percent reusable and it must fly again within a two-week window.


Former Space Shuttle Commander Rick Searfoss is the chief judge for the X Prize. He watched the two flights with scrutiny to verify that all details were met or exceeded.


After explaining the rules to us and how each of these had been complied with, Rick turned to Brian Binnie and stated, “Now, as the 301st person to have gone into space, it is a great personal privilege to welcome Brian as the 434th human to have left our planet. For 43 years we have been sending people into space. We need to blow that out of the water. Over the next 43 years, we need to send many more thousands of people into space. I’m committed to that.”


The biggest news we were all waiting for was the official altitude mark set by Brian. Rick provided the information. “This morning, Brian didn’t just go to 328,000 feet [100 kilometers], he blew right by the X-15 altitude record of 354,000 feet, and I think he was still hesitant to turn the engines off! As I personally observed from the radar tracking data, he made it to 367,442 feet, nearly 112 kilometers.


“This truly was a historical event that happened today, which was completed at 08:13:10 Pacific Daylight Time. So, in my official capacity as chief judge of the Ansari X Prize competition I declare that Mojave Aerospace Ventures has indeed earned the Ansari X Prize. We have entered a new space age, one that will be defined by the art of the impossible, not by the art of the politically possible.”


Burt Rutan turned to the man who provided the money to make this possible. “Thank you, Paul Allen, for letting us have so much fun!”


Thousands of people had gathered along the side of the runway at Mojave, California, to watch these flights. The first occurred on June 21, when pilot Mike Melvill accomplished the first flight ever above 100 kilometers in a privately-funded spacecraft [see “328,491 Feet,” O.C.Space, July 2004]. This was only a test flight and was never meant to qualify SpaceShipOne for the X Prize. The first competitive flight (called X1) happened on Wednesday, September 29. The final flight (flight X2) to clinch the X Prize went off like clockwork on the morning of October 4.


Each flight previously had had some sort of problems to deal with such as wind shear, cold-soaked controls, loss of the navigation system, or excessive roll rates. On the final flight, however, everything went perfectly. The White Knight mother ship, with SpaceShipOne nestled underneath, between the twin booms, took off as the Sun was about to rise. It climbed for about an hour before Brian was released. Seconds after drop, he lit the rocket motor and pointed the nose upward. After the motor shut down, he zoomed to 112 kilometers, then started to slide back to Earth. The craft is designed in such a way that he can take his hands completely off the controls and, even if it was upside down, SpaceShipOne would right itself and perform a flawless reentry. Brian had time to take snapshots as he was weightless.


As Brian described it, “The experience of flying this vehicle is literally a rush. You light that motor off and the world wakes up around you and off you go. It certainly is an exciting trip. The best part is when the motor shuts down, and everything gets very, very quiet. You’re instantly weightless and you have the Earth below you and dark sky. The view to the human eye exceeds what you can ever capture in a picture. It’s a thrill that everyone should have once in their lifetime.”


With a chase plane escort, SpaceShipOne glided back to Mojave Spaceport for a perfect landing, and the rest is history. The X Prize was won. Watching the progress of the flight with Burt and Paul was Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Atlantic and the proud owner of a new contract with Mojave Aerospace Ventures to build the first true commercial spacecraft that will start to fly paying passengers under the Virgin Galactic banner in 2007.


“Today is a good news day.” Sir Richard said. “Our children can turn on the television and look at this wonderful thing that has happened. They can now aspire to one day go into space themselves. With Virgin Galactic, we hope to make that possible in three years time when Burt has built an even more beautiful craft than he built today, a craft that will take five passengers. Initially it’s not going to be that cheap to go into space. However, Virgin has pledged that any money we make from space travel, we will reinvest in more space travel in order to make the dream come true for the next generation of children, so that it will actually be affordable one day for them to go into space. [It will] also make some of Burt’s other dreams come true such as orbital travel and maybe a Virgin Hotel in space, and maybe a Moon hotel, too. Who’s to know. We’ve got to dream and we’ve firmly put our flag in the ground with Burt.”


After the landing rollout, SpaceShipOne was quickly towed over in front of the VIP crowd. The entire team was there to participate. Rutan told the crowd: “Quite frankly, I think the big guys, the Boeings, the Lockheeds, the naysay people at Houston, they probably think that we’re a bunch of home-builders that put a rocket in the back of a Long-EZ. But if they got a look at how this stuff is run and how we developed the capabilities of this ship and showed its safety, I think they would be looking at each other right now and saying, ‘We’re screwed!’ Because I’ll tell you something, I have a hell of a lot bigger goal than they do. And you know what that goal is? I absolutely have to develop a manned space tourism system for Sir Richard Branson that’s at least a hundred times safer than anything that has flown man into space.”


This is the type of thinking that will finally open the real Space Age. When we watched Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, we all knew that NASA was out there looking to the future so that we could all go. As Rutan said in Mojave, he allowed NASA many years to accomplish their goals before finally realizing that they would never make it happen. He, or someone like him, had to do it themselves because the government never would. On October 4, 2004, someone did.