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SpaceShipOne wins $10 million X Prize

SpaceShipOne flew back into space early Monday, winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight and breaking an X-15 altitude record.
Astronaut Brian Binnie rides on SpaceShipOne after his suborbital flight to win the Ansari X Prize in Mojave, Calif. on Monday.Laura Rauch / AP

SpaceShipOne crossed the finish line in an 8-year, $10 million space race Monday, winning the Ansari X Prize with its second spaceflight in less than a week. Along the way, the world's first privately developed spacecraft also broke a 41-year-old altitude record and created a new astronaut.

At its highest point, the rocket plane reached an altitude of 367,442 feet (69.6 miles or 112 kilometers), easily topping the 100-kilometer (62.5-miles) altitude required to win the X Prize.

"It is a thrill that I think everybody should have once in a lifetime," pilot Brian Binnie said.

SpaceShipOne was built by famed aerospace designer Burt Rutan of Mojave-based Scaled Composites with financial backing from software billionaire Paul Allen. Their accomplishment will win them $10 million from the St. Louis-based X Prize Foundation, to be awarded next month.

President Bush phoned the winning team to offer his congratulations, foundation chairman and founder Peter Diamandis said. The president said Binnie and fellow pilot Mike Melvill, who flew the first of the two qualifying flights , ranked among the heroes of the new space age, Diamandis said.

"He said that it was great to see the spirit of enterprise alive in America and opening up the space frontier," Diamandis said.

The Ansari X Prize, established in 1996, is modeled after the $25,000 Orteig Prize that was won by trans-Atlantic aviator Charles Lindbergh in 1927. Erik Lindbergh, a member of the X Prize Foundation's board, said his grandfather would have been "really excited" about the achievement.

Smooth ride
He might have also been impressed with the smooth ride. The 51-year-old Binnie has 21 years of flight test experience, and was at the controls for SpaceShipOne's first powered, supersonic flight on Dec. 17, the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' milestone flight. But this was his first opportunity to earn his astronaut wings.

Monday marked SpaceShipOne's third true spaceflight. In addition to last week's flight, Melvill also piloted June's first private-sector space shot and had to cope with glitches and unexpected rolls both times. This time around, Melvill was flying the White Knight carrier airplane instead, and Binnie had a trouble-free trip.

"It wasn't as much fun as Mike's, but we got a little bit higher," Binnie joked.

Rutan and Binnie said that SpaceShipOne's engineers made changes in the training routine and rocket trajectory that eliminated the roll problem Melvill encountered last week. "They have ferreted out the truth of this vehicle," Binnie said.

Binnie said the space mission was "a fantastic experience," with the "bright pearl" of the California coast visible beneath the blackness of space.

Altitude record broken
In addition to winning the X Prize, Binnie's flight smashed the altitude record for an airplane, set by X-15 pilot Joseph Walker in 1963. That altitude was 354,200 feet (67 miles or 107.9 kilometers).

Binnie and the other principals of the SpaceShipOne team literally wrapped themselves in the American flag as they celebrated the end of the X Prize space race.

"I thank God that I live in a country where this is possible," Binnie told the crowd.

Rutan, meanwhile, took a dig at NASA and big-budget aerospace companies, saying "I think they're looking at each other now and saying, 'We're screwed.'" Last week, Rutan speculated that major aerospace players such as the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin would eventually find themselves fielding suborbital space vehicles in competition with SpaceShipOne's successors.

Historic day
The SpaceShipOne team deliberately chose Monday as the date of their second attempt because of its role in aerospace history: Forty-seven years ago, the Soviets put the world's first satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit — kicking off the first space race.

Monday's flight plan was similar to that for the past two spaceflights: With SpaceShipOne attached to its underbelly, the White Knight carrier airplane took off from the Mojave Airport and rose to a height of 47,000 feet (14,325 meters). Then SpaceShipOne unhooked from the White Knight and fired up its rocket engine for 84 seconds, reaching velocities more than three times the speed of sound.

At the top of the ride, Binnie experienced about three and a half minutes of weightlessness — and had time to take pictures as well as play with a paper model of SpaceShipOne for the video camera's benefit. SpaceShipOne's wings were folded into a self-stabilizing, high-drag configuration for atmospheric re-entry, then were folded back into a glider configuration for landing. After an airshow-style fly-by, the White Knight landed as well.

Thousands watched from the Mojave Airport as SpaceShipOne's rocket plume streaked straight up into the morning sky. Among the VIP headliners were Richard Branson, head of the British-based Virgin Group and the world's latest space tourism investor; and Marion Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration.

After Binnie landed, Blakey presented him with an astronaut pin and paid tribute to him as well as Melvill, the only astronauts to earn their wings from the FAA rather than NASA or the military.

"Brian and Mike have really opened up a new frontier in terms of human commercial space launch," Blakey said. She went on to call the SpaceShipOne flights "a giant leap for all of us."

Making it pay
Winning the X Prize should bring the first substantial payback for Allen, who has said he's invested more than $20 million to win the $10 million prize. But Rutan and Allen are looking forward to additional payoffs from SpaceShipOne's successors: Just last week, Branson announced a deal to license the venture's technology that could be worth more than $21 million over the next fifteen years.

Branson said he hoped five successors to SpaceShipOne, each with a five-person capacity, would enter service three years from now. The cost of a ticket would reportedly be in the $200,000 range. He told that the first flights would take off from Mojave, with service potentially expanding to other spaceports around the world.

"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," Branson told reporters.

Rutan said he and Branson have vowed to be on Virgin Galactic's first spaceflight. Also, the 7UP soft-drink brand, a sponsor of the X Prize, said the "first free ticket to space" — presumably on a Virgin space plane — would be awarded to the winner of a contest, with details to be unveiled in 2005.

The $10 million will be paid, not by the X Prize Foundation, but by the insurance company the group dealt with in what's known as a "hole-in-one" insurance policy, similar to those taken out by golf courses for tournaments. Had the prize not been won by the end of this year, the insurers would have kept the premiums even as the $10 million policy expired. In recent years, the premiums have been paid from more than $1 million in contributions made by two Iranian-born telecom entrepreneurs: Anousheh Ansari and her brother-in-law, Amir Ansari. Both have said they would someday want to take spaceflights themselves.

"The accomplishment made here today means a lot for dreamers like us," Anousheh Ansari said after the flight.

The insurance company, XL Aerospace, may not be so enthusiastic. Nevertheless, XL Aerospace's representative on the judging committee signed off on SpaceShipOne's Ansari X Prize requirements — and presumably will stand behind the award once the altitude figures are fully documented.

The $10 million check and the 6-foot-tall (2-meter-tall) X Prize trophy will be awarded at a Nov. 6 ceremony in St. Louis, Diamandis said. Rutan suggested that some of the money would go directly to Scaled Composites and its individual employees.

Not giving up
Twenty-six teams had registered for the X Prize, which was established in 1996.

The prize rules required the winning team to send a piloted craft up to the 100-kilometer altitude twice in two weeks, carrying enough extra baggage to represent the weight of two passengers — about 400 pounds (180 kilograms). SpaceShipOne carried that baggage in the form of mementos, ranging from toys (for charity) to eucalyptus seedlings (for Branson's Caribbean home, according to the Antelope Valley Press).

Brian Feeney, head of the Canadian-based da Vinci Project, was among the X Prize also-rans who attended Monday's launch. The da Vinci Project has been preparing for its own X Prize flights later this month, but it now appears as if those launches will be merely for the sake of glory rather than gold.

Feeney told that the flights would take place in late October, even though Rutan  and his team the apparently have taken the X Prize.

"If we come in second to the most accomplished aerospace engineer of this and the last century, that's not too bad," Feeney said. "We have a singular goal: to fly. If we fly, we win."

Space Transport Corp., another X Prize rival, sent its congratulations to the SpaceShipOne team and announced that it would still go ahead with a test launch of its Rubicon 2 rocket on Oct. 16 or 17 from the Makah Indian Reservation on the coast of Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula.

“Along with many of the X Prize competitors, STC will continue developing the technologies that will allow tourism and ‘space trucking’ to orbit, to the moon and beyond,” the company said in a written statement.

'The beginning, not the end'
Diamandis was already looking ahead to the foundation's follow-up projects, including the X Prize Cup, a competition for private space vehicles to be conducted annually in New Mexico starting in 2006, with a demonstration event slated for next year. The foundation also is planning to announce a new technology prize program in cooperation with the World Technology Network on Thursday in San Francisco.

"The Ansari X Prize is the beginning, it's not the end," Diamandis said. "Over the course of the last two weeks we have had companies approaching us, we have had wealthy individuals approaching us, about investing in this marketplace. The same thing happened when Lindbergh flew, the same thing happened when Netscape went public, the same thing's going to happen here."

Diamandis said that the whole point behind the X Prize was to prove to the general public — and to investors — that regularly scheduled suborbital spaceflight was within reach of would-be paying customers.

"Why not have private space travel?" he asked. "Why not be able to climb into a ship and rocket into the sky, and come back and do it again in the afternoon? ... Make it accessible to everybody."