New astronaut set for $10 million flight

Brian Binnie sits in the cockpit of SpaceShipOne for a gliding test flight last Dec. 4. If Monday's flight is successful, Binnie will become a private-sector astronaut.
Brian Binnie sits in the cockpit of SpaceShipOne for a gliding test flight last Dec. 4. If Monday's flight is successful, Binnie will become a private-sector astronaut.Scaled Composites file

If all goes right, Monday morning's flight of the SpaceShipOne rocket plane will win $10 million for its backers — and create a new astronaut in the process.

Brian Binnie, a 51-year-old test pilot who has flown the White Knight carrier airplane during SpaceShipOne's two previous spaceflights, this time will be at the controls of the spaceship itself, the St. Louis-based X Prize Foundation announced early Monday.

Binnie has 21 years of flight test experience, including a test hop in the Roton rocket, an earlier effort to develop a reusable space vehicle. He was at SpaceShipOne's controls for its first powered, supersonic flight last Dec. 17, on the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ flight, but this will be his first chance to earn astronaut wings.

Like Dec. 17, Monday is a big day 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.

If Binnie can bring his rocket ship above the 100-kilometer (62.5-mile) altitude mark and back down on Monday, it will be another red-letter day in space racing: The SpaceShipOne team will win the Ansari X Prize as well as the trophy and multimillion-purse that goes with it.

But anything can happen — as was demonstrated during SpaceShipOne's two previous spaceflights, both piloted by Mike Melvill, Binnie's colleague and the first astronaut to fly a privately developed spaceship.

  • In June, unexpected wind shear and a control-system glitch knocked the plane off course.
  • Last Wednesday, during the first prizeworthy flight, SpaceShipOne experienced an unanticipated, dramatic roll that led Melvill to shut the engine down 11 seconds early.

In both cases, SpaceShipOne successfully went beyond 100 kilometers in altitude, the internationally recognized boundary of outer space, and landed safely. Wednesday's roll was judged to be not serious enough to require a delay.

Monday's flight, due to begin at the Mojave Airport at 7 a.m. PT (10 a.m. ET), serves as the climax of the eight-year X Prize program — following up on SpaceShipOne's first official spaceflight in June and last Wednesday's flight.

Payback at last
Success would result in the first substantial payback for Mojave Aerospace Ventures, the corporation that built SpaceShipOne. It would also bring vindication for the main players behind the venture: spacecraft designer Burt Rutan of Mojave-based Scaled Composites and the venture's financial backer, software billionaire Paul Allen, who has said he's invested more than $20 million to win the $10 million prize.

Rutan and Allen already are looking forward to future payoffs from SpaceShipOne as well: Richard Branson, head of the British-based Virgin Group, has announced a deal to license the venture's technology and is due to attend Monday's launch.

Marion Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, is also among the hundreds of VIPs expected to watch the mission. A prize-winning flight would be an "enormous step" for the nascent space travel industry, she told reporters Sunday.

"It establishes in the minds of the average American the fact that this is something that you can actually consider in your lifetime: space tourism, the ability of people as passengers to go into space. ... In this case, we're talking about a vehicle that can do it objectively over and over again," she said.

Spectators converge
Thousands of spectators also converged on Mojave to watch the launch. Among the first spectators to park their recreational vehicles in the airport's sprawling parking lot was Mark Annis of Concord, Calif., an industrial piping designer as well as an amateur rocketeer. He and his fellow onlookers were looking forward to seeing history being made.

"I think in 50 years or 100 years, people will look back on this as a milestone," said Annis.

The motor containing SpaceShipOne's rubber-based rocket fuel was loaded onto the craft after Wednesday's landing, and the spacecraft's oxidizer tanks were filled with nitrous oxide on Sunday. Annis said he regarded SpaceShipOne's engine as one of its greatest innovations.

"The fuel isn't dangerous, like the solid rockets of the past — and the oxidizer isn't dangerous, either," he said. "But you put them together, and you can go to space. I look at that as a landmark."

Monday's flight plan is similar to that for the past two spaceflights: The rocket plane will be attached to the underbelly of its White Knight carrier airplane for a conventional takeoff, and the two paired planes will rise over the following hour to a height of 47,000 feet (14,325 meters). Then SpaceShipOne will unhook from the White Knight and fire its rocket engine for up to 90 seconds, reaching velocities three times the speed of sound.

At the top of the ride, Binnie would experience about three and a half minutes of weightlessness, and see the curvature of the blue Earth beneath the blackness of space. SpaceShipOne's wings would be folded into a self-stabilizing, high-drag configuration, for what Rutan calls a "carefree re-entry," then folded back into a glider configuration for the final phase of flight.

Both SpaceShipOne and the White Knight would make landings back at the Mojave Airport. Assuming the flight is successful, the X Prize would move into its payout phase.

Who pays?
The $10 million Ansari X Prize was set up in 1996 to encourage the development of reusable passenger spaceships — just as the $25,000 Orteig Prize, won by trans-Atlantic aviator Charles Lindbergh in 1927, was meant to promote innovation in aviation. Twenty-six teams registered for the prize.

The prize rules require 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 is carrying 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).

The spaceship's cargo weight and maximum altitude have to be certified by the X Prize Foundation's judging committee to qualify for the prize. Peter Diamandis, the foundation's chairman and founder, said detailed tracking data from Edwards Air Force Base confirmed that the first flight cleared the 100-kilometer mark. All the radar readings indicated that the altitude exceeded 337,500 feet (63.9 miles or 102.9 kilometers).

If Monday's flight is certified as a 100-kilometer-plus mission, Mojave Aerospace Ventures would receive its check during a Nov. 6 ceremony at the St. Louis Science Center, Diamandis said. Even if SpaceShipOne doesn't make it to 100 kilometers, it will have another chance to do so and still win the prize before Oct. 13.

The $10 million prize is backed by a "hole-in-one" insurance policy, similar to those taken out by golf courses for tournaments. If the prize is not won by the end of this year, the insurers keep the premiums and the $10 million policy expires. In recent years, the premiums have been paid from 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.

"I'm on cloud nine," Anousheh Ansari said Sunday.

The insurance company may not be so enthusiastic. Diamandis declined to name the company, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch identified it as an insurance practice group within Bermuda-based XL Capital.

The insurance company has a representative on the judging team, and Diamandis was confident that there would be no snags, thanks to the "tremendous amount of advance work done with the insurance company and the judges and Scaled [Composites]."

Looking ahead
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."