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The Sciences

2: SpaceShipOne Opens Private Rocket Era

By Kathy A Svitil and Eric LevinJanuary 3, 2005 6:00 AM


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Space tourism got a $10 million boost in the early morning of October 4 over California’s Mojave Desert when the rocket glider SpaceShipOne captured the Ansari X Prize, awarded to the first private, manned craft to venture into space twice within a two-week period.

SpaceShipOne, created by aerospace engineer and aircraft designer Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, was launched from a traditional airstrip attached to White Knight, a Rutan-designed experimental plane. White Knight carried SpaceShipOne to an altitude of 46,000 feet, where the two vehicles separated. SpaceShipOne then fired its rocket, fueled by nitrous oxide and rubber, and shot up to an altitude of 367,400 feet, about 40,000 feet higher than required for the prize. The Ansari X Prize Foundation defines suborbital space as anything above 100 kilometers, or 328,084 feet. The craft glided to a soft landing and a champagne celebration.

Hot on the heels of the launches came a flurry of space-tourism announcements, including the creation of a $50 million prize for sending the first private craft into Earth orbit and an announcement that the X Prize Cup, an annual series of rocket competitions to encourage innovative and safe commercial rocket design, would begin in 2006. Even before wrapping up the $10 million prize, Rutan and Allen inked a high-profile deal with British billionaire Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Atlantic Airlines, to create Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial rocket service. The plan is to build a fleet of five-seat craft modeled on SpaceShipOne that would carry tourists into space by 2007 for $190,000 a head.

The effort could get bogged down in a regulatory morass. At press time, lawmakers were haggling over congressional legislation concerning commercial trips into space, and the Federal Aviation Administration was not even close to ironing out safety rules for private passenger rockets. Such caution seems reasonable given NASA’s less-than-perfect manned spaceflight record and the frequent failure of satellite launches. SpaceShipOne suffered a series of uncontrolled vertical rolls at the top of its ascent during the first prize flight on September 29. “Enormous improvements must be made before tickets can be sold to fly the public,” Rutan says. “Our goal is to have safety better than the early airliners, which will require very large increases in safety.”

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