Winner of the $10 million X Prize:

SpaceShipOne Soars Into Space History

Private Craft Completes Three Flights to Space in 105 Days

SpaceShipOne glides down
SpaceShipOne glides down
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White Knight airplane carries SpaceShipOne
White Knight carries SpaceShipOne
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SpaceShipOne on the runway
SpaceShipOne on the runway
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White Knight airplane carries SpaceShipOne
White Knight carries SpaceShipOne
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First People in Space

Yuri Gagarin of the USSR rode to orbit in the capsule Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961. He was first in space and first in orbit, completing one revolution around Earth in 1 hour 48 minutes.

Alan Shepard became the first American in space just 23 days later, traveling a suborbital path for 15 minutes in the Mercury capsule Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961.

Gus Grissom, the second American in space, although still not in orbit, was launched on a 15 minute suborbital flight in the Mercury capsule Liberty Bell 7 on July 21, 1961.

Gherman Titov of the USSR was the second man in orbit, completing 16 revolutions around the globe in 25 hours 18 minutes in the capsule Vostok 2 on August 6, 1961.

John Glenn became the first American in orbit when he carried the U.S. flag for three trips around Earth in five hours in the Mercury capsule Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962.

Scott Carpenter was the second American in orbit. He flew three orbits in five hours in the Mercury capsule Aurora 7 on May 24, 1962.

Forty years later, after the flights of hundreds of men and women from many nations around the world, the Peoples Republic of China launched astronaut Yang Liwei in his Shenzhou 5 capsule to Earth orbit on October 15, 2003. That made China the third nation able to send a human being to space.

Eight months later, Scaled Composites sent Mike Melvill to space on a suborbital flight in SpaceShipOne on June 21, 2004. The next question: how long will it be before a private spacecraft reaches orbit?

View from 100 km altitude
100 km altitude view
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X Prize rocket Canadian Arrow
Canadian Arrow
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X Prize rocket daVinci Wild Fire
daVinci Wild Fire
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X Prize rocket DaVinci
daVinci Wild Fire
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X Prize rocket Rubicon
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X Prize rocket Armadillo
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X Prize rocket Advent
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X Prize rocket American Astronautics
American Astronautics
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X Prize rocket Pablo De Leon Launch
Pablo De Leon
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X Prize rocket Pablo De Leon Launch
Pablo De Leon
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X Prize rocket Acceleration Engineering
Acceleration Engineering
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X Prize rocket Kelly Space and Tech
Kelly Space Tech
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X Prize rocket Starchaser
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X PRIZE drawing of typical rocket flight trajectory
X PRIZE Foundation drawing of a
typical suborbital rocket flight trajectory
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SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize on October 4, 2004, completing the required second suborbital flight within two weeks carrying the weight equivalent of three human adults to outer space.

The privately built craft had flown to space just five days earlier on September 29, 2004. Where is space? Space begins at an altitude of 62.14 miles (100 km) above Earth. On each of the three suborbital flights, SpaceShipOne reached above that altitude.

On the June 21 trip, SpaceShipOne barely cleared the minimum altitude of 62.14 miles to become the first non-government, privately-funded, piloted spaceflight. The privately-developed rocket plane became the world's first commercial manned space vehicle.

On September 29, Melvill took SpaceShipOne to about 73 miles altitude. On October 4, Binnie piloted SpaceShipOne to an altitude of about 71 miles.

Those were higher than the famous X-15 rocket ships's top altitude of 67 miles set back on August 22, 1963.

Prize Flight. To win the $10 million Ansari X Prize, a private spacecraft had to be the first to carry the weight equivalent of three people to an altitude of 62.14 miles twice within two weeks.

White Knight. Aviation legend Elbert L. "Burt" Rutan and philanthropist Paul G. Allen launch their private craft from a runway in California's Mojave Desert.

As it leaves the ground, SpaceShipOne is attached beneath the airplane White Knight, which carries it up to about 50,000 feet (nearly 10 miles) from where the spacecraft detaches and rockets on into space.

An elite club. SpaceShipOne was designed by Rutan and his research team at the California aerospace company Scaled Composites. The suborbital flights boosted the firm into good company.

Previously, only three national governments ever had been able to launch human beings to space.

In the 1960s, the first Russians and Americans flashed into outer space. Four decades later, China sent a man to space in 2003. Now, the private company Scaled Composites has joined the exclusive club.

The flight plan. SpaceShipOne takes off for suborbital space from the Mojave Civilian Aerospace Test Center, a commercial airport in the California desert.

It takes about an hour for the Rutan aircraft White Knight to ferry SpaceShipOne from the Mojave runway to an altitude of 50,000 feet – about 9.5 miles.

East of Mojave, White Knight releases SpaceShipOne into a glide. Then SpaceShipOne's pilot fires the craft's rocket motor for 80 seconds, climbing vertically and boosting the craft's speed to Mach 3 – about 2284 miles per hour.

During that pull-up and climb, the pilot encounters G-forces three to four times Earth's gravity.

The rocket engine is fueled by rubber and nitrous oxide, which is better known as laughing gas. The gas in a six-ft.-diameter tank at the center of SpaceShipOne.

In space. SpaceShipOne then coasts on upward, beyond 62 miles altitude, before falling back toward Earth.

When the pilot surpasses the altitude of 62.14 miles (100 km), he meets the standard for an astronaut.

Melvill and Binnie experienced weightlessness for more than three minutes during their flights. The black sky and thin blue atmospheric line on the horizon were visible.

Returning to Earth. To return to Earth, the pilot-astronaut moves the SpaceShipOne's wing and tail so they provide a high amount of drag. That slows the craft for re-entering the atmosphere and aligns it along the flight path back to Mojave.

Once back in the atmosphere, the pilot uses the craft like a glider for a 15 to 20 minute coast back down to Earth. SpaceShipOne touches down like an airplane on the same runway from which it took off.

While the first test flights were flown solo with extra weights, SpaceShipOne has three seats and is designed to fly a pilot and two passengers.

Earlier test flight Previously, SpaceShipOne had completed a flight on May 13th, 2004, to an altitude near 40 miles. On that trip, test pilot Melvill flew the rocket plane to an altitude of 211,400 feet. At the time, that was the highest altitude ever reached by a piloted non-government aerospace project.

Why Do It?

The successful SpaceShipOne flights demonstrate that space is open to private enterprise.

While the suborbital trips see the aerospace craft fly above the atmosphere, it was not intended to reach the speed needed to go into orbit around Earth.

However, the view of the planet below for passengers aboard a suborbital flight is something like that seen from orbit, while the flight cost and risks are less.

Line forms at the rear. British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Atlantic Airways, announced in September 2004 that he was starting a new space venture called Virgin Galactic.

For commercial flights, it would use five new suborbital rocket planes like SpaceShipOne built by Scaled Composite. Branson imagines that within five years 3,000 people will have bought and used tickets starting at $200,000.

With about the capacity of a minivan, the spaceplane would enable paying passengers to experience weightlessness for a few minutes.

Backers and Birdmen

Mike Melvill
Mike Melvill
Brian Binnie
Brian Binnie
Paul Allen. SpaceShipOne has had no government financial backing. Paul Allen is the sole sponsor financing the project.

On the list of the world's richest men from his founding with Bill Gates of Microsoft Corp., Allen is founder and chairman of Vulcan Inc., which financed the SpaceShipOne project.

The backer expects SpaceShipOne to open a low-cost era in space travel.

Burt Rutan. SpaceShipOne was designed by Rutan and his research team at the aerospace company Scaled Composites in California. Rutan is known for his innovative aircraft designs and for the 1986 flight of Voyager, the only airplane to fly non-stop around the world without refueling.

Dick Rutan. Burt's brother, Dick, and Jeana Yeager flew the Voyager aircraft on the first-ever, non-stop, unrefueled flight around the world in 9 days 3 minutes 44 seconds between December 14 and December 23, 1986. The flight was 26,366 statute miles.

Mike Melvill. Piloting the SpaceShipOne suborbital flights in 2004, Michael W. Melvill became the first person to earn astronaut wings in a non-government sponsored vehicle as well as the first private civilian to fly a spaceship out of the atmosphere.

All previous space missions, since the very first 1961 flights of Yuri Gagarin and Al Shepard, had been government projects.

The vice president and general manager of Scaled Composites, Melvill had 19 years as an experimental test pilot at the time of his SpaceShipOne flights in 2004.

Brian Binnie. Piloting the SpaceShipOne on a suborbital flight made Binnie the second person to earn astronaut wings in a non-government sponsored vehicle as well as the second private civilian to fly a spaceship out of the atmosphere.

In 2004, Binnie had two decades of flight test experience including 20 years as a naval strike-fighter pilot. He had logged more than 4,600 hours of flight time in 59 different aircraft.

The Competition

There had been others looking toward the finish line in the Ansari X Prize competition:

The X Prize

X Prize was a $10 million challenge designed to spur a global space tourism industry through competition among rocket experts and entrepreneurs around the world.

The prize was awarded by the X Prize Foundation to the team that designed the first private spaceship that successfully carried the equivalent weight of three human beings to a sub-orbital altitude of 100 km (62.14 miles) on two consecutive flights within two weeks.

More than 20 teams had signed up for the competition. Teams from Argentina, Canada, Romania, Russia, Britain, the United States, and other countries were competing.

Some of the teams hired actual rocket scientists while others were shoestring operations of space hobbyists and tinkerers.

Their rockets carried names such as Green Arrow, Lucky Seven, DaVinci, Pablo De Leon, and Gauchito. They were to take off from and land on a variety of runways, launch pads, airplane tows and the oceans.

  • They used various propulsion fuels and techniques such as liquid oxygen, natural gas, kerosene, turbo fans and pulse jets.

    The Spirit of St. Louis

    X Prize was funded by private donations from the New Spirit of St. Louis Organization, leading St. Louis corporations, FirstUSA credit card, and other major donors.

    Additional funds were raised by the foundation to pay for judging, media relations, event management, the Foundation's education mission, and other costs. The foundation was formed in 1996.

    The prize money was backed by an insurance policy that guaranteed the $10 million was in place on the day the prize was won.

    X Prize was supported by various space and aviation organizations:

  • FAA
  • NASA
  • Explorers Club
  • Aéro-Club de France
  • U.S. Space Foundation
  • National Space Society
  • Association of Space Explorers
  • Experimental Aircraft Association
  • Society of Experimental Test Pilots
  • Federation Aeronautique Internationale
  • American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

  • The X-Prize Foundation now is planning an annual X-Prize Cup with millions of dollars in prize money.

    Someday, more powerful rocket planes may carry passengers all the way to orbit from where they could spend days admiring the planet below.

    Past Prizes. X Prize followed in the footsteps of more than 100 aviation prizes offered between 1905 and 1935 that created the modern multibillion dollar air transport industry.

    By 1929, governments, individuals, newspapers and major corporations had offered more than 50 major aeronautical prizes.

    Among them was the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 cash prize, sponsored by hotel owner Raymond Orteig, for the first person to fly non-stop between New York and Paris. That prize stimulated nine separate attempts to cross the Atlantic. Those competitors raised and spent some $400,000, which was 16 times the amount of the prize.

    The original Spirit of St. Louis organization consisted of nine St. Louis residents who contributed $25,000 in 1927 to support Charles Lindbergh's attempt to win the Orteig Prize. Lindbergh's historic 1927 flight in the Spirit of St. Louis airplane changed the course of aviation history.

    X Prize was headquartered at St. Louis, Missouri. The New Spirit of St. Louis Organization was composed of business leaders who have contributed to the X Prize Foundation.

    As a result of those early aviation prizes between 1905 and 1935 , the world's $250 billion aviation industry was created. In a similar fashion, the X Prize foundation intended to drive the creation of a commercial space flight industry.

    The city of St. Louis worked with the foundation to promote the city as a visionary high-tech community.
    Scaled Composites    X Prize Foundation    Vulcan Inc.

    Learn more:   SpaceShipOne Landing
    SpaceShipOne Landing

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