SpaceShipOne Wins $10 Mln X Prize With Today's Flight

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Bloomberg News

Oct. 4, 2004 (Bloomberg) -- The rocket plane SpaceShipOne, built by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft Corp. co- founder Paul Allen, won the $10 million competition aimed at creating a space tourism industry, flying 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the edge of space.

Pilot Brian Binnie, 51, guided SpaceShipOne, designed and built by Rutan's Scaled Composites LLC, to a height of 367,442 feet over California's Mojave Desert, winning the X Prize contest and breaking an altitude record set in 1963.
The not-for-profit St. Louis-based X Prize Foundation sponsored the award to encourage development of a commercial space tourism industry after four decades of manned governmental spaceflight. Twenty-six teams from seven nations were vying for the X Prize.
``The big guys at Boeing and Lockheed probably think we're a bunch of homebuilders,'' Rutan said after celebrating the flight with a champagne toast. ``If they looked at how the flight was run, I think they're probably looking at each other now and saying, `I think we're screwed.''' The competition required a privately funded spacecraft to make the flight twice within two weeks, carrying a pilot and the weight of two passengers. SpaceShipOne successfully completed its first flight on Sept. 29, climbing to 337,500 feet above Mojave.

Regular Space Flights

The foundation said a victory should lead to regular flights to altitudes below the 350 kilometers required for orbit around Earth. Last week, U.K. billionaire Richard Branson announced plans to license the technology used to build SpaceShipOne to start commercial space trips in 2008.
``It was the best experience other than being with a woman,'' Branson said during a press briefing after the flight.
Hundreds of spectators, including record producer Quincy Jones, musicians Herbie Hancock and Gene Simmons and busloads of children, viewed the launch in the cloudless sky above the Mojave Airport, about 66 miles northeast of Los Angles. About 700 media credentials were issued for the event.
``We all would do it in a heartbeat,'' said Chris Johnson of San Diego. The 53-year-old sales manager for NBC attended the launch with his wife Margot and two friends. ``This is history in the making.''

Inspired by Lindbergh's Trip

Foundation president Peter Diamandis started the competition in 1996 after reading a biography of Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Lindbergh's flight won a $25,000 competition and jumpstarted the U.S. aviation industry, something Diamandis hopes to do with space tourism.
``It was really when private enterprise got involved that the aerospace industry took off,'' said Per Wimmer, 36, an investment banker with Collins Stewart Ltd. in London who has reserved a space on a suborbital flight scheduled for 2006, in an interview before the flight.
Today's flight comes just after NASA delayed the return of the space shuttle for at least a month, citing hurricane damage to its facilities. The U.S. space-flight program has been grounded since the shuttle Columbia was destroyed on its return to Earth in 2003.
A carrier plane took off at about 6:50 a.m. local time, climbed to about 50,000 feet and released the spacecraft. Binnie then fired a nitrous oxide-fueled motor for about 87 seconds, carrying SpaceShipOne to the edge of space.
The craft then flipped its wings into position, allowing the plane to glide back to the airport.

Record Breaker

The previous altitude record was set on Aug. 22, 1963, by the experimental X-15 aircraft, which flew to 354,200 feet. Rutan also designed and built the Voyager, which became the first aircraft to fly around the world without fueling in December 1986.
SpaceShipOne became the first privately funded spacecraft to fly into space when Mike Melvill, 62, piloted it to an altitude of 328,491 feet above Mojave on June 21. For the feat, Melvill became the first civilian pilot to earn astronaut wings.
This morning, team officials announced that Binnie would take over for Melvill. Binnie was piloting the craft when it broke the sound barrier during its first manned test on Dec. 17, the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight.
Today's launch, on the 47th anniversary of the Russian launch of Sputnik, was the first of SpaceShipOne's three manned flights without any obvious problems.
The spacecraft's landing gear retracted upon touchdown during its first manned test, causing it to veer off the runway. The second attempt went almost 22 miles off course. And during the first X Prize flight, the plane rolled about 29 times.
``It may have been 370,000 if my mom hadn't have spilled coffee on me this morning,'' Binnie said.

X Prize Cup

The X Prize Foundation will invite the 26 teams to Las Cruces, New Mexico, for the X Prize Cup, an annual competition for privately funded spacecraft scheduled to begin next year. Teams will compete in categories including highest altitude, most passengers and the coolest-looking ship. The foundation wants to bring some of the $20 billion spent to sponsor auto racing and sports every year to the space race, Diamandis said, noting that Oracle Corp. Chief Executive Officer Larry Ellison spends about $70 million on each America's Cup yacht race. ``We're looking to bring Grand Prix racing and the America's Cup together with rocketry,'' Diamandis said in a telephone interview before today's flight
To contact the reporters on this story:
Chris Dolmetsch in Princeton at  cdolmetsch@bloomberg.net; Nadja Brandt in Mojave, California at   rogoszynski@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Aimee Sullivan at  asullivan@bloomberg.net.