SpaceShipOne: The Record-Breaking Spacecraft That Changed The Status Quo
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SpaceShipOne: The Record-Breaking Spacecraft That Changed The Status Quo

The spacecraft SpaceShipOne proved once and for all that space travel did not have to be monopolized by government space agencies, and ushered in the prospect of profitable civilian space travel.

Sometimes, events that occur in history are good ideas that bear repeating. One such good idea was the Orteig Prize, which was put forth by prominent New York hotel man Rayman Orteig. It was this prize of $25,000 and the record which accompanied it that spurred Lindbergh to take the Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic in an attempt to be the first to cross it non-stop. The result of that prize and the historic 1927 flight that Lindbergh was able to complete successfully was the initiation of commercial aviation, which has turned a gigantic profit over the years.

Sixty-nine years later, in 1996, Dr. Peter Diamandis was inspired by the legacy of the Orteig Prize to designate the Ansari X-Prize to jump-start civilian space exploration. The criteria of the X-Prize was as follows: the first private team to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the earth's surface twice within two weeks would win the $10 million prize. Lindbergh knew of the fear of aircraft that many common people harbored, and it was this fear that convinced him to pilot his aircraft across the Atlantic. He hoped that his actions would show people that it was possible to link continents together with international airplane travel. The parallel history of the Orteig Prize and the Ansari X-Prize was not entirely unintentional; Dr. Diamandis showed that his X-Prize could indeed follow in the footsteps of its historical predecessor.

There were 26 teams that entered in the X-Prize contest, and they hailed from seven different countries. The prospects each team had for victory were nearly as unique and variable as the design concepts each team was pursuing to get a craft to the required altitude and snag the prize money. The da Vinci Project, for example, proposed using the largest helium balloon in the world to lift a rocket to a height of 80,000 before it launched to altitude. Some projects proposed a typical vertical lift-off multi-stage rocket, while a couple utilized the idea of an aircraft with extremely powerful engines which could increase its angle of climb in a flight path not unlike that of an exponential curve plotted upon an algebraic table.

All designs were eventually defeated, however, by the Scaled Composites team led by Burt Rutan and financed by Paul Allen, a wealthy Microsoft businessman. The Scaled Composites team designed a twin-craft concept for their bid consisting of White Knight (the carrier aircraft pictured) and SpaceShipOne (the actual spacecraft attached underneath White Knight's belly). The intent of the aircraft's launch was to fly the White Knight above an altitude of 50,000 feet and drop the SpaceShipOne from underneath it, whereupon SpacceShipOne would fire its rocket engines and blast upward into space. Interestingly, this configuration was not unlike the craft whose altitude record pilot Brian Binnie would defeat, the X-15, which was dropped from a B-52 Stratofortress after achieving some altitude. To the X-15's credit, its mission was not attainment of altitude or space, but high-speed flight testing to approximate testing for the Space Shuttle's hypersonic speeds.

The two flights which won the X-Prize were conducted on September 29 (Mike Melville piloting) and October 4, 2004 (Brian Binnie piloting). Both pilots broke the barrier of 100 kilometers and flew at approximately Mach 3. During the production phase of the spacecraft, Burt Rutan commented, "I strongly feel that, if we are successful, our program will mark the beginning of a renaissance for manned space flight. This might even be similar to that wonderful time period between 1908 and 1912 when the world went from a total of ten airplane pilots to hundreds of airplane types and thousands of pilots in 39 countries. We need affordable space travel to inspire our youth, to let them know that they can experience their dreams, can set significant goals and be in a position to lead all of us to future progress in exploration, discovery and fun. Thanks to the X PRIZE for the inspiration." Below is a picture of the ceremony and symbolic presentation of the $10 million prize money check.

With the X-Prize victory and some record-setting civilian speed and altitude, in addition to contributing to the re-christening of the launch site as Mojave Spaceport, SpaceShipOne proved completely successful. The intent behind the X-Prize was also realized, as entrepeneur Richard Branson of Virgin Enterprises offered Burt Rutan a contract to build spacecraft for the newly-created Virgin Galactic in a profit-seeking space tourism venture. In the wake of this success, Rutan cancelled successive planned flights for SpaceShipOne and instead flew it to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, where the craft currently rests in a fitting home between Chuck Yeager's Bell X-1 sound barrier pioneer and the real inspiration for these historic events: the Spirit of St. Louis (below).


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