SpaceShipOne soars to $10 million X Prize
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: October 4, 2004; Updated with post-flight quotes
MOJAVE, Calif. - SpaceShipOne, flown by veteran test pilot Brian Binnie, rocketed into space history today, climbing higher than 62 miles for the second time in five days to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize for designer Burt Rutan and financial backer Paul Allen.
"It was very exciting, very exciting," Binnie said after the flight, standing in front of SpaceShipOne on the runway at Mojave Airport. "I thank God I live in a country where this is possible."
Carried to an altitude of nearly 50,000 feet by the sleek twin-engine White Knight carrier jet - another innovative Rutan design - SpaceShipOne was released at 1549 GMT (10:49 a.m. EDT) to begin its historic climb to sub-orbital space. Seconds later, Binnie ignited the craft's hybrid rocket motor and the spaceplane shot skyward on a near-vertical trajectory.
During the first X Prize flight last Wednesday, SpaceShipOne began rolling rapidly 50 seconds into powered flight at a velocity of 2.7 times the speed of sound. Pilot Mike Melvill, 63, shut down the craft's engine 11 seconds early in agreement with advice from the ground, reaching an altitude of 337,600 feet, or 63.9 miles, more than enough to meet the X Prize requirement.
He quickly damped out the rolls using the ship's maneuvering jets and completed a picture-perfect return to Earth.
This time around, the rocketplane remained stable throughout its climb out of the discernible atmosphere, coasting to an altitude of roughly 368,000 feet, or 69.7 miles, before falling back toward the Mojave Desert. The previous altitude record for an aircraft was 354,300 feet, or 67 miles, set by X-15 pilot Joe Walker in 1963.
"It's hard to describe," Binnie told reporters. "It's a fantastic experience and it culminates when the motor shuts down and you realize you are no longer encumbered, there is a darkness outside the windows and it is contrasted starkly by this bright pearl that is the greater California area, which is the view from up there. ... It's a fantastic view, it's a fantastic feeling. There's a freedom there and a sense of wonder that, I'll tell you what, you all need to experience."
Just before reaching the high point of the trajectory today, Binnie, 51, rotated, or "feathered," SpaceShipOne's main wing sharply upward in a procedure designed to produce enormous aerodynamic drag on re-entry. The feathered wing, another Rutan innovation, caused the spaceplane to re-enter the atmosphere belly first in a so-called "care free" orientation similar to that of a badminton shuttlecock.
The procedure worked flawlessly last Wednesday, helping damp out what remained of SpaceShipOne's unplanned rolling motion, and it worked flawlessly again today. After enjoying three-and-a-half minutes of weightlessness at the top of his ballistic trajectory, Binnie endured more than 5 "Gs" as SpaceShipOne plunged back into the denser atmosphere.
The 24-minute flight ended with a flawless landing at the Mojave airport at 1613 GMT (11:13 a.m. EDT), where Rutan, Microsoft co-founder Allen, Virgin Atlantic's Richard Branson and a throng of X Prize officials, sponsors, VIPs, journalists and well wishers waited.
"The last thing I said to Brian before we closed up the door around 6 o'clock this morning was to use the driver, keep your head down and swing smooth," Rutan said after landing. "I'd like to say to Brian right now: Nice drive."
An X Prize trophy and a check for $10 million will be presented to Allen and Rutan during a Nov. 6 ceremony in St. Louis.
Today's flight was a triumphant moment for Allen, who pumped more than $20 million into the project, and for Rutan, whose relentless assault on the high frontier will long stand as a testament to the sort of daring, innovative engineering and sheer determination that marked the early days of American aviation.
As usual, Rutan took the opportunity to make a dig at NASA, which he refers to as "that other space agency."
"Quite frankly, I think the big guys, the Boeings, the Lockheeds, the nay-say people at Houston, they probably ... think we're a bunch of home builders who put a rocket in a Long Easy," he said, referring to one of his recreational aircraft designs. "But if they ... got a look at how this flight was run and how we developed the capabilities of this ship and showed its safety, I think they're looking at each other now and saying, 'We're screwed.'"
Said Allen: "It's very hard for me to express how proud I feel of Burt and his team, the pilot, the guys in mission control and the other people at Scaled who made this happen. It's really an incredible feat of technology.
"I've been involved with technology for a while but this is really amazing," he said. "This is rocket science. This is real first-class, top-line rocket science executed with an incredible degree of precision. This flight couldn't have been any smoother."
If X Prize founder Peter Diamandis is right, Rutan's accomplishment and the efforts of other X Prize participants will spur the same sort of competition and innovation that fueled the development of the commercial airline industry. Except this time around, the goal is outer space.
"We've let the genie out of the bottle," he said in an interview Sunday. "We're at the beginning of an industry here. We're going to have investors coming in, there's a multi-billion-dollar market that's beginning and Wall Street and the venture capital community can see that.
"When capital comes in, there'll not only be one ship flying, there will be a dozen different ships, the price will go down, reliability will go up and we'll begin an industry. It happened in aviation, it happened in the personal computer marketplace, there's no reason in the world why it's not going to happen here in the personal spaceflight market."
The identity of the pilot for today's launch was not revealed until a few hours before the flight. A graduate of the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School, Binnie has more than 4,600 hours of flying time in 59 different aircraft, including the F/A-18, the A-7E, the White Knight and SpaceShipOne. He holds master's degrees in aeronautical engineering and fluid mechanics and is a veteran of 33 combat missions in Operation Desert Storm.
Binnie, whose fighter pilot call sign was "B-squared," was at the controls last December when he made the first supersonic flight in SpaceShipOne. Encountering a roll oscillation during landing, one of the craft's landing gear collapsed.
Melvill flew SpaceShipOne into sub-orbital space during a June test flight and he was at the controls last week for the first of the two X Prize launches. Given his experience dealing with the unexpected roll during that flight, Melvill seemed a natural choice to make the second flight today. But as usual, Rutan did not immediately explain his choice of pilots.
To win the Ansari X Prize, SpaceShipOne had to make two flights in two weeks carrying the weight of three passengers to demonstrate a commercially viable turnaround time.
In both cases, only a pilot was on board. The total required weight - 270 kilograms, or 595 pounds - was made up of the pilot, video documentation equipment and personal items selected by the staff at Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, and the X Prize foundation, including Rutan's college slide rule, a teddy bear that will be auctioned off for charity and seedlings.
And, on the first flight, the ashes of Rutan's mother. Otherwise, Rutan said, "we are not flying things that will end up on eBay and be sold or dealt with in any commercial nature at all," Rutan said before the first flight. "There's only a couple of things that are charity related, the rest are things the person who flies it has signed an agreement with us that he will not sell it, that it is for him and his family."
With public transport, in space or otherwise, comes government regulation and in this case, that falls to the Federal Aviation Administration. Rutan has complained in the past about the slow pace and high cost of the regulatory process, which he says disuades investors.
But FAA Administrator Marion Blakey told CBS News she believes the process will, in fact, be streamlined as the industry develops and the technology matures.
"Regulation absolutely will get more efficient," she told CBS News. "For one thing, we learn a lot, we're working closely in partnership with industry and we're getting their feedback. But there's no question about the fact that as you have more launches, you begin to see things that are not a problem and you set those aside.
"And the regulations themselves, in terms of things like the environmental requirements, will be streamlined better, we'll do things simultaneously with other agencies, building on work that's already been done. i think all of this is going to get a lot simpler and smarter. And from the regulator's standpoint, that's what we've got to do."
Blakey is bullish on the future of commercial manned spaceflight, saying the success of SpaceShipOne will make many people realize "you actually could write a check and go pretty soon, that's a big deal."
"Yes, it will only be available to folks with a fair amount of money initially," she said. "But I think competition in this country is going to drive the price and cost down. Things like the X Prize put a lot of momentum behind it because year after year, there are going to be more competitors out there putting people into space."
The Ansari X Prize was funded through Jan. 1 with a so-called "hole-in-one" insurance policy. The premium was financed with private donations and corporate sponsorships. The prize was created to "jump-start the space tourism industry through competition among the most talented entrepreneurs and rocket experts in the world," according to a foundation fact sheet.
Major sponsors include the Ansari family, the Champ Car World Series, 7-Up, M&Ms, First USA and other organizations. Allen's company, Mojave Aerospace Ventures, plans to license the technology developed by Scaled Composites to Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin Group.
Virgin Galactic plans to open next year and begin launching commercial rocket flights for private citizens in 2007. Tickets are expected to run around $200,000 initially, although Rutan said last week he expects the price to drop dramatically as more companies enter the commercial spaceflight arena.
"I have a hell of a lot bigger goal than they do," Rutan said today of NASA and the large aerospace companies. "And you know what that goal is? I absolutely have to develop a manned space tourism system for Sir Richard Branson that's at least a hyundred times safer than anything that's ever flown man into space and probably a lot more. I have to do that.
"What you see here is a research and dev program to look at new ideas on how manned spacecraft can really be significantly safer. And that was with this new type of hybrid motor, which is significantly safer, and that was with our feathered re-entry, which is a significantly safer way to fly to space. And there'll be new ideas out there.
"We will be developing new ideas also in SpaceShipTwo," he said. "We are going to build on a research program and I believe that coming right out of the bag, the first space tourism business will be considerably safer than the original airliners that started flying people a long time ago. I'm very confident in that now."
"When I was a kid, the Apollo era was going on and the expectation was that we'd all have a chance to go," Diamandis said. "But of course, that never was the mission of NASA, to take the public into space. it's the mission of private industry. But now that we've jump started this private industry with Scaled Composites and many of the other 26 Ansari X Prize teams, we are going to see industry making it possible for all of us to go into space.
While initial flights will be sub orbital, Diamandis believes commercial manned flights to low-Earth orbit are just around the corner.
"We're going to bridge that gap from sub orbital to orbital flight and I think that's going to happen well within 10 years," he said. "But once we're in orbit, we're two thirds of the way to anywhere. And we'll have private teams building ships to go to the moon and to go to Mars.
"It's in our genes. We are explorers in our hearts. And all we have to do is get the roads to space built and that's what we're doing right here in Mojave, we're building the roads, the personal, private roads to space."
Asked if she might sign up for a commercial space flight someday, Blakey laughed, saying "I'd love to fly on this thing because I love to fly. But I have a feeling it's going to be a while before I'll have the cash to get involved. So will I be in the line? Yes, but I'll be probably pretty far back."