Team Reaches Space Again to Win $10 Million X Prize
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2004; Page A01
MOJAVE, Calif., Oct. 4 -- A manned rocket ship powered by laughing gas and rubber fuel, financed entirely with private funds, reached the edge of suborbital space Monday to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize -- a milestone that its builders and backers say will usher in a new age of commercial space tourism and travel.
Built by designer Burt Rutan and steered by veteran test pilot Brian Binnie, the squid-shaped SpaceShipOne was carried aloft at dawn Monday by its mother ship, White Knight, which resembles a giant dragonfly. At an altitude of 45,000 feet, the spaceship disengaged from its cradle, paused a moment and then lighted its rocket, sending a long white contrail across the skies above the Mojave desert during the 84-second burn.
Gordon Cooper was one of the original Mercury astronauts in 1963.
(AP File Photo)
Unlike two previous flights, which were plagued by wild rolls and problems with stability and trim, Monday's launch saw SpaceShipOne blast straight and true to a record-breaking altitude of 367,442 feet -- 69.7 miles. The craft went 30,000 feet higher than the previous record holder, the X-15 rocket jet, which performed its feat in 1963.
At its apogee, Binnie experienced about three minutes of weightlessness and saw the curvature of Earth below and black void above. He became the 434th human to go into space and only the second astronaut to get there without the help of a government.
After reaching velocities three times the speed of sound, Binnie glided SpaceShipOne back to the desert airport for a perfect landing before thousands of spectators.
"It is literally a rush," Binnie said of his flight. "You light the motor and the world wakes up around you." He compared the flight to riding a rodeo bull and said, "I wake every morning and just thank God that I live in a country where this is possible."
Binnie was greeted on the tarmac by Rutan and his financial backer, Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, who put $25 million into the project. Also on hand was Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group, who announced last week that he is going to buy five larger and still unbuilt five-seater spaceships from Rutan in a $100 million bid to take paying passengers -- for about $200,000 a seat -- into space.
Branson said Monday that he plans to launch his fleet of Virgin Galactic spaceships from airports in Japan, Australia, England, South Africa and the United States. "And the next generation of spaceship will have even bigger windows," he promised, adding that he saw no reason that a healthy octogenarian such as his father couldn't take a ride.
Branson said there is undeniably a market for space tourism. He said that his Web site had 5 million hits in recent days and that more than 5,000 people had offered to pay deposits for a seat on the first flights, which Branson says will begin in three years. He promised, along with Rutan, to be on the inaugural flight.
When Allen was asked whether he would go along for the ride, he mentioned that as a boy he tried to build a rocket out of an aluminum lawn chair. "It made a loud noise and melted in place," he said. "As for whether I'll be holding hands with Richard and Burt on the first flight, I don't know."
Marion C. Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, attended the flight and said the winner of the X Prize "opens a new frontier in commercial spaceflight." She predicted that one day rocket ships might be used not only for quick sightseeing jaunts but also for suborbital passenger flights from the United States to Asia and Europe.
Blakey said her agency is working on regulations to oversee the new industry, and that Congress is debating a set of bills to support commercial space tourism.
Branson said the sightseeing flights would only be the beginning, and he predicted that Rutan or others will develop safe and affordable technology to launch and maintain orbiting "five-star" space hotels.
"The message to investors is to start investing, the market is here, a multibillion-dollar market," said Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation. "There is a real dollar to make. Surveys show that 60 percent of public want to go to space."