The makers of a civilian spacecraft claimed a private foundation's $10 million aerospace prize Monday morning after their commercial rocket climbed just beyond the edge of space at more than three times the speed of sound for the second time in a week.
SpaceShipOne, which first flew to space in June and repeated the feat again on Wednesday, was carried aloft again just after sunrise Monday morning, at 6:50 a.m. Pacific time (9:50 a.m. EDT), cradled under the wings of a specially made twin-engine jet.
After an hour-long flight to its mid-air launch point about 50,000 feet above California's high desert, the carrier plane dropped its stubby supersonic payload, which fired its rocket for 84 seconds to power its ascent. After the engines cut off, at about 220,000 feet, the rocket plane continued its climb to an estimated maximum altitude of 368,000.
At that point, more than 60 miles up, the curve of the Earth and the blackness of space are visible. Civilian test pilot, Brian Binnie, spent several minutes of weightlessness taking pictures. During the apparently trouble-free flight, he experienced forces equal to about five times the gravity of Earth.
Straightening SpaceShipOne's wings -- which were folded at the flight's highest point to allow for a safer descent and reentry -- Binnie guided the rocket plane to a glider-like landing at the Mojave Civilian Flight Test Center.
Thousands of cheering spectators gathered at the commercial air field, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, lining the runway to greet the returning spacecraft.
"Thank God I live in a country where this is possible," Binnie said after the landing.
SpaceShipOne was designed by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan and his Mojave-based company, Scaled Composites LLC, to win the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million award offered by a private foundation to the first group of entrepreneurial space enthusiasts to build a mostly reusable spacecraft capable of carrying three people into suborbital space.
To win the prize, the spacecraft needed to carry a pilot and the equivalent weight of two other passengers to space twice in the same vehicle within two weeks.
After Monday's flight, Peter H. Diamandis, founder, chairman and president of the X prize Foundation, declared Rutan's team the winner.
Rutan noted that "the big guys, Boeing . . . and the naysayers in Houston," once dismissed his team as "model builders."
Now, Rutan said, there are two space programs -- one government, one commercial.
Rutan's commercial space program was underwritten by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul G. Allen, who has said he spent more than $20 million on the vehicle's development. More than two dozen other teams in a half-dozen countries had been vying for the X Prize, but SpaceShipOne was the front-runner from the start.
After a series test flights, pilot Mike Melvill flew the spacecraft to space for the first time in June. Melvill also was the pilot last week, when SpaceShipOne made the first of its two qualifying space flights for the X Prize. Last week's flight reached an altitude of more than 337,000 feet, well beyond the contest's qualifying altitude.
Binnie's flight, which initial data showed went more than 30,000 feet higher, made him the second civilian space pilot, after Melvill, to win the Federal Aviation Administration's new commercial astronaut wings. They were modeled after similar wings worn by NASA and military astronauts.
Binnie, 51, is a former Navy test pilot who flew SpaceShipOne's first powered test flight in the atmosphere. He is a graduate of the Navy's Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Md., and the Naval Aviation Safety School at Monterey, Calif. He also has an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering and a masters in fluid mechanics and thermodynamics from Brown University and a masters in aeronautical engineering from Princeton University.
Monday's ascent appeared to be stable --without the trim problems and unexpected rolls that had occurred during the two earlier trips to space. A series of 30 unexpected rolls during last week's ascent caused some concern on the ground, but Rutan expressed confidence in the vehicle after that flight. In a message posted on his company's Web site over the weekend, Rutan said most of the rolls occurred after the spacecraft had left the atmosphere and therefore there were virtually no aerodynamic forces to stop the unplanned motion.
"In other words, [the rolls] were more like space flight than they were like airplane flight," Rutan wrote. "Thus, Mike could not damp the motions with his aerodynamic flight controls."
Rutan said Melvill waited until the rocket was powered down before using the spacecraft's thrusters -- or reaction control system -- to stop the rolls, as the spacecraft's designers intended.
"While we did not plan the rolls, we did get valuable engineering data on how well our RCS system works in space to damp high angular rates," Rutan said.
The X Prize was inspired by the $25,000 award that Charles Lindbergh won for crossing the Atlantic nonstop in 1927. The contest was conceived by space enthusiasts as a way to launch a commercial space tourism business -- and SpaceShipOne appears to be on its way to doing that. Last week, British entrepreneur Richard Branson's Virgin Group licensed the SpaceShipOne technology to build a fleet of similar vehicles intended to carry paying passengers on tourist flights to suborbital space starting in 2007. Estimated ticket price: About $200,000.
Branson, who was on hand for Monday's flight, also sponsored SpaceShipOne's two X Prize attempts, and his company's red logos now appear on the rocket plane's tail and side.
Rutan called the SpaceShipOne flights the "dawn of the age of space tourism" and promised that his spaceships will be safer than the first commercial airliners.
Stencel reported from Washington.