SpaceShipOne: A giant leap for high-tech vets?

Paul Allen's galactic baby flies briefly toward outer space as it begins the first phase of a historic endeavor.

Jim Hu Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jim Hu
covers home broadband services and the Net's portal giants.
Jim Hu
4 min read
MOJAVE, Calif.--A venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen got a jump Wednesday on rivals eyeing a $10 million prize for the first privately funded junkets into space and back.

A specialized plane carrying a suborbital spacecraft took off shortly before 7:15 a.m. PDT in an attempt to complete the first phase in the race to privatize space travel. The airplane, dubbed the White Knight, carried Mojave Aerospace Ventures' SpaceShipOne on its belly to about 14 kilometers in altitude, where the space vehicle broke off and soared to a height of more than 100 kilometers--generally considered the boundary of outer space.

SpaceShipOne touched down on a runway after a flight that lasted about 90 minutes.

"That was fun," pilot Michael Melvill said to a crowd of spectators here after he emerged from the vehicle. "The engine ran like a dream, the airplane ran like a dream."

The unofficial altitude reached was 330,000 feet, or 62.5 miles (100.5 kilometers). Melvill said he cut the rubber and nitrous oxide fueled rocket engine about 11 seconds early. Had he pushed through to the end of the scheduled burn, SpaceShipOne might have hit 350,000 to 360,000 feet, Melvill told reporters after the flight.

The official altitude will be determined later, using radar and on-board equipment.

Observers on the ground shared a tense moment as Melvill neared the top of his trajectory, when the craft went into an unrehearsed roll that Melvill later jokingly called a "victory roll." The cause of the roll was not immediately known.

Privatized space ventures have garnered considerable interest among wealthy high-tech veterans. Among them are Amazon co-founder Jeff Bezos, who quietly formed his own space company called Blue Origin, but has remained silent about its plans. Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, has plans to invest $100 million of his own money to build rockets to carry satellites into space and eventually shepherd humans into orbit.

Earlier this week, Sir Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur, announced plans to use the SpaceShipOne design for his own space tourism company, Virgin Galactic.

Melvill, SpaceShipOne's pilot, became the first private astronaut to reach space during the team's initial trial in June. The project is funded by Allen and legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan.

Rutan is known for many accomplishments in the field of aeronautical engineering. Among them is his design of the aircraft Voyager, the first plane to fly around the Earth without refueling.

With the flight's completion, SpaceShipOne will take one step toward winning the Ansari X Prize, a competition that will award $10 million for the first team that completes its requirements for space orbit. To win, a privately funded team must build a craft that can reach at least 100 kilometers--or a little more than 60 miles--in altitude with a payload of three humans and then successfully land. The team must repeat the effort within two weeks to seal the win.

The group is expected to make its second run Oct. 4.

The Ansari X prize promises to be just the first of ambitious privately funded space races. Such competitions have a strong tradition in aeronautics, helping instigate such breakthroughs as Charles Lindbergh's celebrated nonstop flight from Paris to New York in 1927. Entrepreneur Raymond Orteig put up $25,000 for that feat, ushering in the era of transoceanic flight.

On Monday, billionaire Robert Bigelow, chief of Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace, announced in Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine a new spaceflight competition, dubbed America's Space Prize. Bigelow said $50 million will go to the team that first builds a craft capable of carrying up to seven people to an orbital outpost by the end of the decade.

Bigelow Aerospace is developing inflatable space habitats, with an eye to making more-affordable space modules that can support humans.

The purpose of the competition is to jump-start the privatized space industry with the eventual goal of sending tourists into space. While Mojave Aerospace is the first team to make a run at the prize, two dozen other teams from seven countries are building their own designs.

Designs in the Ansari X competition come in all shapes and sizes, most of them rockets or horizontal launch craft. One design from Israel uses a gigantic hot-air balloon to launch its spacecraft.

SpaceShipOne uses a horizontal design, launching from the belly of the White Knight airplane. NASA's space shuttles, by comparison, ride piggyback on a vertically launched rocket before detaching to head outside the atmosphere.

SpaceShipOne has a wingspan of 16 feet and uses one rocket engine to reach its destination altitude. Once it completes its arc, its wings fold up for the descent. At about 24 miles in altitude, the wings return to their original shape for a final glide back to Earth.