Microsoft Cofounder Paul Allen’s Private Rocket Soars

A manned space rocket program funded by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen made its way to higher than 211,000 feet Thursday with the SpaceShipOne test flight, which reached about two-thirds of the 63-mile-high requirement for the US$10 million X Prize that is more about feat than finance.

Piloted by Mike Melvill and released from a companion craft, known as White Knight, at 46,000 feet, the SpaceShipOne craft blasted off 10 seconds after its release and boosted to 150,000 feet and Mach 2.5 speed. The rocket shot itself to a top altitude of 211,400 feet before returning to Earth and landing on its own in the Mojave Desert Thursday.

The manned test flight, an effort to win the X Prize title to be awarded for the first private program to send three people to an altitude of 63 miles two times within two weeks, represents one of the final stages of the reusable craft’s completion of the X Prize task, The Space Review editor Jeff Foust told TechNewsWorld.

“This is another successful step in their incremental flight test program they have been pursuing for the last year,” Foust said. “One important aspect of this flight is that the rocket engine on SpaceShipOne (SS1) burned for 55 seconds. Given that a full-fledged SS1 flight — that is, one that flies to 100-kilometer altitude — requires an engine burn only about 10 seconds longer, this suggests that this could be the last, or at least certainly one of the last, test flights before (SS1 maker) Scaled Composites makes its X Prize qualification flights.

“Barring any problems, Scaled could well win the prize in the next month or two,” Foust added.

Successful Vulcan Flight

Scaled Composites, which is tuning and testing SS1 through its Tier One program that is funded by Allen’s Vulcan Inc., called the test flight an additional milestone for Allen, Scaled Composites head Burt Rutan and the venture’s aerospace design team.

The company reported that during a portion of the rocket boost, the flight director display was inoperative, but pilot Melvill continued the planned trajectory using the horizon as a reference.

The test was the third powered flight of the craft and was aimed at gauging the handling qualities of the ship during the boost phase in addition to testing the ship’s reaction control for entry reorientation and supersonic stability, Scaled Composites reported.

Aiming Higher

Scaled Composites spokesperson Kaye LeFebvre told TechNewsWorld that the company next plans to push a test flight higher to 320,000 feet, or 100 kilometers — the X Prize definition of when space begins.

LeFebvre, who said the SS1 lands similarly to a normal aircraft with two landing wheels and a skid on the nose, indicated a manned flight to the 100-kilometer mark would represent the first commercial astronaut mission with no government funding.

After that, Scaled Composites will work to add additional occupants to the craft to meet the other X Prize requirement for three travelers, LeFebvre said.

Enterprise Eyes on Skies

Foust said the X Prize had been instrumental in promoting commercial, human, suborbital flight by permitting a more incremental, staged approach to the development of spacecraft.

“This opens up commercial markets that include not just tourism but remote sensing, microgravity testing and — down the road — fast package delivery and point-to-point transportation,” Foust said. “This allows a more gradual development of vehicles while still making money, rather than making the big leap to an orbital vehicle.”

Foust said some two dozen other teams registered to compete for the X Prize are at various stages of development.

Other leading contendors include: Armadillo Aerospace, run by John Carmack of id Software fame; two Canadian teams called The da Vinci Project and Canadian Arrow; and the Starchaser project in the United Kingdom.

While other teams are unlikely to beat the expiration of prize money at the end of this year, Foust said they might still participate in follow-on competitions, such as the X Prize Cup.

New NASA Way?

Foust praised the X Prize for promoting the vision since the mid-1990s, “long before suborbital spaceflight was fashionable.”

“They deserve a lot of credit for spurring the development of SpaceShipOne and other vehicles,” he said.

In comparing the X Prize — which competitors have sought for accomplishment as much as cash — to the U.S. government’s space program, Foust said these two programs appear at opposite ends of the spectrum, with the X Prize focused on vehicles that cannot reach orbit and NASA envisioning manned trips to the moon and Mars.

“However, there are some subtle ties between the two,” Foust said.

“The X Prize has served as a model for Centennial Challenges, a new NASA program that will offer prizes to companies that develop new technologies, and perhaps mount robotic missions to the moon, Mars or asteroids,” he said. “It also crates a commercial market for spaceflight that can both sustain an industry in the long term as well as the public’s interest in spaceflight — both key criteria for the ultimate success of NASA’s vision.”

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